Sunday, July 18, 2010

Perfume Love

The quickest route to sweet yesterday is perfume. Each spring when I bury my face in fresh picked lilacs from the backyard, it is suddenly Flag Day at Hildreth Elementary School and I am outside under the flag pole reciting Flanders Field in ankle socks that have slipped down inside my shoes. The sky is always blue, the day is always perfect. Of course, in a New England spring, lilacs have long passed by June 14th but that is the special gift of fragrance; it elicits a place and evokes feelings and emotions that once existed for an entire span of a season, a full year, or a brief and shining Camelot of one's own.

An actress of a certain age that I admire said that she wept openly upon entering a cab in New York which was filled with evidence of a prior unseen occupant - the perfume scent of her beloved and long departed grandmother. Perfume creates time travel with far more horsepower than music or old photographs. If you want to know who you were once upon a time, open a bottle of yesterday and you will soon be wearing the shoes of your younger self. It's a poignant pull and one of the many reasons why I love fragrance.

My introduction to perfume was the day my grandmother pulled down a cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris from a shelf in her linen closet. It had been a gift she detested and was about to pour it down the sink when she let me sniff it. I thought it had an intriguing scent but because she clearly disliked it, I wrinkled my nose in support and then enjoyed watching it disappear down the drain. My grandmother always smelled fresh, like lemons but when she was dressed to go out, she wore the single flower scent of Lily of the Valley.

My next foray into the perfume world was when I would secretly open and smell my mother's Woodhue. It was a warm fragrance which was very different and more complex than my grandmother's. I haven't smelled it since but I'm sure if I did, it would remind me of my longing for my mother's closeness and how beautiful she was to my little girl's heart.

My maternal grandmother lived in a city apartment and took buses to her job and exposed to me the power of Jean Nate splash. It made a hot day bearable. Her regular scent was White Shoulders and anytime I smell its heady violets now, I am transported to her bedroom with the 30's style vanity and round mirror and the hot sunlight edging through the slats of closed venetian blinds.

A former chic boss sprayed her office everyday with Elizabeth Arden's Eau Fraiche. It had become a cult favorite only asked for privately at the counter and drawn from a cabinet in the back. It's not really a perfume but a form of toilette water that lingers just a short while and is meant to be a cooling refreshment. My boss bought me my first bottle of Eau Fraiche and advised me to keep it in the refrigerator for summer spritzing. I always have a bottle on hand and share it with a friend who brings an empty atomizer to my house every summer for a fill-up. Eau Fraiche takes my friend back to her "disco days" of yore. I'm glad I can help her make that trip.

As a teenager, fragrance was always tucked into my Christmas stocking and I began to feel the power of perfume as a feminine tool. For a time, I wore Chantilly and my high school boyfriend loved it and begged me to wear more of it. I was conservative then and afraid of overdoing it or afraid I couldn't handle the reaction of my boyfriend to even more of what he liked.

With perfume, we have supernatural powers. We can "haunt" people we love or more specifically, people whom we want to love us. I was at Jordan Marsh in 1978, the day Estee Lauder's White Linen hit the selling floor. It was fresh and clean and people began to associate it with me. My ex said he smelled it on his sweaters after our dates. This time I used more.

With perfume, we can become immortal, at least for a time. Our scents may linger in our closets and on our clothes long after we are gone. How dear to pick up a scarf that belonged to a beloved relative and smell her scent one last time. Another friend of mine experienced this and kept her mother's scarf in a plastic bag until she found the perfume online. Now she wears both the scarf and the perfume whenever she needs her mother.

Today, I am fickle when it comes to my perfume choices. Chanel # 5 is my go-to fragrance, especially in the winter. It's warmth and comfort envelope me like my favorite wool boucle coat. It's familiar and soft and I know I am always right when I have it on. But I am not true to #5. Lately I've been cheating with a new love, Balenciaga's latest, shown above. It's been my favorite thing to wear this summer, as much as my well-loved linen cargo pants, my silk Pucci headband, and my rattan tote. The bottle is lead crystal with a charming cracked egg stopper. It feels great in the hand and meets all esthetic requirements, a very important perfume criteria for me.

I don't know a lot about base notes, dry-downs, etc. but I do know that Balenciaga begins as a symphony on my skin, with brass trumpets and horns. Soon, it turns into a delicate harp where it floats until the next day. There's a flute of a peppery note in the beginning but if I wait just a half hour, it melds into a soft ethereal ever-present delicacy that cheers me during a tough day at the office and reminds me of who I truly am. I cannot be without it right now even at bedtime. It's that good. Perhaps the violet in it calls out to that 30's style bedroom where I am able to find my grandmother once more dabbing on her White Shoulders and smiling at me from her vanity mirror on a hot summer day. Or maybe perfume is just water that smells nice. When you find the fragrance that does what Balenciaga is doing for me this summer, perhaps you will know the truth.


  1. This is a gorgeous post. I have a lifelong love of fragrance too and can remember scents worn by older family members and also my mother when I was young.

    White Linen was one of my first loves too. I had a thing for Estee Lauder as I wore Pleasures for most of my twenties. I have just started wearing Chanel No. 5 this year (as in having been given my own bottle, I've been spritzing myself with testers for years!) and love it.

    I was just thinking a few days ago about the same thing you write of - how perfume can take you back, in an instant, to a past date or person. For fun one day I might go for a stroll through the perfume department and smell perfumes of the past, just to remember.

    I love planning shopping trips that aren't going to cost me a cent - very thrifty in these recessionary times!

  2. Such a lovely post. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear White Shoulders when my husband and I met. Maybe I should give it another try, he doesn't care for the fragrance I wear now, Escada Into the Blue, but he says he can't tolerate any fragrances, hair spray, lotions, ect. due to the effects of Chemotherapy. Maybe someday.