There hasn’t been much formal discussion about what perfume is, what it means and how one can think about it. If you ask the average person what perfume is, you probably will get confused looks and no straight answers. From my experience asking this question, I can tell you that the most common answers are “what do you mean?”; “it’s what you put on to smell good…get the ladies/guys”; “huh?”.
Reading the fragrance forums and talking to perfume experts I learned that perfume is an art form that takes you places, inspires you and brings you joy. Indeed, perfume is an art form and it is something we put on to smell good at the same time. I think perfume is also something else – more significant than just a body freshener and more practical than a piece of art.
Unlike a Picasso painting, which is mainly a piece of art, Shalimar is different things all at the same time. We can think of Shalimar and any other fragrance in at least three different ways: something we just put on, a piece of art, and an accessory, for lack of a better word, that completes an image.
Something We Just Put On
“I get up in the morning, shower, brush my teeth, put some cologne and get dressed. … It’s uhm, what was it called… Acqua di Gio. Why that one? I don’t know, because it smells fresh… My girlfriend gave me for my birthday and she said it’s on some bestseller list, so I guess it must be good.”
This is my friend John. He wears perfume because it smells good. John would wear Acqua di Gio for any occasion because “it smells fresh and you can’t go wrong with that”. He doesn’t think much about it and if you replace his Acqua di Gio with D&G’s Light Blue pour Homme, he wouldn’t care and in extreme cases may not notice.
John is like most guys – he looks at fragrance as something practical, which doesn’t require much thought. It’s like a toothpaste – whether it’s Crest or Colgate, it doesn’t make much difference – it tastes minty and gives you fresh breath.
Girls tend to be more selective about their fragrances but the majority of them still see them as something they put on to smell good. My friend Jennifer likes D&G pour Femme because it smells “nice”. She thinks Chanel No. 5 is “stinky” and for “old ladies”.
Jennifer is not much different than John. When they go shopping for fragrance (John usually wouldn’t, he wouldn’t think about it) they usually go for whatever the sales associates recommend – usually the safest choices, the bestsellers, the generic smelling stuff.
I don’t mean to sound condescending but whenever you look at fragrance as a near-commodity, you tend to go for whatever works. My experience tells me this is how a big portion of the population in North America sees perfume. Maybe this is why the generic smelling perfumes are also the bestsellers – they are safe and do the job.
Thinking this way about fragrance is not necessarily wrong. It is, however, somewhat limiting. Fragrance can be a lot more than just something that smells good. It takes, however, deeper interest and knowledge to know it.
Perfume as a Piece of Art
Fragrance connoisseurs see perfume as a piece of art. In its most genuine form it expresses creativity, tells a story and even defines a time period. Nina Ricci’s L’Air Du Temps, for example, represents the reconciliatory romanticism in the post war period in Europe. One can argue that Knize Ten is a quintessential scent of the 20’s, arguably defining the decade. Just like a painting, a perfume is an expression of creativity to convey a deeper message. Fragrance connoisseurs appreciate perfumes for their complexity, development and emotional impact. They debate the use of notes in the composition, how a fragrance fits within its olfactory family and how revolutionary/creative it is. Fragrance connoisseurs are not much different than wine connoisseurs or movie critics – they love their art and dissect it endlessly.
One of the dangers of thinking of perfume, or anything else, only as a piece of art is that it becomes the focal point in any ensemble or environment. Take the Statue of David in Gallerie dell’Accademia in Florence – it is the centrepiece and focal point in the gallery hall. Unless you are on the facility maintenance crew, you wouldn’t pay any attention to the floor or the walls surrounding it.
If we think of perfume as a piece of art, just like the Statue of David, then it should transcend time, seasonality and environment in general. The Statue of David looks great any season and in any environment. Does that mean that Chanel No. 5 or Cuir de Russie would smell great any season and in any environment? Not really. The reason why not is because perfume interacts with its environment. Oriental-spicy fragrances tend to become cloggy and overpowering in hot weather; light citrus-based scents would probably not be the best choice for the winter.
Many perfumes are created to be worn in a certain environment or to evoke a certain mood. I don’t think Dior Homme Intense was conceived to be worn in the gym or at the beach. Beauty of perfume is transcendent in isolation of its environment. Because perfume interacts with its environment, we may not experience it as the piece of art it is in isolation.
Perfume as an Accessory
Perfume can also be thought of as an accessory. In other words, they can be considered as something that contributes to the overall image the wearer is portraying.
In general, we perceive our environment by seeing, hearing, touching and smelling. Therefore, we form our first impression about an individual based on how they look, how they sound (or talk), and how they smell. The sense of touch may be limited during most public encounters, so it may not be fully utilized when forming initial perception.
Most people agree that looks are important and therefore, we dress appropriately for the situation. We, however, rarely give due consideration to our scent and whether it is appropriate for a certain situation. One of the reasons for this may be that we are generally inept to interpret and judge smell. We are much better at evaluating the subtleties of things we see than at evaluating things we smell.
When asked if a yellow or black dress is appropriate for a funeral, most people would agree that a black dress would be more appropriate and can, quite adequately, explain why. When asked if a floral or woodsy perfume is more appropriate for a funeral, most people stumble in making a decision. Even when they do decide which one is better, they struggle to explain why.
Even though perfume has not been given much consideration as an accessory enhancing one’s image, it can be a very powerful one. Wearing the right perfume in the right situation can complete experience and create powerful images. Therefore, perfume can serve a higher purpose than just making us smell good. If selected carefully, perfume can help us experience life in a richer way.