Prelude: Scent Marking, Rubj
The National Gallery, London, summer 2015: I am surrounded by nudes. They are reclining lazily, frozen in graceful movement upon the walls. As I stand in the middle of the room, I think of other such figures I have seen in distant museums and books. The scent I am wearing today—Le Labo Santal 33, dry, woody, minimalist—drifts up to my nose, and I am struck by how wrong it feels, now that I am captivated by painted flesh. I should have known: to be overwhelmed by bodies in this way, I have never been able to do anything but give in and imagine them in their natural states, exuding the scents of pleasure. One always encourages the other, and the most pleasurable state of all bears the scent of Vero Profumo’s Rubj (pronounced ruby) Eau de Parfum: a lush and disturbingly indolic white flower scent, heavy with tuberose and orange blossom, made skin-ripe with touches of cumin and passionfruit. The combination of these is nothing less than carnal heat at its peak, then that languorous slide into blissful oblivion, where time is measured by breath and heartbeat. The air in the room is cool, but I am too warm, and somehow, in spite of the crowds around me, I feel out of place: the olfactory memory alone of Rubj bathes my senses, and all I want at this moment is to shed my clothes and join my sisters at play within their gilt frames.
“I have often asked myself what part the imagination plays in the definition of a perfume”—those are the words of the Modernist author Blaise Cendrars, from his autobiography The Astonished Man. The polymath Cendrars does not just observe with his eyes and mind, but with his nose. He speaks of his life with long and rich passages devoted to the scents that he comes across, from the smells of pine, rosemary, and mimosa near Marseilles, to the story of how his cameraman Jicky received his nickname, delighting in the tale of the spurned Spanish dancer lover who “cracked him over the skull with a large bottle of ‘Jicky’” (by Guerlain). His olfactory thrills feed the imagination, transforming simple descriptions into things the reader can almost smell as they take in the words. It may be impossible to ultimately answer the question he asks of perfume, but two things are certain: perfumes, at a simple level, are liquids that we smell as good, bad, or even with indifference. But they require imagination—a connection to all the information and memory we store—to inflame our particular passions and render them meaningful to us.
Part of the appeal of literature, music, and art is that it reflects who and where we are or have been as individuals and society in a way that as readers or observers, we sometimes do not quite grasp, even though we might actually be experiencing it. The empathetic attachment we can have to characters or imagery often reveals to us something about ourselves that had not quite risen to the surface of consciousness, but nevertheless feels familiar. Reflecting on perfume descriptions, marketing, and the ideas of sexuality now, they feel the same in many ways as they were shown to be in the past. By following the connections—like an animal scenting the trail of another—of these characters both imaginary and real, then exploring memory and imagination in images, a scented sub-narrative of identity is revealed.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine, H, always knew when another friend, S, was nearby: she would start sneezing. I never knew what it was about S that triggered this: if H was finely attuned to his cologne, soap, or shampoo, or if it was something else—the scent of him. They were not in a physically intimate relationship, although emotionally they seemed bound in a private manner, and I always wondered about that sensitivity of presence, or rather, close absence. I thought of them again when reading this passage in The Pure and the Impure by Colette (another wearer of Guerlain Jicky):
“She inexplicably looked for him, to be exact, I divined it from the way the nostrils of her perfect little nose flared . . . watching her was what made me believe that all of us in that man’s presence scented a delightful something, if I may flatter the atmosphere surrounding him by associating it with the most aristocratic of our five senses, the olfactory.”
Colette implies that it is her male friend’s natural scent that whets this hunger in his lovers, just as Montès in Honoré de Balzac’s Cousin Bette cannot completely shake his love of unfaithful Valérie—having just caught her post-tryst with another—when he catches her scent: “she took him by the hand, going so close to him that he breathed the fatal loved scents that intoxicate lovers . . . feeling him tremble and breathe deeply.” These are Pavlovian lessons in desire that have their roots in biology—but amazingly, not our own. If I were to say that airborne pheromones are the reason we are biologically attracted to certain people by their scent, and as much as we think we have complete control over choosing our partners, this olfactory connection we have to certain people shows us that part of it, at least, is out of the hands of “romantic free will”, perhaps you would nod in agreement. As humans, there isn’t some part of our lives that hasn’t been affected by the idea of scent and “animal” attraction, whether through literary and movie tropes, advertising, or our own experience of the smell of a lover’s skin. The well-worn phrase “falling in love” (or indeed, lust) owes much to the nose—except, there is no proof of it.
While there are no definitive sex pheromones as identified by scientists in humans, they are present in animals, such as darcin in male mice, androstenone and androstenol in male boars—the latter two in humans are recognised as possible pheromones. There is no doubt, however, that the perfume industry acts as if there was, capitalizing on the fragments of what is known and creating a false but strong link in the consumer’s mind with the product. As a result, perfume becomes the sex pheromone, the myth of biology seeping into the scent, prima facie. Note Marilyn Miglin’s 1978 creation simply named Pheromone: a constant if under-the-radar seller. But Pheromone is marketed as a women’s perfume, and the biological influence of sex pheromones in animals is achieved by the male attracting the female with his pheromones, not vice versa.
More recently, Faith Xue has written a humorous Byrdie article about testing Athena Pheromones, which at $99 a vial, claims not only to be the real thing, but also make the wearer more sexually attractive—for 74%, although for such a promising percentage, Winnifred Cutler PhD’s discovery seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream. Whether that is due to questionable science or something else is unclear. That there are—predictably—no guarantees as to effectiveness seems to suggest that bona fide sexual attractiveness is still biologically and chemically unknown, at least as far as pinpointing it to one specific thing is concerned. But it brings up a relevant point: outside of those with any scientific knowledge, does anyone care? The idea of something in the air magically attracting the opposite sex seems to have and continue to overwhelmingly resonate in humans, and so eagerly capitalized upon by perfume marketing: everything from the teasingly explicit musk perfume advertisements of the 70s/80s to the relentless Lynx/Axe campaigns of the last decade.
For the shopper looking for animal attraction on a budget, a brief search of “pheromone” on Ebay throws up any number of bargain options, from Lure Her and Lure Him, Pheromone 69, Mojo Pro Attract, and the rather alarmingly named Jealous Pour Homme, to spare you any more; well, maybe one more—Pherofem, according to their helpful ingredient listing, doesn’t even appear to have anything more complex than what’s in any other non-pheromone perfume, and makes no scientific claims other than using the word “pheromone”. While others list “pharmaceutical grade human pheromones” such as “Estratetranol” and “Copulins”, it should be noted that in brief glances of scientific papers, that while these are both real things, neither are specifically classified as pheromones, but instead have the potential to be classified as such, or exhibit pheromone-like behaviour, a case of close enough—we know you can imagine the phallic cigar, for marketing purposes. In the case of Pheromone 69, it claims to have the secret ingredient “Androstenonum”, which after some internet diving doesn’t appear to be any more vaguely science-y than (per an Amazon seller) “a highly concentrated essence of pheromone … which transmits an aggresive (sic) love desire.” So, absolutely anything at all could be in that vial. Even Pheromone 69’s bullet-pointed Ebay ad suggests Androstenonum is maybe a bit lower on the attraction potential scale than their key ingredients:
“The main components of this magic elixir are a variety of essential oils: grape seed, peach, ambergris, ylang-ylang, neroli, jasmine, and vanilla essential oil. THE WHOLE WORLD will be at your feet!”
In other words, caveat emptor.
In 2016, celebrity makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury released a perfume called Scent of a Dream, whose enthusiastic—to say the least—copy assures the wearer of a wealth of magical qualities with a lavish spray or two:
“Darlings, I have created a one-of-a-kind ‘floral chypre' perfume harmony that IGNITES a mind-altering fleurotic frequency. Featuring a blend of JOY top notes including Lemon, Peach and Black Pepper, ‘FLEUROTIC’ heart notes of Jasmine, Frankincense, Tuberose and Violet, plus MAGIC MOLECULE base notes of Fire Tree, Iso E Super, Patchouli and Ambroxan. It attracts LOVE, LIGHT, POWER, POSITIVITY and SEX to the wearer!
