Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory. Catch a whiff of fresh-baked pie, or the shampoo a friend used in high school, and suddenly you’re transplanted back in time. You could see a picture taken at a specific moment, or hear a song that reminds you of a guy you used to date, but when you smell something—good or bad, it causes a visceral reaction unlike any other.
I have a sweatshirt that belonged to my grandfather, it smelled like him for years after he passed away. When I’d wear it, the scent would bring me back to the happy memories of planting snapdragons with him in his garden, or making gingerbread houses every December with my cousins in my grandma’s kitchen. I didn’t want to lose that connection to the past, and I feared that when the scent faded, the memories would fade as well. I can still remember those moments, but they aren’t as vivid, in some ways the lingering scent is like a crutch that eases you slowly out of grief. If by chance, we re-discover the unique fragrance of someone we loved, either from the perfume of a stranger, or from opening a box in the attic where the scent has been preserved, we experience that life all over again, it’s a bittersweet experience, and it’s why smell can be so meaningful.
I’ve had awful allergies all my life, it was a running joke that I couldn’t breathe through my nose for most of my childhood. I still feel like scent is the weakest of my senses, maybe that’s why I’ve always been so fond of perfume. When I was in Junior High I was all about body splash, specifically the Plumeria or Vanilla Bean scents from Bath & Body Works. To me, body splash is what teenage girls are supposed to smell like. The spray comes in plastic bottles, it’s icky sweet, and once the odor starts to fade what’s left is a not so pleasant chemical undertone—and that’s when you know it’s time to spray on some more!
If I smell Chanel Allure I am instantly seven years old, sitting on my mom’s bed watching her get ready as I wait for my favorite babysitter Tatiana to arrive with taped episodes of Kids Incorporated (she was the best). When I walk past someone wearing Navy perfume by Dana, I’m stuck in the nauseous heat of Miami in August, the smell mingles with the scent of dinner being served in the old age home where we’re visiting my grandmother. The smell still makes me sick — all I smell is nursing home food, it’s just part of the memory. There are hundreds of memories linked to scent in each of us, and when we choose a perfume it’s not just the pleasure of the smell, but it’s how each note makes a different impression on your brain based on experiences in your life.
Once I hit high school I started looking for a more mature scent, something in a pretty glass bottle. I went a little overboard when I discovered Poison by Christian Dior. It’s an incredibly strong scent and I layered it on, feeling mature, and mysterious, and dark. I still have a bottle of it, and sometimes I can’t help but spray some on just to feel the rush of memories it brings.
I think there are women who love perfume and women who hate it, I guess there are a lot of in-betweens too, but people usually have strong feelings about it in one way or another. On a job interview I was once asked by the woman I would be sharing an office with, if I would mind not wearing perfume, she was snapped at by her superior, but obviously she felt very strongly about it. I don’t think she could smell perfume on me, I usually don’t wear perfume to interviews, but I’m not sure what exactly constitutes perfume either. Do essential oils count? Some deodorants are really strong, even some hair products give off incredibly strong scents. Often when people hate perfume it’s due to an allergy, and I myself have had allergic reactions to perfume too. But humans have been dousing themselves with all sorts of aromas for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Perfume is such an intimate thing, there is a sensuality about it. The bottles, the way you mist it on, the gesture itself is romantic. There is a reason that a gift of perfume is meaningful. I’ve heard of lots of men who buy women perfume, but not too many who buy them moisturizer or eyeshadow. Scent in itself is sexy, pheromones, those chemicals in our sweat that another person may find alluring without even realizing, they’re scientific proof that humans are driven by their noses equally, if not more than, their eyes.
By college I was actively seeking out perfumes. I would go to Sephora, or Macy’s and spritz them on my wrists, my forearm, my neck, or any other accessible skin— because you have to try it on your own skin. The same perfume can smell different on every woman. Part of the beauty of perfume is that it mixes with your personal scent and they settle together, to work in harmony. I’ve tried on perfumes that I thought I would love based on the scent in the bottle, but on my skin they smelled awful. One of my favorite perfumes, La Dolce Vida by Dior, isn’t very pleasing sprayed from the bottle, but I love the way it smells on me at the end of the day.
Currently I alternate between two perfumes, Anna Sui’s Sui Dreams, and Lolita Lempicka’s signature scent. I also change things up with essential oils from C.O. Bigelow’s in Manhattan, and various other samples that I’ve collected along the way. I’ll never stop looking for new scents, you never know where you’re going to find them, but when you do, it can be like finding a whole new aspect of your personality.
What’s your signature scent? Do you hate perfume? Love it? How does it make you feel when you spray it on?