I was going to write about some scents I recommend for summer, but then I thought I’d better back up and talk about fragrance in general. While a small number of people can’t wear it due to sensitivities, lots of people are scared of it. And with good reason: they’ve been around people who wear too much, which can trigger headaches or at least revulsion. It’s very inconsiderate to overdo it.
Older women occasionally make this mistake because their olfactory sense has declined. Some people associate classic perfumes with age for just this reason, and things like Chanel No. 5 frighten them because age frightens them. What could be worse than smelling like an old lady? Many things, actually, including insulting old ladies wholesale. Personally, I love some of the classics, and suspect they did not become classic by chance.
If you don’t have a sharp sense of smell, or if you just haven’t cultivated it yet, traditional perfume can smell like a synthetic haze rather than a symphony of separate notes. Less complex formulas may register as more “natural” to you, whether they are or not. And that’s fine! Simpler formulas are often cheaper. I don’t buy and taste really good wine, because I know it would ruin me for the inexpensive stuff.
On the other hand, good perfume stays true for decades if you keep it out of bright light. I keep my new bottle of Boucheron in an antique wooden box I bought at a flea market, and I can’t tell you how fabulous I feel about that. And it’s fun to develop a good nose for fragrance. It sharpens your awareness of smell in general, like you’re some kind of awesome shapeshifter. You walk outside and your brain is going, mowed lawn, blacktop, honeysuckle, garbage, dirt, hot car tires.
When you smell a fragrance you used during a good time in your life – a season, a vacation – you mentally time-travel right back to there and feel everything all over again. Music mixes can also do this, but to a lesser extent. In my experience, the positive emotions cling more stubbornly to scents (and songs) than the bad ones, though your brain may work differently.
For most of us, modern life doesn’t require a strong awareness of smell, so it’s easy to forget how a wonderful scent can satisfy our senses in the same way a gorgeous sunset or a gooey grilled cheese sandwich can. If you’re still reading this, perhaps you are convinced, so let me give you a few tips for trying perfume!
If you like it, it’s good. I think the associations we have with various scents are intensely personal. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is 100x more in the nostril or olfactory bulb of the smeller. Our culture more or less continuously feeds us opinions about what is visually beautiful and what is not. With scent, however, we fend for ourselves in a wilderness of impressions and memories. This is one of the reasons fragrance fascinates me so much. An experienced critic or industry professional may appreciate things in a perfume like structure or innovation (even if she doesn’t actually like the smell), but take anything anyone says about fragrance with a big ol’ salt lick of salt, because she hasn’t lived your life. If a party guest goes into your bathroom, smells your perfume, and comes out and tells you she hates it, smile and say, “It’s not for everyone.” (Seriously, why did you invite her?)
So obviously, try before you buy. If a nearby department store doesn’t have something you’re interested in, you can order samples from The Perfumed Court, a quirky but knowledgeable resource. Most trial vials cost $3. (If they are more than that, a whole bottle will be extremely expensive.) The more you sample, the better your nose will become.
Start with a smell you like. Roses, grass, coffee, caramel, your favorite fruit, whatever. At The Perfumed Court, you can type this smell in the search phrase, and it will show you some perfumes that include it as a note.
Don’t trust your first impressions. The way it smells on a paper strip or at the first moment it hits your skin will often be quite different than what it smells like one minute, one hour, or four hours later. I know of one amazing perfume that has a godawful opening, and I’ve tried several that seem nice at first but then bore me. It’s kind of like making friends, right?
Speaking of friends, do y’all have any other suggestions? I’d love to hear!