THE NOTES OF ATTRACTION
JOY TOP NOTES
Positivity: Fresh and invigorating, this confidence-boosting aura develops over 15 minutes
LEMON, PEACH, BLACK PEPPER
Saffron, Mandarin, Bergamot
FLEUROTIC HEART NOTES
Love & Light: Intoxicating floral extracts trigger and resonate over 5 hours
TUBEROSE, JASMINE, FRANKINCENSE, HEDIONE, VIOLET
Muguet, Orange Flower, Rose Oil, Tea Rose, Green Ivy, Magnolia
MAGIC MOLECULE BASE NOTES
Power & Sex: These notes are activated by body heat, lasting up to 9 hours
FIRE TREE, ISO E SUPER, PATCHOULI, AMBROXAN
Precious Woods, Cistus, Amber, Castoreum, Musks”
The specific “magic molecule” doing all the marketing heavy lifting here is Hedione, which according to any number of sites reporting on the perfume, refer to the note as a pheromone. It is not. What it is, according to the fragrance and flavour company Firmenich, is a jasmine-like molecule “… discovered by Firmenich scientist, Dr. E. Demole in 1958” There is no mention of it being a pheromone. Another look through the internet confirms this: Science Daily notes that “the scent of Hedione generates sex-specific activation patterns in the brain, which do not occur with traditional fragrances. "These results constitute compelling evidence that a pheromone effect different from normal olfactory perception indeed exists in humans," says scent researcher Prof Dr Dr Dr Hanns Hatt. The team published the results in the journal NeuroImage.” Hedione itself is referred to as “an odorous substance”, but still, not a pheromone. But the myth of animal attraction reigns supreme as the perfume’s copy is at pains to tell us, with catchy phrases like “power and sex”, “heat-activated”, and the fabulously made-up “fleurotic”. The eye often sees what the brain wants to believe. And the truth of advertising and imagination is that were the consumer presented with the actual science, it would probably not make a bit of difference. As the oft-quoted line from the Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
In one of the final moments of our last shameful US presidency, a surreal image stands out amongst the photos captured of the attempt on the Capitol building: a bottle of Axe body spray, forgotten in the detritus of hate. Whether a ransacked remnant of a politician or underling’s desk, or a bizarre accompaniment in the kit of one of the terrorists, it is a lonely and discordant reminder that the power to be desired always remains alongside the desire of power. Desire in itself is neither good nor evil, but what and how a thing or person is desired cannot escape judgement, despite its or their moral neutrality. Desire’s gaze and its traces remain on its object/subject. Axe/Lynx have always been representative of this, the olfactory version of a comical, budget lechery—promising the gratification of lust without connection or invested intimacy; sex solely as power. The lone bottle in the Capitol on that day elevated it to a horror in which its previously attached humour became scented revulsion: what one could laugh at with a throwaway judgement was now indicative of the problems that arise when something or someone is dismissed. No one dared to voice the true target demographic, which was not the idealised, harmless teenager/young adult but instead their shadowed parallel. Desire is an appetite, and appetites can grow ravenous to the point where satiety is only gained through complete destruction. In that captured moment, Axe represented the desire for, and temporary gratification of power by a self-described repressed mob without the narrative tropes of trust and humanity; the political incel.
Trump himself was no stranger to the world of projecting the scented image as aspirational desire. His name is attached to three men’s fragrances: Donald Trump The Fragrance, Empire by Trump, and Success by Trump, made and released under its parent company, Estée Lauder. The company, whose advertisements have often portrayed a particular idyllic, WASP-ish kind of Americana replete with East coast beach shots and C.Z. Guest-inspired manicured gardens, might seem incongruous with a personality like Trump. His particular signalling and perception of wealth has always been the complete opposite of the carefully constructed Lauder vision, and remains static in a vulgarity that seemed excessive even in the equally vulgar-riche 1980s, but now comes across like one of those “what I think I look like/what I actually look like” memes, the joke being that the personal vs external perception probably never changed. Setting aside sheer revenue-generating capability, Trump at one point, loved or loathed, was a mainstay of New York City social life, and to exist in that world also means to mix with the established American aristocracy. If not completely accepted, he was tolerated because of money and the ability to generate column inches; a social co-existence written about in detail as far back as Edith Wharton in The Custom of the Country, about the nouveau riche entering, or rather, gate-crashing, old-money and bloodline New York and Paris society. But just as Country’s protagonist, Undine Marvell, eventually conquers all domestic and international social outposts by way of her (husband’s) equally vulgar riches, one has the impression she and her real-life orange counterpart are never truly assimilated to the society they long for. Just as we are privy to Undine’s mostly superficial internal worries and machinations about social progression and perception, Trump’s tweets—now relegated to official paper statements, being banned from almost the entirety of the internet—reflect the same kind of self-absorbed anxiety in regard to the desire to be someone of lasting importance, not just impression.
Back to the scents, regardless of perfume hobbyists’ reviews (mostly lukewarm, with some scattered positives; this is a group that is much more interested in the scent itself rather than the face attached, and Lauder would generally be a mark of a competently created scent), their narrative relentlessly attempts to hammer the message of attraction through wealth, power, and celebrity. As an aside, his daughter Ivanka’s 2012 perfume offering Ivanka Trump by Ivanka Trump seems to have been mostly successful in that in 2017, CNN reported that for a while, was “a best seller on Amazon” and has been described on review sites as an inoffensive, pleasant enough scent, if firmly among the legions of generic fruity-florals; the olfactory equivalent of fence-sitting, despite her assertion per Haute Living that it’s “filling a void for that feminine, empowered woman.” Back to Trump Sr., his last release was in 2015, and while it seems a given that he would never hesitate to turn down a revenue or publicity opportunity, his image over the last several years would no doubt (one hopes) be enough to have every major company refusing to do business with him. His particular type of success story, as acceptably legitimate in its corruption as the Wall Street that helped prolong it, is now the antithesis of desire and the perception of mainstream America that the country is trying to repair.
During this detached time of pandemic, where almost every decision of free will is constrained or restrained for the greater good, I have experienced a likewise strange, albeit less destructive olfactory desire. I crave perfumes that I never before considered “me”: florals of every variety, from the light and creamy-petalled Chloé Magnolia Alba and Creed Fleurs de Gardenia, beachy tropicals like the salty neroli and ylang of Mark Buxton Message in a Perfume, and the frangipani, ylang, and vanilla bean of Sana Jardin Revolution de la Fleur, to the (if clichéd, no less accurate) hypnotic, sun-drenched jasmine and tuberose of Chopard Jasmin Moghol. More and more magazine features write about people wearing more perfume in order to recall the scent-memory of loved ones no longer physically close by: holding olfactory séances for the dead and the living, recalling the spaces of safety and love. As Juhani Pallasmaa says in The Eyes of the Skin, “the most persistent memory of any space is often its smell.” Likewise, the most persistent smell of any space is often its memory. But I found myself wearing perfume primarily for a different reason, that of escape. I am not the only one to feel this—an email recently dropped into my inbox from Nose, the Parisian perfumery, whose first line read, “confined and reconfined, we're more than ever intrigued by the desert.” A July 2020 Vogue.com article’s headline was, “9 Perfumes That Let You Travel (When COVID Won’t)”, and New York perfumer D.S. & Durga’s website declares that “perfume is armchair travel”.
Pandemic aside, acknowledging the power of olfactory place-memory has always been present in perfume, even where one would least expect them. New York City’s Serendipity 3, famed for its frozen hot chocolate loved by everyone from Andy Warhol to Beyoncé, sells Serendipitous, a chocolate perfume based on the dessert. Caffè Florian in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square sell their own fragrances—Aqua Florian, Aqua Admirabilis, and Aqua Moresca—in their giftshop as well as online, allowing visitors to recall their memories of the city through aquatic green floral, citrus floral, and spiced gourmand scents. If it comes across as commercially cynical, exploiting the consumer’s memory, it is no less intelligent for recognising just how tightly bound our senses are to each other and various types of desire.
In order to cope with the claustrophobia of a life measured in every way—the distance from bed to desk, an hour in a park for daily exercise, body temperature, Vitamin D pills, a twice-daily dose of asthma inhaler—I sprayed and dabbed to escape calculation and routine. I lavished myself in these essences whenever the urge arose, delighting in the one small subversive act of excess available to me. I desired, and still desire, the scents of freedom, extraordinary blooms that thrive in sun and air, unconstrained, joyfully chaotic space. In the moments where I long for a more urban memory of travel—the cafés and cigarettes of Paris, for example, I wear Celine Nightclubbing, a scent that does the impossible by managing to conjure the intimate smoky haze of chatter-surrounded velvet banquettes despite have no tobacco in it.
