Big Time Sensuality


The scent of a woman who always follows her nose

One could dine for weeks on the cheeky truisms of Coco Chanel, if Pinterest alone is any indication. There’s the one about wearing all black, the one about restraint, the one about good shoes, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

The one that’s stuck with me lately though, is this:

“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that bold statement, not the least of which is the implication that perfume is the ultimate feminine power play. I like to think of it from another angle– that perfume, seen by many as an indulgence, a frivolity, is actually essential for our survival. To wear perfume is to assert oneself. It is demanding to be be noticed, to present an identity of our own construction. It is to arrive with confidence, and to leave behind a memorable trace.

Someone else (some useless twat, I think) said that it’s a sad woman who buys her own perfume, but I can’t think of a more worthy mode of self care. Even more intimate than the finest lingerie, perfume adapts to our skin, reshapes its molecules to play with ours, behaving like a pheromone– our most primal essence. A spritz of perfume every day is a gift to myself, a singular moment of unabashed beauty and delight that belongs only to me.

I don’t know when exactly I became such a perfume head, but my Libran nature makes me a natural born aesthete, drawn to beauty, sensuality, and luxury. Given my shopping habits and hedonic food and wine consumption, it’s hard to argue with the stars. 

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, at Somerset House

Here in London, the show of the summer is a marvelous experiential exhibition at Somerset House, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent. Following an extravagant lunch at Spring to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday presented the perfect moment to pay a visit to the galleries during opening week. Several of the perfumes so haunted me, I had to return for a second round (and, ahem, a purchase of one of the exhibition scents…) this Saturday afternoon.

Opening with a sort of history lesson, the show presents one perfume per decade of the twentieth century that recalls pivotal cultural moments as told by scent. Chanel No. 5, introduced in 1921 was, and remains as modern as it is timeless. Yves Saint Laurent’s heady and breathy oriental Opium was launched in 1977 with an unforgettable campaign featuring Jerry Hall, and an opening party that ended, obviously, at Studio 54. One sniff of CkOne and I was back in high school, wearing my Dad’s flannel over a vintage prom dress, pasting cutouts of those gorgeous freaks shot in black and white into collages.


Perfume’s curator Claire Catterall, collaborating with perfume writer Lizzie Ostrom, considers perfumery an art rooted in narrative, much more closely related to literature and film than to fashion:

“Perfume has everything: it’s about our art, and commerce. It’s about intimacy and relationships and our place in the world,” says Catterall. “It’s about hopes, aspirations, memories and emotion.”

This is the central thesis of the show, reinforced by presenting the ten featured contemporary scents in the context of designed vignettes–a tangle of cotton sheets on an unmade bed, linen curtains billowing from an open window, a nook of church confessionals. Perhaps these seem a bit, shall we say, ‘on the nose.’ While that may be true, we come to truly understand the powerful sensual connections to places and moments. We are transported through time and space, perhaps to places we’ve never been; the scent is both journey and destination.

Perfume, then, is much more than an accessory. It's a way to explore many different worlds, indeed many different selves. Perfumes are more evocation than simulation. We learn that perfumer Mark Buxton’s brief for Comme des Garçons 2 was, obliquely, to create an impression of a “swimming pool full of ink.” Contemporary perfumery can often challenge the boundaries of wearability, constructed increasingly with synthetic building blocks meant to express concepts like ‘washing drying in the wind,’ ‘mother’s milk,’ or even, in the case of Killian Wells’s scent Dark Ride, a water theme park.

Now, as Catterall and Ostrom muse in the show’s remarks, “…we ask more of our perfume. We want to be told a story, to be taken to new places, or challenged in the way we think or behave.” 

Perfume is our emotional zeitgeist, conjuring moments and memories so essential to who we are that the map of our lives is made by following our nose.

Scents of Place: A life in perfume

- On special occasions, my grandma wore Chanel No. 5, the height of sophistication. When getting ready, she’d give me a tiny spritz “on my pulse points” that I would relish all day, sniffing at my wrists. For everyday wear, she’d splash on Jean Naté body spray, a lighter and citrusy scent. I wish I could remember her silken powder, which smelled like her wedding bouquet– pure lily of the valley.

- My Mom was known for her signature scent, Obsession. The perfume launched in 1985 and though I think she came to it a few years later, it was still very much in its heyday, and I remember thinking it was impossibly luxurious. The warm amber and vanilla tones followed her everywhere- her coats, her scarves; everyone complimented her on it. At some point, she adopted Eternity in the warmer months. I imagine that my own love for spicy oriental scents is deeply rooted in my memory of Obsession. 

- The first scent I remember having for myself is Love's Baby Soft, its pink bottle a totem of femme. I was beyond thrilled to get the perfume and powder set one Christmas. This piece on The Awl makes the allure of the scent– what they call ‘sexy baby’– a memory that’s tarnished in a much cringier way than hoped. Still, I think I'd like it even today, powdery and light, like a whisper.


- A few years later, in 1989, my tween cohort leveled up to what may have been one of the first of an unrelenting trend of pop stars expanding their commercial empire.

Debbie Gibson’s “Electric Youth,” with its signature hot pink squiggle was THE epitome of awesome, as much of a must-have as Debbie’s hat. Alas I never managed to coerce my parents into buying it for me, but goddam if I didn’t hoard all the samples yanked from inside my Seventeen subscription.

 Oh god.

Oh god.

- In the later 90’s, Demeter Fragrance Library released its line of scents meant to reproduce everyday smells: Dirt, Grass, Gin + Tonic were among its most famous. This trend inspired me to visit a perfume studio, Desana, in a lovely brownstone shopfront on Newbury Street in Boston. This was probably the turning point for me; the entrancing alchemy of imagining the possibilities of a bespoke scent, and mixing this and that until it was just right. My first blend had a base of deep chocolate and vanilla, a note of bergamot, and a gentle powdery nose. It’s what I wore the first winter I spent in Paris. That summer I developed a scent based on the distinct green snap of tomato stems, one of my favorite smells on the planet. I wish I could recreate both of these.

- When I started making real money, buying Marc Jacobs first scent, full of glamorous yet bright gardenia and ginger gave me the impression that high fashion was suddenly accessible. That little luxury went a long way to making me feel strong and self-possessed.

- Looking for a new scent for the occasion of my friend Leigh’s late-August wedding, I discovered Keiko Mechiri's Oliban. It’s an incredibly sexy scent- resinous with Frankincense and swarthy with Damascena rose. In the summer, its honey notes are carried forward by perspiration, reminding me of that sweltering bacchanalian afternoon of drinking and dancing and behaving regrettably. I still wear Oliban today, mostly in winter, loving the way it soaks into my cashmere sweaters, wild at heart, but refined and grown-up. 

- Somehow Thierry Mugler’s Angel became my travel perfume, only ever bought in the small size from the impulse buy displays lining the queue at Sephora (of which there are none in London, the horror!) Picked up from a visit to my friend Alex's in Paris, I fell in love with its “scent of sticky candyfloss, mixed with a gentle hint of debauchery."  

- Missing the burst of lilacs in spring back home, I now obsess over A Lilac A Day from Vilhelm, which transplants me to the enormous shrub in the very back of my grandparents garden. I'm not sure there's a perfume that makes me happier. Featured in the Somerset House exhibition was En Passant, conceived by Olivia Giacobetti for the legendary perfumery house of Frèderic Malle. Also lilac-based, it is a clean and uncomplicated scent, a breath of promising spring air.

Writing about perfume feels like a natural extension of writing about food and wine, so look forward to more of my scents-abilities here in the future.

I'd love to hear about your scent memories, or if you have a signature scent yourself.