You already know this, but your sense of smell is linked to your memory. For me, the smell of Folgers coffee will always remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen. I’ve been obsessed with perfume, and cosmetics in general, since I was a kid, even though I’m a horrific, slovenly dresser with many a bad hair day.
What’s sort of odd about the perfume we decide to wear as opposed to the color of lipstick or brand of mascara we buy is that when we choose perfumes specifically because of the memories we associate them with, we are choosing to live in the past, surrounded by phantoms. Fucked up, I know. Maybe only I do this, but if the Basenotes forums are any indication, I don’t think so.
I love buying perfume. I buy too much of it. I can’t stop myself, for instance, from purchasing celebrity-endorsed fragrances, even when I don’t care about the celebrity. Currently, I own Lady Gaga’s Fame, Katy Perry’s Killer Queen, Someday by Justin Bieber and Jennifer Aniston’s Jennifer Aniston. None of them are particularly great or even solid, with the exception of the Aniston, which makes me smell like a permanent vacation. But mostly, I buy perfumes for their place in my own personal timeline. I wear them, every day, based on my mood or the shape of the bottle. I don’t buy anything too obscure. Perfumes always remind me of something or someone specific, and that, to me, is cool. Here are some of my current favorites.
In college I was waiting tables in a restaurant one Saturday night. Maybe it was late because the place was clearing out, and, though I was scheduled to be there until the restaurant closed, I groaned inside when I saw the manager leading back a young couple, seating them in my section. As I walked over to greet them, I was overwhelmed by a smell so gigantic and sickly sweet that I wasn’t even sure what I was smelling was perfume. Was it a dessert? An insecticide? It was sort of impossible to tell, until I approached the couple and confirmed that it was the woman. As I walked away from them after having taken their drink order, my mind began savagely questioning where I’d smelled it before. “What is that?” it asked me. I even mentioned it to the bartender: “Strangest thing, so overpowering.” I was transported backwards in time - but to where I was not sure. I am very shy, so I didn’t work up the courage to ask the woman what she was wearing. What an imposing question (and one which I have since learned is always best to ask, rather than risk never smelling a smell again)! As I drove home that night, I remembered. The answer — that it was my ex-boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend’s perfume — was mundane and unexciting. But the satisfaction is always in identifying, and I felt good, though I still didn’t know what the perfume was called.
Eventually, while wandering through a mall maybe half a year later, I passed an older lady and smelled it again. I wanted to reach out and hug her, the smell was so familiar and cozy to me. “What perfume are you wearing?” I asked her. “Amarige,” she replied. I bought it the same day.
I quickly learned the secrets of Amarige, which is that it doesn’t always smell the same, and it doesn’t smell the same on everyone. That’s true of many, many perfumes, but more so of this one than any other I’ve encountered. It’s also not its best at first application, either, and in fact, I like it more when I smell it on my clothing from yesterday, or on my skin after a full day of work. It was my first real introduction to the powerful, divisive world of white florals and tuberoses. Though for years it was what I sprayed on (sparingly, my God!) almost daily, I don’t wear it all that often anymore — my husband once said it smelled “old” to him (pretty common with the white florals, it turns out), and when I have recently rolled it out, I’ve noticed it doesn’t smell as nice as I remembered on me. Even my sense of smell has rose-colored glasses. But this morning, knowing I would write about my first true perfume love, I spritzed a little on and moved on to the rest of my day. At first, it gave me a little perfume headache. Then, it mellowed out a bit and settled into its sticky sweetness. Hours later, I only catch a whiff of myself every so often, and it is glorious.
Shalimar is what my grandmother smelled like. Well, let me be more specific: When I was little, maybe five years old, one of my favorite things to do was to go into peoples’ bathrooms and peek inside their cupboards. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, it just seemed to me that bathrooms held all of the most interesting things in the house. I still feel this way, but I swear I don’t rifle through the crap in your medicine cabinet. I really don’t. Anyway, the great thing about my Grandma Elly’s bathroom was that her cabinet didn’t have a door; it was an open cubbyhole of shelves with towels and toiletries, just sitting out there for all to take in. And within it was always a bottle of Shalimar, and even better, some dusting powder. You know, the kind with the big flat pancake puffy thing? How I loved opening that container, even though opening it always gave me away: I’d been messing in Grandma’s perfume. She never minded. Today, I wear it only for funerals. My bottle is achingly small, and devastatingly potent.