During an Instagram video recorded during the pandemic for online beauty and lifestyle site Coveteur, the celebrity makeup artist Sir John exclaims “it smells like money … do you wanna smell like money guys?” A known fan of rose perfumes within the beauty world, he was referring to Creed Fleur de Thé Rose Bulgare, a £400 plus-per-bottle scent of citrus, green tea, rose, and ambergris. In an olfactory world of roses and their almost infinite simulacra, Creed’s offering stands out as a deceptively simple one. But regardless of whether or not one debates the value of such a scent in terms of money or formula (should an expensive scent have ‘more’) its simplicity speaks of elegance and quality, the equivalent of an exquisitely constructed handbag whose logo is discreet, if present at all. His utterance of open pleasure in that particular act of self-care reminds me of the line in The Great Gatsby: “her voice is full of money”, another comment on desire. My own rose-centered “money” scents—meaning those that feel as luxurious and escapist as a last-minute weekend trip away to a secret city—are Dior Ambre Nuit, a trailing salty ambergris with an undertone of rose, Maison Francis Kurkdjian Lumière Noire pour Femme, a baroque rose, patchouli, and narcissus, almost gilded in its luxuriance, and Parfums Dusita La Douceur de Siam, a spicy, woody rose and tropical floral inspired by brand creator and perfumer Pissara Umavijani’s recollection of “a Thai spice garden overhung with night-blooming flowers.” Wearing either is an immediate antidote to lockdowns, transforming the rooms I have been mostly constrained to over a year to other ones in my memory: the jewel-toned velvet and brocades of L’Hotel in Paris—where stone plaques above its recessed, velvet-draped doorway boast Oscar Wilde and Jorge Luis Borges as past residents, a palm-printed, tapestry-hung apartment in Venice overlooking one of the canals, a tiny, hidden-in-plain-sight hotel in Rome in winter, sitting in a cushioned alcove sipping red wine. There is much spoken and written of self-care in these times. And while we know that its true definition is in regard to overall well-being and how we cope not only with the outside world in the way we do now, but with ourselves, rituals that might be superficial considered on their own play an important part of that. All the senses can trigger positive physiological responses, especially if they conjure happy, comforting memories that in turn ease stress, however temporarily. The past helps give us the strength to move forward, and picking up any bottle on my tray of perfumes provides an essential part of remaining hopeful.
What we do unconsciously when applying perfume—before a date, for example, is to increase the probability of being noticed, and if successful, solidifying it with memory, a kind of pheromones-plus (to borrow from Anthony Burgess’s “milk-plus” in A Clockwork Orange). The former can be said to be mimicking animals attracting partners with scent, but the latter owes much to a very human consciousness, part of the mythology of love (both romantic and non). Just think of the trope of the love philtre or elixir from mythology onwards. These ideas are certainly encouraged and utilized by perfume marketing—the tagline of Prince Matchabelli’s Wind Song was “your Wind Song stays on his mind.” Caswell-Massey have Elixir of Love No. 1 (“based on a Victorian-era formula discovered in our archives”), and Atkinsons sell Love in Idleness—inspired by the wild pansy potion used on Titania in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Language is important in the narrative of such scents: “elixir” and “potion” tend to pop up, Kiehl’s famous Musk notes the original formula was found “in a vat labelled Love Oil”, and the Xue article refers to the Athena pheromone as a potion as well. But the idea of sexual and romantic irresistibility persists most especially with musk scents. In an older print ad for Jovan’s regular Musk—both the men’s and women’s version—the message of sexual instinct is bold, declarative. The tagline is “What attracts? This is what attracts.” The photo is of a man and woman embracing, but separated with horizontal bars focusing on body parts: his hand high up on her leg—almost her thigh— exposed through a split skirt, her lips (mouth open) grazing his chin. Both censorial and amplifying, it creates a contradictory, tantalizing narrative that desire keeps you at a distance but at the same time, pulls you closer.
The trinity of desire, fantasy, and resulting animal madness: this primal self as a kind of character, is part of our identity, something the most observant of writers have noticed throughout the years. The divided-in-place-and-time protagonists of Italo Calvino’s story “The Name, The Nose” hunt in vain for the women whom they only know by scent. The London musician laments, “have mercy, have mercy on me, I go from one skin to another hunting for that lost skin that isn’t like any other skin.”, while the aristocratic Parisian echoes a similar sentiment when remarking longingly, “I knew nothing of her, but I felt I knew all in that perfume”. But it is their prehistoric counterpart that is even more aware of his animal attraction, having not yet culturally evolved and only able to discern the world through his senses: “there is a hostile odor that strikes my nose every time I think I’ve caught the odor of the female I am hunting for in the trail of the herd, a hostile odor also mixed with her odor, and I bare my incisors, canines, pre-molars” Even Colette marks this in her cat, as she writes in “Foetida” from Flowers and Fruit, her collected essays on gardens: “one of my cats used to dream over the mysterious messages from freshly tanned leather: she would nose around some and then move on. She would come back and shilly-shally about, swishing her tail” Reductive as it might be to fancifully say we are animals, it nevertheless remains true that we have a not dissimilar biological kinship with them when it comes to sexual attraction and physiology.
While I used to favour Chanel Cuir de Russie—a smoky leather inspired by Coco’s love affair with a Russian Grand Duke—my current preference is for Celine Reptile, a sweaty, slightly powdery musky leather. According to the brand’s description, it is “the olfactory twin of the stage outfits and rock star portraits that Hedi Slimane made throughout his life as a couturier.” There is something decadent and transgressive about a scent that feels like you are in another’s skin, capturing both voyeuristic and intimate desire, reminding me of Eve Babitz’s recollection of a pre-superstardom Jim Morrison in I Used to be Charming: “I met Jim in early ’66, when he’d just lost the weight and wore a suit made of grey suede, lashed together at the seams with lanyards, and no shirt. It was the best outfit he ever had, and he was so cute that no woman was safe.” What could illustrate the animalic connection of sex and scent more colorfully—aptly—as that of the relationship of a sexually charged musical idol and their fans?
In the early-mid 80s, I would ride my blue Raleigh bicycle with its round silver and pink bell to Lange’s Pharmacy most weeks during the summer holidays. Still a girl, I spent hours in the small makeup and perfume section, rapt at the displays encouraging me to look like a glamorous Revlon or L’Oreal model by buying the latest lipsticks or nail polishes. I could only afford the occasional lip balm or flavoured clear gloss, but what I longed for—and could not yet comprehend why—were the bottles of strange-smelling musks on the glass shelves. Jovan Musk for Her and Alyssa Ashley Musk, Revlon Intimate Musk with its red, Matisse-cutout-like embracing couple, and Bonne Bell Skin Musk. They didn’t smell cheerfully of flowers, or the herbs and wood that were so familiar to me with my father’s colognes, but something else that sent a strange sensation through my body—the same one I would experience looking at the garish covers of paperback romances. It was sex, but I had yet to realise it—poring over the boxes and bottles with wide eyes, trying to unlock their meanings when my body hadn’t yet been given the key.
In The Ephemeral History of Perfume by Holly Dugan, she mentions “Elizabeth I’s queer preference for elaborately scented leather gloves.” On reading it, immediately a passage in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise came to mind, where it is revealed that one of the characters, Madame Desforges, has a half-secret liking for the same:
“The smell of Saxon gloves, that animal smell with a touch of sweetened musk, usually excited her; and she sometimes laughed about it, confessing her liking for this ambiguous perfume, like an animal in rut that has landed in a girl’s powder box.”
Musk scented gloves, although a very important historical industry—experiencing a brief resurrection when L’artisan Parfumeur released limited edition leather gloves scented with one of their pillar scents, Mûre et Musc—blackberry and musk, as did Guerlain with two types: a more classic studded glove perfumed with their classic peach chypre Mitsouko, and a sportier modern pair scented with their youthful rose-black cherry hit La Petite Robe Noire—represent a complex character statement when used in literature. It is an elegant way of presenting carnal desire in a society that does not allow its “proper” women to sexually express themselves (openly, unlike courtesans or prostitutes). Madame Desforges represents wealth, power through societal connection, and taste; she does not allow herself to be taken in by the store owner Mouret’s capitalist seductions in the way the bourgeois are. But this desire, laughed off, reveals the greater human one that always surfaces, never quite concealed by propriety. The covering of bare flesh by animal skin, amplified in scent, is primal and sexual—to uncover is more so. Madame Desforges can only place her animal lust on show by way of the powder box, which in being open suggests nakedness exposed in the female sanctuary, or by putting on a pair of gloves; both forms of discreet exhibitionism.
The philosopher Vilém Flusser, in Gestures, seeks to understand the meaning behind seemingly ordinary acts. If we were to examine the gesture of putting on and removing a pair of scented gloves in a similar manner, what would be revealed? We must look at the object and analyse its symbolisms in regard to the act. Gloves here are made of hide, which has undergone a process of preparation and transformation, from rawness to polish. Before they are scented, this transformation removes a degree of the object’s original animal nature. By infusing it with musk, nature is restored and amplified—a kind of object-artifice. But this is the object alone. What meanings present themselves when the wearer is introduced? Leaving aside the strictly necessary act of clothing oneself from the elements, the wearing of animal skin/fur takes on a primal, sometimes ritualistic definition. Flesh is placed over flesh, this new version treated to an almost unctuous softness, “second skin”. The scent that rises from it, a real, animal-derived musk, but tempered, as it is noted, in The Ladies’ Paradise, with sweetness—distracts the wearer, their mind drifting, as Madame Desforges’ does, into primal thoughts of copulation juxtaposed with femininity.
