I basically called my mom for help. Except when I say mom, I mean an esthetician.
I would say I have a decent amount of perfume. I’ve definitely collected a few bottles here and there. My collection is pretty normal, though. See?
The truth is that between makeup and perfume, I think perfume would just edge it out for me.
It’s partly association. I have family from all over the world, so perfume, handed over in a duty-free plastic bag, is symbolic to me of travel: mysterious 3 A.M. arrivals, flurries of conversation in foreign languages, and all the attendant glamour of Grown Up Stuff.
Less whimsically, I am also excruciatingly lazy, and while on a bad day anything fancier than a swipe of lip balm is beyond my skill set, I can pretty much always manage a spritz of perfume. And if I can manage that, I can turn Sickly Ellen into Fresh-Faced Ellen and Mousey Ellen into Tigress Ellen, and things start looking up.
Perfume obviously won’t transform you physically, but it can perform minor miracles in how you feel as you present yourself to the world.
Before we get started, I should say that I am an enthusiastic amateur in the world of perfume, so you won’t hear me using terms like "sillage" or "aldehydes." If you are interested and want to throw yourself down the perfume rabbit hole, I urge you to go to the website Bois De Jasmin. It is an amazing resource by an amazing writer with a stunning breadth of knowledge on everything to do with perfume. The following are simply my favourites.
For The Person Who Effortlessly Has Her Act Together
These are what I use when I am tired and frazzled, but need the world to think I am a freshly-laundered angel of competence. The kind of person who I imagine lives in ballet flats and crisp white shirts and knows 50 ways to tie a scarf. (Is this you? I hate you, but I also need you to teach me your ways. I bet you speak, like, five languages, too.) They’re not the most complex scents, but they are probably what I reach for most often.
Philosophy's Amazing Grace is really popular, and for good reason. It smells like crisp laundry, clean skin, and fresh raspberries on me. It’s pleasant and soft right from the start, and it stays that way. A coworker once complimented me on it, before saying he needed to buy some for his sister, so it’s probably not a hot date perfume, but lovely nonetheless.
Clair de Musc by Serge Lutens is a delicate white musk. If you went to high school in the mid-nineties, I just lost you to a Body Shop flashback. But wait! This is Serge Lutens! I had the same reservations, but this is much less sweet and overpowering, not especially complex on me (other reviewers have noticed bergamot and iris) but gentle and comforting.
For The Eccentric, Bookish Genius
This is what you want on a grey, chilly day when more than anything you’d rather be indoors, only looking up from your weighty book to utter something brilliant or reach for your cup of tea.
Serge Noire: I know, more Serge Lutens. I am an unabashed fan. This is an odd one, and definitely something you want to sample before buying. The press release describes it in the dramatic terms of a phoenix rising from the ashes, whereas many reviewers complain that it smells like onions and sweat. Ouch.
On me, it definitely starts out with cumin, which I suppose is where some people find sweat, but it’s not an abrasive spiciness. It quickly settles into a warm, rounded scent, just spicy enough to be interesting, but really a gorgeous, comforting wool sweater of a perfume overall.
I only have samples of these--not full bottles--but they are so perfect for the bookish vibe that I wanted to mention them: Russian Caravan Tea and Burning Leaves by CB I Hate Perfume and Paper Passion by Steidl.
The CB I Hate Perfume ones are really hard to write much about because they smell exactly like their names. Burning Leaves smells just like a bonfire, with maybe the tiniest bit of maple syrup underneath. Russian Caravan Tea smells like sweet, slightly stewed black tea. It’s eerie.
Paper Passion is a strange one. Nobody has ever said “damn, you smell like a book” when I’ve worn it, but it’s received many compliments. If you know what you’re looking for, you can definitely get paper and ink from it, not musty but slightly talcum powder-y. It’s actually lovely.
For the Regal Lover of Vintage
AKA The Big Guns. These are the perfumes I get most excited to tell people about. They have stories, they’re complicated, they’re not for everyone. When I feel like a worthless grub and the world’s got me down, these are my medicine.
Habanita was created in 1924, and was designed not for the skin but to perfume women’s cigarettes. If a scent that was designed to mask the smell of flappers’ cigarettes doesn’t intrigue you even a little bit, well I just don’t know what to tell you. Combine that with the name, and my mind starts to swirl with jazz, smoke, Cuba, wild dancing, cigars rolled on thighs and… oh lord, what was I even talking about?
It starts slightly harsh on my skin--wood and smoke--and then softens into something peachier, but it never really settles down all the way. It keeps that dark edge, and that’s why I love it so much.
Le Dix is a much cheerier scent, and a sentimental favourite. I bought it in my early twenties because I loved the idea of it, but it lived in a drawer because it never smelled right until I hit my thirties. Now, I think it smells beautiful.
It’s a strong, bright violet perfume, created in the late 1940s. To me, it’s sunny and glamorous, with a little bit of soap and hard candy in there for good measure. It’s like a hug from a very elegant older relative; it doesn’t ooze sex, more a brisk, old-fashioned happiness.
Lipstick Rose by Frederic Malle. Not actually a vintage perfume at all, but very much has that vibe. Unsurprisingly, it smells like lipstick and roses, with a bit of violet and makeup in there, too. It’s flowery on top, but with a creamy, waxy base, and it’s unbelievably gorgeous.
For the Dirty Strumpet
If you only judged perfume by its advertising, you would think it was 99% about getting laid, and 1% being some bitch on a yacht. I hope I’ve shown that I use perfume for a lot more than that, but c’mon. I also have needs.
Putain des Palaces. Frankly, you could put puddle water in a bottle and name it Hotel Slut; I’m probably still going to buy it. Luckily, this perfume is actually stunning. Also, it’s by the very cool Etat Libre D’Orange, and there’s nothing more arousing than saying “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it," is there?
Despite the name, it’s not an overtly slutty perfume on me. I must have prudish skin chemistry, because after an initial blast of spice and Playdoh (but nicer than that sounds) it fades into a soft, face-powder smell that reminds me a little bit of Jean Paul Gaultier. It also lasts a very long time–-I put it on before work, and it’s still there when I get home in the evening.
And then finally Musc Ravageur; left until last because it’s probably my all-time favourite. I love the clean presentation of the bottle, and the ridiculousness of the name. I love how it starts out harsh and masculine ("musky" in the truest sense) and then dries down into warm, sexy skin. I know that musk is a very polarizing scent, but if you like it at all, I say give it a try. But also don’t, because it’s mine.
I am all out of words! And I didn’t even get to write about what to wear for Wealthy Riviera Brat, Brisk Scandinavian Hermit, or Disaffected Berlin Photographer. I really hope you enjoyed this tour of my perfume collection, and I’ve maybe tempted you to try a couple of them. I can’t wait to hear your recommendations in the comments!