Just last week I was chatting online to my dear but long distance friend Maria Bustillos about signature scents. “Oh, if I had to choose mine is Fracas, no doubt,” she said. My mind was blown. I’ve never really met another Fracas-lover in real life, and when I did, for it to be Maria was just so perfect. Fracas is kind of fucked-up as far as perfumes go. I’m pretty sure men don’t really like it, though really, who gives a shit about what men like? It is awesome and overpowering and floral and just nuts. I keep buying new bottles when the old ones run out which is really rare for me. If most perfumes remind me of other people, Fracas reminds me of myself. I think of myself when I smell it, and that’s nice, for a change. Also, what’s great is that once you seep yourself for long enough in Fracas, it opens you up for Piguet’s even more nostril-offensive scent, Bandit. Non-crazy bitches need not apply.
Okay, I’m gonna say it: I don’t love Chanel perfumes. I mean, I love Coco in the way you love your old friend from raves in 1999: you wanna see them literally never again, you definitely don’t want any late night texts or Facebook messages, you hope they don’t have your email address, but you also have a lot of great memories of amazing times together. For me, much of Chanel lies firmly in the past. My mother, who died of alcoholism combined with a near comic inability to face reality, loved Chanel No. 5. I also love that perfume, and I have a tiny bottle of the expensive stuff, but its powdery-ness is tainted for me by my crazy mother, whom with the distance of years I now remember with fondness but also with remnants of Rage Against the Machine-level anger.
Anyway, is it possible for one sad mom to ruin an entire brand for her daughter? Not really, it turns out! A few years back I was developing my love of the aforementioned “white florals” and deep in the perfume forums. I love these forums because their frequenters are like the many restaurant customers I waited on in my long service industry career: they are always absolutely certain there has been a change — for the worse — in management. I’ll never NEVER forget one woman spunkily croaking at me, “This place has changed hands, I’d bet my hat!” It hadn’t, but there was no way she was gonna buy it. Perfume forum-goers are much like that: there is always a new formula of a formerly-beloved classic, and that new formula is at best a pale imitation of the original, at worst a disastrous, tasteless, Designer Imposter-class imitation, bleeding its uncomplicated essence into your nose holes. The awe of discovery of a new old scent can be quickly deflated by the perfume forums, where you find that pretty much any perfume — name one! — even your childhood ‘80s crap like Love’s Baby Soft or Heaven Scent has some mythic, ultimate format that you will almost certainly never ever fucking smell. Gardenia by Chanel suffers this reputation: you see, in 1925 when Ernest Beaux created the scent, synthetic methods for perfumes… didn’t exist. Thus, moderate perfume commentaries tell you the modern version is not as strong, while the less inhibited will tell you it’s unsubtle garbage. I make do with what I have, and what I have is Gardenia by Chanel and it is fucking awesome. Deal with it.
Has ever a perfume been so weighed down by the year of its birth? Ugh. Was 1994 the best or worst year? I can barely remember it but all signs point to… both. I chugged through a lot of bottles of ck one in my time, sharing it with my mother, my friends, my brothers. There was a time in my life when it seemed that every person I knew bathed in this stuff and it was… great? This was also a time when I owned only one perfume, used it up and moved on. There were many repeat purchases of ck one, I can tell you that, but eventually — and I remember this day crystal fucking clearly — I went to a department store counter, and purchased instead a small bottle shaped like a headless woman: Jean Paul Gaultier. But look at the time! We’ll save that story for another day.
I just bought a bottle of ck one about two months ago. Not the milk jug-sized I used to douse myself in while repeatedly watching Trainspotting, but the smaller one. It’s surprisingly amazing, and everyone either asks what it is, or, even better, they recognize it. “You smell like the ‘90s,” my husband said. Well, the ‘90s are back.
Laura June is a freelance writer and editor.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.