In these literary examples, the suggestion is that the character naturally slips into this kind of reverie, and these thoughts are what lie beneath the veneer of social constructs and expected behaviour (especially for women of the time, who are considered either respectable or not). Scented gloves transform the female character in a small but important way—they allow her to experience a less rigid life, the unconstrained sensation of sexual desire, by means of an everyday object. The gesture of putting them on becomes a symbol of reclaiming the sexual self, and conversely, the gesture of taking them off is not one of resigning oneself to the world of decorum, but the stripping of it. “To take the gloves off” may be a phrase attributed to men (and another examination of animalistic gesture), but should be acknowledged for women of the time both in literature and real life as a psychological freedom from sexual convention. Further, the act of “accidentally” dropping a scented glove or handkerchief to prompt a potential suitor or lover’s response is another indicator of female sexual power as ingeniously devised from the constraints of both fashion and society. It closely mimics the course of animals and sex pheromones, but in reverse: the female draws the male to her and the surroundings in which she is able to not just reveal herself, but thrive. The scented animal is ready not just to be mounted, but to mount in her territory, and to show her teeth and claws as well. In a slightly ironic twist, today’s limited releases symbolise their sexual power in the covering of flesh; we live in an age where for the most part, female nudity and the choice to dress how one pleases is acknowledged. As such, the excitement lies in a deliberate withholding by the woman, where the skin must be imagined, hinted at in wafts.
It is not just the women who are responsive to perfume. In Emile Zola’s The Kill, the young Maxime is seduced to the point of corruption by the overwhelming femininity he is exposed to living with his young stepmother Renée. As a result, his knowledge of female Parisian high society (again, secretive, for the boudoir of a woman is an inner sanctum in Zola, and specifically with Renée, representative of her appetite for excess both material and sexual) forms him into something more than a dandy. He is a decadent child, moving with ease between the two worlds of the sexes, precocious in his awareness of fashion and perfumery. Maxime reads perfumer’s advertisements in class, and “always had some strip of musk-scented lace in his pockets”, delicate yet sensual reminders of the women who fascinate him in all ways; an alternate education.
Dugan also speaks of the complexity of understanding a note like (animal) musk historically compared to the present; she rightly mentions that what we smell today are not the musks of the past (mostly due to animal welfare and production issues). But that isn’t to say that we don’t experience the same excitement that Madame Desforges does even in our versions: experience is relative, but the olfactory echo (and myth) remains. There are any number of musk-heavy perfumes that, whether deliberately or not, achieve the sentiment of the passage above. Animalic musk stirs up a pleasurable sensory disturbance within us which brands still do not hesitate to emphasise in their copy, such as this, for Parfums D’Empire Musc Tonkin (from their site):
“The Chinese have prized it since Antiquity for its aphrodisiac virtues. Its smell was considered so heavenly by Islam it was blended into the mortar of some mosques so that they would exhale it in the sun. It was so penetrating that ships loaded with tea would refuse to carry it for fear it would impregnate their cargo. …
Vibrant, facetted, surprising, at once nocturnal and solar, this aphrodisiac potion changes on each skin, the better to enhance it. A lick of salt for the taste of skin. A heady floral whiff to remind us that perfume links our bodies to the erotic spells of nature.”
Underneath what appears to be a long-winded way of saying buy our perfume, is the enduring myth of musk, the insistence that it is a near-magical, but still very real ingredient. Musk is still representative of the ultimate metamorphosis, throughout the years never straying far from the idea of the animal, the reality of its (former) natural state, to human flesh, the feral retained. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ character Des Esseintes notes this: “Tonquin (Tonkin) musk with its terrifying potency”, as does Angela Carter’s barely human protagonist in "Wolf-Alice"—although only by mute sensation—who is enchanted by the “ancient yet still potent” scent of musk and civet in old dresses, appealing to her with its reminder of the world of which she came; one where she lived by senses and instinct.
John Berger notes rather critically in Ways of Seeing, that “to be able to buy is the same thing as being sexually desirable.” In perfume advertisements, especially musk, such as Jovan’s, the central female image does not exist as sexually self-aware, but as having been sexually awakened by someone else. When Skin Musk was sold under the Bonne Bell brand, their print ads were intensely sexual. One shows what looks to be a teen/young woman (around 17-18 years old) standing in a field, dressed in short shorts, bikini top, and open shirt—legs slightly open, thumbs hooked into her belt loops. The tagline: “wear a little something and a lot of SKIN”. Whether the male is present or not in the image—or, as also noted by Berger, deliberately posed as sex-object, often combined with voyeuristic perspective—the female advertising stereotype exists as a character, not unlike the literary personas shown as repeated from myth onwards.
As a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vogue was an escape from everything my Midwestern life was not: glamourous, worldly, sophisticated. These were not yet the days of the waif, “heroin-chic” model—instead, the women on the pages seemed fully formed goddesses, intelligent and somehow independent of men even when they were pictured with them. Along with Chanel, Estée Lauder ads presented the kind of woman I wanted to be when I grew up—secure and strong in their femininity, in the presence of men because they chose to be, not shadowed by them. Paulina Porizkova’s images for Private Collection and Knowing embodied this for me. The model was often shown in contemplative solitude—sometimes serious, in others, a look of distant pleasure on her face—or gazing unflinchingly at back at her observer off-page. Already more solitary than I was social, these spoke to me in ways that the perfume ads targeted to my age group did not, and made me seek out the perfumes I knew would be the olfactory equivalent of that strength. To this day, they do not disappoint my once youthful impressions—the sharp pine and green floral “intelligence” of Private Collection and Knowing’s woody-floral introspection immediately conjured up when I think of them, reminding me that part of who I am was guided by the scents of who I thought I could be.
Another version of musk—vegetal—suggests the idea of skin, but through plants; the scents and the desires that they in turn release, like pollen or seeds. In The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Esther’s memory of her former roommate Doreen is bound up with this: “she had an interesting, kind of sweaty smell that reminded me of those scallopy leaves of sweet fern you break off and crush between your fingers for the musk of them.” Doreen radiates mesmerising sexual experience, from lingerie "the colour of sin" that clings half-transparently to her skin, to how she eats the fruit from her Old-Fashioneds. In 50s New York City, where women live in female-only hotels and mainly work in order to find a husband, Doreen’s lazy sexuality is a thing of complete sensory pleasure, both cool and addictive in the imagery of the musky fern one can’t keep their hands from. She is a modern Eve—tempting Esther not with an apple, but an entire city: drinks, neon-lit bars, and experiences with strange men—her own seductiveness recalling the lush vegetation of the garden of Eden. In Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, the title character, a journalist suffering under the emotional weight of his agony-aunt responsibilities, is asked to imagine an escapist scene where he lives in the South Seas with the daughter of a native king: “her odour is like nothing so much as a jungle fern” says his editor Shrike after describing her breasts as golden pears and belly as a melon. The daughter of the island is the very stereotype of exoticism, but within that is also representative of the same lush, vegetal, sexual appeal as Doreen in the city—both have a wildness about them that would remain no matter the surroundings. It is easy enough to think of animal musk as the more sexually potent because of its origins and relation to us, but one only has to stop for a moment and consider the dangers, the wildness of plant-based nature to know that it is a serious misconception. Plants and flowers are, in some cases, every bit as deadly as animals—sap, blossoms, bark, seeds, and leaves that poison and irritate, hypnotise and seduce, with odour or appearance. They are more artful, without consciousness as we know it, naturally equipped with artifice. Vegetal musk then presents a much more complex picture of sexual desire, both in where it originates, and who it is describing in terms of character. While perfumer Michel Roudnitska’s perfume Magnolia Grandiflora Michel for Australian floral designer Grandiflora is not strictly speaking, a wholly musk scent, it perfectly imagines both the vegetal carnality of Doreen and Shrike’s imagined South Sea princess with its dense, humid citrus and near-claustrophobic tropical florals—gardenia, ylang, and jasmine combining in an indolic richness reminiscent of overripe melon—bound suggestively in tendrils of musk.
We must also consider the word release when describing musk in perfumery: for release is what our bodies do with hormones, just as animals naturally do with their scent through sweat or urine, but also how we consciously (or unconsciously) behave during sex—relinquishing the constraints of expected mannerisms, shedding inhibitions, and of course, orgasm. (Wo)man stays close to the primacy of nature with this particular note. Indeed, it is an important link between the human and animal selves, the latter, that as a sex, we have been told to remove, separate ourselves from. It is telling that at certain points in our history—even now—sex and sexual desire have been marked as dirty or things to be kept secret, especially for women, and/or those identifying as queer, but musk, whether in literature or real life, has always proclaimed itself. It presents itself in the beginning of Moby-Dick, in Ishmael’s erotic musings on the sailors at the Spouter-Inn, when he notes the musky pear scent of male skin exposed to long periods in the sun. “This young fellow’s healthy cheek is like a sun toasted pear in hue and would seem to smell almost as musky”. The idea of gendering perfume has always been a conformative marketing exercise, but it seems even more ridiculous when I think of the perfume that might best fit Ishamel’s thoughts, Petite Cherie by Annick Goutal, a musky pear, rose and grass scent that has been described as a thoroughly young and feminine or smelling like plastic dolls. That it could beautifully be the scent of those whaling men of old turns the idea of what is appropriate in perfumery on its head. Musk stays close to the flesh, but at the same time, sillage cries out, even when our lips have to remain silent. A kind of animal artifice in the aesthetic sense, yet no less powerful for what it symbolizes in both perfume and its application.
In Henry and June, parts of Anais Nin’s complex relationship with Henry and June Miller revolve around perfume—Nin tantalisingly relates but does not go into the detail of a conversation with June, “We were talking about perfumes, their substance, their mixtures, their meaning.” From the start, their mutual and intense attraction is bound up in scent: when Anais wishes to make her a present, what June wants is her intoxicating perfume, although we do not find out until much later that what she wears is Guerlain Mitsouko (as well as being known to have worn Caron Narcisse Noir). For those passionate about fragrance, it is not unheard of to wear specific perfumes for specific people, and so the memory of them forever be associated with it. June’s bohemian nature is hinted at by Nin’s description of her behaviour, which suggests that June is intoxicated by scent, but in a distracted manner. Perfume is a beautiful thing that she both covets and bestows as gifts—but with impulsiveness, which Anaïs mistakenly reads as more meaningful than it is. At one meeting, she is surprised to hear June “casually” mention that she has bought perfume for another woman, realising that June does not feel about her in the same fiercely consuming manner. One can imagine the sudden sting on hearing this, the love you think you solely share with one person, shared out with yet another, a throwaway gesture that translates as a blow to the heart. Nin forgets the name of the perfume—although this could be read as deliberate, the act of trying to erase something that holds a painful memory—only remembering that it was expensive; another sting, as June is broke, and is often given money by Anais. Has her money bought this precious token for another woman? It is not written, but does not need to be. June is fickle with love and perfume, one and the same thing. She adores richness and beauty, but her heart is easily turned to others. Recalling Nin’s previous act of begging June to put on a pair of her (Nin’s) stockings and apply her perfume while in front of her and a ladies’ room attendant is a blatant gesture of sexual possession—in effect, June wears her skin and scent—revealing how strongly emotion and desire are linked to fragrance for Anaïs.
Anaïs wants both fidelity to herself and adoration of her scent from her lovers. A contradiction when considered alongside her marital infidelity and sexual appetite, but a nevertheless emotionally logical one. She wishes to be the object of desire, and as such, objects attached to her must also be desired—the object as fetish and fetish as a kind of worship, or proof of desire, which hints at her own insecurity. Henry, both observant and sensual but also unseeing and brusque, does not like her perfume (Mitsouko): “when I find out he does not like my perfume because it is too delicate, at first I am a bit offended”. To be in love or lust (she is both), to have the lover reject, or worse, be indifferent to the perfume worn is akin to being sexually or emotionally rejected. The Millers both hurt her, unintentionally, with how they respond to fragrance—hers, and how she cherishes it in relation to those she loves. Perfume here (and often generally) is a souvenir of love—of specific, intangible moments, as incorporeal yet hinting of the body, like sillage. In Susan Stewart’s On Longing, she notes the souvenir as representative of “events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative . . . like the collection, it always displays the romance of contraband, for its scandal is its removal from its ‘natural’ location.” Bodies may be material, but it is the essence of them—of Henry and June—that Anais seeks to possess even more. Writing and perfume link the three of them, but perfumed loss, the inability to completely grasp their essence—because they have not been able to grasp an important part of hers—is what she feels acutely. One has the impression that to love Nin wholly, must be to love her scents unconditionally, understand they are inseparable from the rest of her identity.
But what could be more perfect than to describe her complex relationship with the Millers, as well as her husband and others, as existing through (perfumed) narrative? Think of the once often-used image of the woman writing to her amour, and as a last touch, scenting the notepaper—an additional layer of memory for the loved one. By incorporating perfume into her narrative, she makes it a necessary element, a character as much as any of the people involved. She is the author of her desires, and experiences blur as if they happened after her writing—life imitating art—and not before. It is as if she has willed dreams into existence, and one can imagine her poised over an open bottle of scent, an invisible plume wafting up and inspiring the characters that then appeared, real flesh to touch, taste, and long for, in her life. Perfume is the ink in which she writes the narrative(s) of love and lust, the memories of scent and people intertwined, like an embrace or the joining of cursive letters.
Miller’s sense of and appreciation (or lack) of scent when written through Nin’s eyes, feels raw, and not fully understood—he knows what he likes, but is not able to articulate in the same way as Anaïs, and as such, comes across as slightly unrefined. But as Miller’s works themselves could be described poetically blunt but joyful explorations of the pleasures of the senses, it is worth noting in Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland, that the author of Down and Out in Paris and London felt a kinship with Miller’s olfactory writings of people and places: “Orwell found in Miller the most congenial nasal Francophile, a brother of the nose.” He also refers to “olfactory narcissism” the love of one’s own smells (or others close to them). If Orwell, who describes the olfactory with the same kind of life-affirming relish, even when the scents themselves are foul, felt that way about Miller, we must consider that this sort of primitively appealing—that is to say, plain-spoken and no-nonsense—scent writing is just as elevated in its way as Nin’s. None of this, of course, can be mentioned without also making reference to James Joyce, whom Orwell considered “as connoisseurial about sexual smell as he was.” In a 2016 essay, I briefly discussed the “Nausicaa” chapter in Ulysses, speculating on the possible relation of androstenones, androstenols (again, noted in Smithsonian Magazine as the “most famous” of the pheromones and “potent aphrodisiacs”, although only specific as a sex pheromone in male boar) and Bloom’s musing on the biology behind women’s sexual attraction to men, specifically priests:
“Perhaps they get a man smell off us. … what you eat and drink does that. … priests are supposed to be different. Women buzz round it like flies on treacle. … O father, will you?”
The obvious reading of this—especially in the general sexual context of the chapter—might be anything from the woman seeing a vow of abstinence as a challenge, or interpreting the empathy of the vocation as personal interest, leading to fantasy. But noting that besides being present in wild boar, androstenones are also in some root vegetables, so I’d like to proffer a speculation that is based on the thinking that a priest’s diet was likely to be made up by what they grew themselves, more than most. If pheromones are airborne, and the priest/confessor are in close proximity, one could imagine the invisible fog of celery or parsnip-based something being radiated and received. Bloom’s thoughts hardly seem fanciful in this light, but instead logical, and indeed, he goes further by his reference to the “celery sauce” smell of the “source of life”, or semen. Celery has long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac, and Bloom is unwittingly considering the relation between aphrodisiac and pheromone, recognising two separate things: that what we eat might affect our sexual potency, and that it in turn could somehow attract others. That there is just no definitive link for sex pheromones and humans is frustrating, but it is also no reason to completely dismiss the repeated coincidences of this myth. After all, observation is often what leads to eventual discovery.
Scent is a strong sub-narrative in Joyce’s fiction, as well as his personal life—Sutherland naturally points to Joyce’s coprophilia, that alone marking him as earthily and fearlessly sexual. The man then utilises it as a writer, imbuing both Bloom and Molly with the same earthy sexuality and awareness of scent, refined and primal at the same time. A D. H. Lawrence quote in Obscene Modernism by Rachel Potter refers to Molly’s sexual thoughts as “exposing too much by stripping away the psychic censor” (or to state it less eloquently, too much information). This shows that Joyce’s use of sexual-olfactory memory in characters is so intense that the reader can’t help but be assaulted by their own familiarity—that is to say instinctive repulsion of bodily functions (and their by-products). We may not share the exact thoughts of Molly and Bloom, but recognise the absolute reality of them; perhaps even more so when in denial, as that would be an attempt to reject or distance the offensive from ourselves. The repulsion that might be experienced in these “overexposures” is also curiosity, both psychological and biological. Using Joyce’s coprophilia as an example, indole molecules shared by certain flowers—which include jasmine, gardenia, tuberose, honeysuckle, and orange blossom—are also present in faeces, and depending on concentration, can register to the nose as either deeply unpleasant or beautiful. This is a simplification: there is a more complex range, as indoles are also used to create food products such as chocolate.
During the 1600s, Cosimo III de’ Medici was reported to have been fond of jasmine chocolate. According to Italy Magazine, jasmine buds were combined with cocoa—more than 2500kg buds per kilo. For a long time, I puzzled over my slightly repulsed delight in jasmine plants, and my olfactory memory of smelling jasmine bushes in full bloom under the sun in the south of France is a combination of an almost sugar-sweet floral note and faeces, wrapped in hot, salty, sea air as I walk near the water. The dichotomy of that particular scent made me consider why we should recognize both aspects and still find something attractive in the end. Registering repulsion to things in nature is part of the body’s warning system, in much the same way that a fever aims to rid it of something it recognises as harmful, or as anyone who has had food poisoning knows, the smell of that particular edible for some time after produces the same terrible feelings, the body’s reminder that it remembers the experience. Repulsion in this sense means do not eat, do not touch. It is worth wondering if those with a predilection for jasmine chocolate or soiled underwear have less of the repulsion response than others. What has been labelled over the years as strange or dirty could be due to the biological as much if not more than the psychological. There is an accidental—or perhaps not—fart joke made of the repulsion to indolic flowers in Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times by Robert Muchembled (tr. Susan Pickford), which deals heavily with literal shit: an anecdote recalls Louis XIV going from scent mad to being repulsed by it. But as the court was fully caught up in the craze for perfume and scented items, no one paid any mind. “Madame Maintenon still wore jasmine-scented gloves, claiming that the smell came from someone else, if her enemy the Princess Palatine’s mocking commentary is to be believed.”
Tuberose, tuberosa—from the Latin, meaning swollen (the root of man), polianthes, meaning many flowers (the woman in bloom). To me, the queen and king of all indolic flowers, the only one to incorporate both male and female attributes. An entwining of desires to form nature’s most purely sexual scent outside of the scent of sex itself—for it is sweet, intoxicating, meaty: not cold meat but warm flesh waiting to be devoured. Unlike jasmine, their indoles repulse in a different way—they signal the kind of danger that lures, like flames to moths, Venus fly-traps to anything that comes near. Tuberose is the anonymous woman of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde—legs open, wafting her secret perfume like a Siren’s song. When fresh, the flowers fill the room with overpowering scent, but they smell best in the wild, under hot sun, their olfactory haze as thick and shimmering as heat waves. How apt are the names of the tuberose perfumes by Robert Piguet, Fracas—disturbing sleeping desires—and Frederic Malle, Carnal Flower, the beauty who devours. Our animal instincts seek out similar traits, even in flowers.
Repulsion and sex—under the term obscenity—were part of why Ulysses was banned. Who wanted to read of bodily functions, smells related to coital skin—of the extended musings of curiosity and pleasure in them? It was not something the refined and cultured did, or perhaps more accurately reflecting censors through the years, should be doing. In the same way I wondered at my attraction to jasmine, I also did at my immediate pull to the “Nausicaa” chapter of Joyce’s novel and its relation to some of Joyce’s letters: specifically, the earthy, explicit (at least in imaginative description) aspects of Molly’s scents—both bodily and artificial—as well as subsequent thoughts on animals and primal behaviour. In the Selected Letters of James Joyce, there are numerous passages from Joyce to Nora Barnacle, where he repeats his sexual fetish (as noted by Sutherland, above) in regards to her underwear, preferably perfumed and soiled with her bodily fluids and waste. While the letters show Joyce to be sexually voracious, he seems to have a particular fixation with scent and the anal, and delights in Nora’s equally voracious sexual pleasure (from what can be guessed from his responses, as we do not see her letters to him) in it.
“I can smell the perfume of your drawers as well as the warm odour of your cunt and the heavy smell of your behind.”
And, from Ulysses:
“Know her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too. Reminds me of strawberries and cream. Wonder where it is really. There or the armpits or under the neck. Because you get it out of all holes and corners. … Muskrat. Bag under their tails one grain pour off odour for years. Dogs at each other behind. … animals go by that. … we’re the same.”
In the same aforementioned chapter in The Problem with Pleasure, Frost also recognises that perfume and scent in Ulysses are integral to the narrative and often essential to understanding the relationship between Bloom and Molly: “Joyce’s textual scents are never single-note; rather, they are constructed through layers of memory, bodily response, attraction, and resistance. Perfume is a pleasure with unexpected depths.” To ignore the complex weaving of scent and character is to be anosmic to whole sections of the book. In short, one cannot understand Ulysses without the nose.
Musk, natural scent, and perfume generally, seem inescapably entwined with how we perceive others. It forms what we believe to be at least part of their personalities in creating our overall mental impression, not unlike the way a writer pieces together the nuances of a character. And while it is an obvious sense—that of smell—it is also has something of the subconscious: in deliberately looking for examples, one starts to see them everywhere, both in the real and created worlds. Joyce is instinctually perceptive when he notices that the perfumed influence of bodies mirrors that of the natural one of animals. This was the same chapter, that on publication in 1920 as an excerpt in the modernist magazine the Little Review, resulted in obscenity charges brought against the editors of the magazine. Joyce’s free, instinctive writing—pen following both nose and desire—was too much for the still-rigid times, at least in America.
A more modern twist on obscenity and musk can be found in the British perfumer Miller Harris’s collaboration with chanteuse and actress Jane Birkin, herself no stranger to controversy upon the release of the duet “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” with then-partner Serge Gainsbourg, according to the Independent, “the first banned record … to reach No. 1 in the UK.” The 2006 perfume, called L’Air de Rien (according to Vogue.co.uk, the scent is meant to evoke her memories of family, travel, and “the leatherbound books that line the walls of Birkin’s Parisian home.”), underwent a relaunch with new packaging in 2016, and remained in production until just recently, a rarity in an industry where celebrity collaborations tend to be fairly short-lived (the French brand Etat Libre d’Orange is another exception: their collaborations with such celebrities, designers, and artists/brands as Tilda Swinton, Rossy de Palma, Roland Mouret, and Tom of Finland are part of their permanent line). According to the original copy, “L’Air de Rien captures the comfort of a lovers’ embrace, watching the dust dance in the light as you lay entwined. An intimate blend of musk and amber, softened by the suggestion of old books through earthy moss and vanilla.” Whether intentional or not, the scent’s muskiness also nods to an overtly suggestive Proustian madeleine in regard to one—if arguably the most famous—of Birkin’s personas, and thereby gives the wearer both the public and private Jane Birkin.
Perfumes and their bottles are early markers as a child. They mark your curiosity: not just what you see, but what you understand. My Japanese mother did not wear perfume—having almost no discernible skin scent herself, she felt no need to give it an artificial one, content in olfactory anonymity. In a 2015 review article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences by Tristam D. Wyatt on pheromones, he notes that particular scent glands are not present in a large percentage of the people of Northeast Asia. Most likely due to my paternal parentage, I did not inherit this trait, and am glad of it—while I can only speculate on what would have otherwise been, my life has been dominated by intimate experiences focused on the olfactory, where personal (and artificial) scent shaped what kind of character I appeared to others. But this lack of scent on my mother’s part became a kind of identity crisis in my early pubescent years. Her lack of it equalled calm, poise, and sophistication to me, and the scent I felt I released was the antithesis of this. As a result, it seemed to me that I would always be just a little bit wild, never appearing completely composed, and was sometimes resentful of this unfair genetic lottery. I wore my emotions on my skin, thinking that they were somehow obvious to the world through my scent, like the olfactory equivalent of a chameleon. A fascination with old photographs of aristocratic society women, such as Jacqueline de Ribes, made me think that like my mother, they were also devoid of bodily scent, only wafting elegant sillage from a bottle—beautiful blank slates, where the right kind of character was applied depending on the situation: the opera, a ball, perhaps a rendezvous with a lover. Years later, I have come to terms with my scent, and appreciate that it (and likewise, in smelling others) can reflect the turmoil of emotional states; I adorn it accordingly, and only wear perfumes whose characteristics complement it.
One of my Japanese aunts would send my mother gifts of bottles of perfume that sat unused, secretly sniffed by me. Guy Laroche Fidji stood out: a rich, tropical green—not the aldehydic high-pitched soapiness of Balmain Ivoire, or the herbal-mossy chypre of Guerlain Sous le Vent (“Under the Wind”, created for Josephine Baker), but an almost-sweet green that came from the jasmine—and what might be tuberose. It smelled warm and thick like a sunny day in a garden at the height of summer, when you close your eyes and the scents of grass and flowers combine in a heated blur, almost tangible. This was the only real experience I could compare it to in my mind, but it combined with images from a book of art on my bedroom shelf—Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings: all palms, ferns, and exotic flowers as large as the trees themselves, open and inviting to animals as well as to the child who looked at them. I write this not just as a pleasant memory but as examples of the power of imagination in regards to perfume and how we go back to these images and memories as a kind of olfactory historical reference in the future. For instance, now I would scent Rousseau’s paintings with Monstera by Mexican perfumer Xinú, a sappy, fruity green floral inspired by rainforest flora. There are many of these kinds of references within the characters of the written and spoken word, but what else of the (non-cinematic) image?
Like the Rousseau example, I still think of perfumes corresponding with certain paintings, for besides just being a fun sort of memory game, it seems natural: another layer, another texture to the canvas, and another kind of projection, not just into the characters that perfume would let me become, but the characters in the paintings themselves—how would I act, what would I feel, inhabiting the space inside the frames, my different selves unfurling according to the senses? Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress wears Le Labo Benjoin 19, a few drops stolen from her mother’s bottle, childishly thinking that her rich velvet and fur will mask its soft almost-animalic incense scent. On seeing Picasso’s Las Meninas, after Velázquez, his variation made me think that were I to spray a mist of that perfume onto it, the little Infanta would have grown and blossomed from one artist’s vision to another.
Giovanni Boldini’s Madame Charles Max knows perfume is an accessory like the golden sash on her gown; carefully chosen, it accents and emphasises, but also surprises. And so she wears Serge Lutens Tubereuse Criminelle, the initial wintergreen a shock to the senses like her black hair and bare ivory shoulders, before melting into a carnal, but still regal, white flower. Dangerous and seductive as the frothy pale blue-grey gown, the eye drawn to its fallen golden shoulder strap—now aligned with her breasts, the mingled scents of perfume and skin rising from the heat of her décolletage twining invisibly round her neck and beyond, beckoning to admirers.
All of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Iris paintings make me think not of a similar floral like Hermès Hiris, with its fleeting milky-vegetal root coolness, or even a warm one such as Frederic Malle Iris Poudre, rich and velvety as the inside of a petal, but Andrée Putnam Preparation Parfumée, a dry, austere driftwood and pepper scent, or Van Cleef and Arpels’ Bois d’Iris, the salty incense and wood sister to the Putnam. But while Caravaggio’s autumnal-toned Basket of Fruit does indeed bring to mind a fruit-laden perfume, it is an unlikely one: Byredo Pulp, whose figs and apples are hyper-realistic, more appropriate for a cartoon than a classical painting. And yet it seems the only choice, for the painted fruit is precariously balanced between ripeness and decay—like Rubj, almost too voluptuous.
Writing about Caravaggio in Portraits, John Berger refers to the darkness of his paintings as smelling of, amongst other things, “over-ripe melons”; that almost sickly-sweet, pervasive scent, flesh-like in their waning solidity. He has identified scent as part of the makeup of atmosphere, a specific character of the works he speaks of—in Caravaggio’s world, according to Berger, one whose eye is cast on sexuality, desire. It is as important as the figures and scenarios themselves, revealing another dimension in the way we experience art, especially that of exposed or completely naked flesh. Melon is part of the key to Frederic Malle Le Parfum de Therese, a fruity, floral-leather perfume also rich in jasmine, created by Edmond Roudnitska for his wife in the Fifties, and only made available to the public in 2000. To smell it is to imagine the perfumer working with scent to reproduce the olfactory image of his desire in the same way Berger imagines Caravaggio must have done with paint; to create something almost overwhelming in its sensuous vitality. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that varieties such as cantaloupe are part of the species called muskmelon, and that Shrike’s depraved imagination in Miss Lonelyhearts conjures up both vegetal muskiness and Berger’s melons in his description of exotic lust.
Newly married in the early 00s, I was only starting to discover niche perfumes—yet to explode into the huge genre they are now. When Frederic Malle’s Editions de Parfums line appeared, with the names of the “noses” (perfumers) prominently on the packaging, it was another way of discovering the connections between scent and scent, not just myself, but also the perfumer. Everywhere there began to appear stories about them: their influences, preferences, inspirations. The great Edmond Roudnitska, was already known amongst perfume lovers for his timeless creations, Rochas Femme, a voluptuous orchard fruit and spice scent; Dior Diorissimo, an unrivalled lily of the valley—the essence of spring; the citrus-leather of Hermes Eau d’Hermes, and Eau Sauvage (not to be mistaken for the new Sauvage), the citrus-moss for men but often worn by women, also for Dior. Edmond’s son Michel (creator of the aforementioned Magnolia Grandiflora Michel) created the spicy Oriental Noir Epices for the Editions line, but it is his father’s resurrected creation Le Parfum de Therese that astounded, on working my way through samples of all the Editions scents. Then, at 28, I knew immediately I was not ready to wear the elegant plummy, floral leather scent on my wrists. I was simply not enough of a woman, only beginning another phase of my life. Therese spoke of elegance and adoration, the jasmine indoles the scent of desire, the heavy plum (or prune, as the site says) syrupy, almost narcotic, in combination with what smelled of leather. The leather of what, I wondered. Was it a delicate, expensive handbag, an equestrienne’s saddle, or something darker, more carnal, like a riding crop brought into the bedroom? The shifting notes were a testament to talent, no doubt—but also love, the way a man sees the woman in his life, many-faceted, but always herself. I had not yet the lifetime of love (nor would I, with the person I married), the long appreciation of another person and theirs of me. I went on to wear Jean-Claude Ellena’s creation Cologne Bigarade instead, a crisp, almost icy bitter orange. Now, I wear Pierre Bourdon’s Iris Poudre, its velvet warmth and wood reflective of a contentment I did not have for a very long time. But Therese has always been in my thoughts, and someday, I hope to be able to wear it, knowing that I am everything to someone the way she was to Edmond. What is desire if not the inability forget the imprint of one’s scent upon another’s memory?
At the beginning of the end of my relationship; a complicated one, as we were secretly divorced but still together and married in the eyes of everyone we knew, we went to Paris, an attempt at denying the state we were in. To borrow from Perec, it was not an attempt to exhaust the place, but instead pretend it was we who were not exhausted. I sought the flagship Guerlain boutique on the Champs-Elysées and asked in my terrible French for a bottle of Sous le Vent, the bitter chypre more fitting to my presence in Paris than the sad romance of something more associated with the city in literature such as their L’Heure Bleue (known to most Jean Rhys fans) a rich floral oriental, dusky and blurred as the colours of the hour before twilight. I wanted my request at least to be authentic and was grateful when the vendeuse indulged me with a serious smile. When I emerged with a gold bag in my hand containing that precious gold box, he stood outside the shop uninterested as ever, scrolling through his phone.
We ate and ate in that city, because there was no physical love. Sexual hunger was replaced by wild strawberry with mint and peach melba eclairs, plates of charcuterie and cheeses that smelled as ripe as post-coital skin. Our bags upon leaving full of yet more cheese, saucisson and loaves of bread—bags that should have been full of sex-soiled lingerie and new silk replacements from Sabbia Rosa, their smells mingled in carnality, delicate orange-blossom and rose-scented macarons to be fed to one another when we came back, falling into bed once we walked through the door. My senses were overwhelmed not with joy but anything that would assume its image.
On our return I would shut myself in the bathroom and carefully unstopper the glass top of the perfume bottle, letting drops of the green-herbal—sometimes cool, at others, warm, just like the wind—scent fall on my wrists. I sat alone; perfumed, wanting to be hungered for and wondering if anyone would do so again. Sous le Vent is now discontinued and my bottle long gone; relegated to a fleeting memory of non-love, bitter like a winter wind. Years later, my perfume tray now is full, overflowing with every scent imaginable, and I am content in almost every other way. But something almost infinitesimal troubles me every time I watch a drop or fine mist fall on my skin. I long for that almost primal desire—like Calvino’s lovers, driven mad by their olfactory desires, to be discovered by my scent alone, my skin recognisable out of millions of bodies even if he had never laid eyes on me, calling out: “there I found her, it was she who had summoned me with her odor in the midst of all those odors; there, I breathed through my nose all of her and her love-summons.” And then I think of a photo sent to me by someone whose skin scent I have imagined, but never smelled—of a gilded frame, bearing the quote “sa memoire est comme un parfum”.
“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” So declares Gertrude Stein’s poem, ‘Sacred Emily’, an example in perfumery of something that can be different—in natural colour, shape, scent, and finally artificial construction and marketing—but ultimately retains the same fundamental rosiness, and in doing so, could be said to a perfect example of Baudrillard’s simulacra. There perhaps is no other note that encompasses the variety of emotion and experience while still remaining exactly what it is, like the rose.
There are dark, mysterious rose perfumes (L’artisan Voleur de Roses with its plummy, earthy rose) and light innocent ones (the grassy pink rose of now-discontinued Zita by Paula Dorf), others that are herbal-spiced and elegantly cosmopolitan, like the sheer bay and lavender-flanked rose of Parisian Hotel Costes’ namesake fragrance Costes (red), used to scent their interiors. There are roses that mimic the scent of a single unplucked rose, still in the dirt, such as Frederic Malle’s Une Rose, ones that evoke the scent of old-fashioned lipsticks (Maison Martin Margiela’s Lipstick On, from their Replica line or Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose), many that acknowledge the ingredients and influence of the Middle East (Ormonde Jayne’s saffron, date, and orange blossom-rich Ta’if, Amouage’s heavily spiced and Chantilly cream Lyric for Women, Ostens’ Impression Rose Oil Isparta, innumerable rose & oud (agarwood) scents such as Aramis Calligraphy Rose, Trish McEvoy Black Rose Oud, Prada Miracle of the Rose, or Les Soeurs de Noe Oud Rose), and others that are dedicated to the dream of a woman belonging to an entire city, like Yves Saint Laurent’s lush love-letter bouquet of rose, violet, mimosa, and sandalwood, Paris, early advertisements usually featuring the model with an enormous bunch of roses within shot of the Eiffel Tower. In Laurence Benaïm’s biography, Yves Saint Laurent, he speculates that Paris alludes to the designer’s love of literature and kinship with the tragic, romantic heroine of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Benaïm quotes a letter written by Saint Laurent which resonates with the all-encompassing passion he and Emma (despite Paris existing only in her imagination) share for the city:
“Your scent nails me to a tree. I won’t forget it. I will surely find you again one day. There exist a thousand places in Paris where I can see you again and crush your roses against my heart. Our roses. The most beautiful ones. Perhaps you were only an excuse to accomplish my dream: to give a fragrance to Paris. Prestigious Paris that dazzles. Your blazing, crackling fireworks make the world sparkle. For this new perfume, I chose your name because there is no more beautiful one. Because I love you. My Paris.”
Yet more pay homage to unique subjects as the Japanese theatre tradition (Dior’s powdery, light Rose Kabuki), roses swept by the salty ocean breezes (D.S. and Durga’s Rose Atlantic, and Les Parfums de Rosine’s Écume de Rose and Cologne Rose Océan), even varnish and metal (Amouage Opus X). Then there are those that manipulate the traditional ‘feminine’ perception of rose for masculine (Chanel’s fruity, spicy Ègoïste) and/or more inclusive gender-free audiences (Le Labo’s very woody Rose 31, BDK Parfums’ tobacco and chocolate Tabac Rose, Dior’s dark rose and ambergris Ambre Noir, and the rose and rubber of Les Parfums de Rosine for Le Snob’s Le Snob No. 1), and endless edible or gourmand roses: jammy, loukhoum, vanilla, and liquor options from Elie Saab (Essence No. 1), Keiko Mecheri (Loukhoum), Lancôme (Parfait de Rôses), and Michael Kors (the criminally discontinued Kors, a heady red rose with pomegranate, cognac, and red wine—although there is some consolation in Frederic Malle’s Portrait of a Lady, with its rose and almost wine-like fruits, and Dior’s Santal Noir, a woody, liquorous rose and ambrette—the latter which comes across as fruity/musky—blend).
If you were looking for a rose perfume by a celebrity with a known penchant for the same, there is actor Chloë Sevigny’s collaboration with niche brand Regime des Fleurs, Little Flower, the nickname of 19th century French nun Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin. Sevigny’s love of rose scents is legend in the perfume and fashion world, and has previously cited Comme des Garcons’ raspberry-tinged Rose from its Series 2: Red (discontinued) as a favourite. The result of their collaboration is a light, fruity, woody rose with blackcurrant, palo santo, and black tea. Vogue.co.uk notes “Sevigny’s new scent … bears no hallmarks of more traditional (read: fusty) old rose perfumes.” But what of that? Your mother’s or grandmother’s rose is just another rose, and what goes around tends to come back around in perfume—if it ever left at all. Danish fashion designer Anine Bing, in a 2017 interview with Luxury London, acknowledges that her first scent, Savage Rose, was created “because some of my earliest memories are of … running around my grandmother’s rose garden as a girl.” Jean-Charles Brosseau’s powdery Ombre Rose has persisted since the 80s, and Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose since the 70s. Parisian house Parfums Caron have been creating rose perfumes for changing customers throughout the years since the 1900s, and while the current lineup has discontinued Rose from 1949 (there are three new rose perfumes in its place), you can still find bottles of the extrait—inevitably reformulated as all scents are during their production life, whether due to cost-saving or issues with sourcing ingredients—online.
Some houses have a particular love for the note, and so create endless scents around it, such as Les Parfums de Rosine, who are solely dedicated to rose-based perfumes, and luxury jeweller Chopard: from more affordable options such as their light Felicia Roses from the Happy line and Love Chopard, a gourmand oriental with cacao and honey, to the richer oriental Rose Seljuke and Rose de Caroline (the latter—named for Caroline Scheufele, president of Chopard—a powdery rose just under £500) in the Haute Parfumerie series.
There are thousands of rose-based scents: discontinued, presently in production, and still in the creation process. Each one has their own unique structure, yet are unified and immediately identifiable as rose fragrances. Personality here is the key to desire: a hundred people who all want a rose perfume will have a hundred different fantasies or conceptions of what their ideal rose will be, but they still want a rose, and the flower has versatility in its universality: whether you’re sixteen, forty-six, or seventy-six, there is a rose for you. There is no better symbol of the eternal and very human desire for both a sense of individuality and the reassurance of conformity. Besides this, there is a pleasing element of economic equality that is not often found in perfumery now: it is possible to find a rose perfume for every budget—not just one, but multiple options. For every Creed and Roja Dove rose scent over £300 there is a Pacifica (Persian Rose roll-on, $12) or a Lush (Rose Jam solid perfume, £10).
If, as Marshall McLuhan says in The Medium is the Massage, “the book is an extension of the eye … clothing, an extension of the skin” then perfume is the rightful extension of the nose. As he goes on to note that humans needing writing as a visual confirmation of the aural, it can be said that the rose goes beyond the boundaries of both written, verbal, and even artistic language by communicating visually and in an olfactory sense. Besides the myriad scented personas given above, the colours themselves have long had meanings attached to them. According to florist Bloom & Wild, “The meaning of red roses is universally understood to be love and passion.”, while peach roses represent gratitude, and yellow, “warmth and happiness”, although they also note that in Victorian times, they “used to symbolise jealousy”. I still have a book from when I was young called Look and Learn, best described as McLuhan for children, which had a section called “A White Rose or Red?”, teaching us that, “Once upon a time, you had to be careful which flowers you chose to send to someone, because each kind and color of flower had a special meaning.” Such lessons over time—by which I mean millennia—ingrain in us a sense that other things, anything and everything, regardless of how you choose to perceive the world, convey meaning. As the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said, “we only think in signs”. And while it is certain that there must have been a starting point, so to speak, where the rose was only beheld as what it physically is and no more, cultural history shows that it did not take long for the various meanings ascribed to it to overtake its mere form. In that sense, perfume is not just the extension of the nose, but the attempt to create various signs; the manifestation of exponential thought.
We have long known the rose to be symbolic in painting, such as the National Galleries Scotland’s description of Mary in the garden in Botticelli’s The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child: “the bower of thornless roses refers to her Immaculate Conception as the Mother of God, born without original sin”, as well as in religion and history, for example the Roman celebration of Rosalia, described in the Oxford Classical Dictionary as date-shifting festivals, such as “commemorations of the dead, also called dies rosationis, when … family members met at the grave and decked it with roses.” And in 2015, a new variety of rose (the “WB Yeats”) was named for poet William Butler Yeats, in honor of his 150th anniversary, his works often featuring the flower as a recurring theme (not least in part because Yeats had been a Rosicrucian). It is little wonder that the rose remains so prominent and persistent in perfumery. Whether or not the average consumer knows anything about its long history, such objects have a way of being passed along in the collective unconscious, reappearing with a new symbolism for different eras.
“Loveliness extreme.” reads the following line of the Stein poem, and extreme it is: what other flower in perfumery has revealed itself to be—kaleidoscope-like—an almost infinite variety of olfactory thought and desire?
In William James’s The Principles of Psychology, he says “do we not get the same olfactory sensation no matter how many times we put our nose to the same flask of cologne? … what is got twice is the same OBJECT … we smell the same objective perfume.” Yes, we do technically smell the same scent. But the olfactory sensation would not necessarily be the same, if one person were able to register a certain note, and another not, as in the case of those anosmic to musk—how could it be said that the latter was experiencing the same sensation?
As a generalization, James’s rhetorical question makes sense. Our bodies and its processes are generally the same, but it is much more common knowledge now that each body can have nuances in individual function, whether it be more sensitive to processes, or disabled by ones that do not work in a medically complete manner. And all this comes before the mental processing of the physical, even though it takes place in seconds. So perhaps we must look at first part of what James says as a dated view, not untrue, but not quite the homogenous start to experience that he puts forth. The object is the same, but from the moment we observe it, the building blocks formed by the physical senses start to create different patterns—the subjective. This experience that causes waves like those around a far-off oasis—personal taste, memories, and imagination rising from the object itself that shapes our unique perspectives: of books, art, and of these bottled scents. We do not simply learn about the world by memorizing the things we encounter, as if it were simply an inventory—rather, we unconsciously archive, the connectivity between experience, people, and objects constantly at work, reshaping and making sense of the narratives of our lives. From Cendrars and Nin, to Berger and our own experiences, perfume tells age-old stories—but with each new one, reinterprets them as unique to us, letting us delight in discovering ourselves.
As I go through this piece and make small adjustments, I wear the vetiver, woods, and musk of Lalique’s Encre Noire (black ink) pour homme, a nod to both the olfactory and writing processes—for the calligraphers and typists among you, there is also Comme des Garçons’ CDG 2 and Parfumerie Particulière’s Type Writer, equally deep ink-like scents. The dark but sheer blend reminds me of being a child no more than three or four, playing at writing: scratching out nonsensical sentences with a brass fountain pen, taking pleasure in dipping it into a glass jar of black Pelican ink that sat on my father’s desk; invariably breaking most the nibs. The object and the experience—the memories that reverberate from it in similar olfactory objects are the ones that always bring us back to comfort, pleasure, and desire.