Sunday, February 14, 2010

More notes on perfume, pun intended, by request

blue hourA couple of weeks ago John and I were driving home at dusk and he told me about a cryptic monologue his friend Steve had delivered on a recent evening, about that hour when the sky goes deep blue and the tree branches look black against it (I've always loved the silhouette of trees at dusk) and how it's the saddest hour of the day. I smiled and told John that there's a classic, well-loved perfume called L'Heure Bleue supposedly inspired by that hour and considered to be a beautiful and melancholy scent. He was intrigued that a smell could be melancholy.

At the time of our conversation I hadn't yet smelled the perfume. But recently I had a few minutes to kill after work and I wandered through the beauty counters at Sak's. I wanted to try some of the older Guerlain and Dior scents they don't carry at Sephora and stuff, but I saw a lot of bottles sitting out and nothing to test them on. Someone saw me poking around and asked if I was looking for something and I said, Yes, did they have any paper smelling strips? The old bitch gave me a thousand-yard stare. So I was like, "...for perfume?" She kind of sighed and idly opened a few drawers and then said "We're out, just use a tissue, it smells better anyway." (???) So the first time I smelled L'Heure Bleue, it was sprayed on a Kleenex.

There's something inscrutably complex and antique about all the old Guerlain scents, something that comes across as reference old lady -- and I don't mean that in the "ew, gross, nursing home" way that girls who wear Pink Sugar would mean it, I mean that especially at first sniff you have the strong impression that some older woman from your past wore it, if not your actual grandmother. At this point, relatively early in my perfume education, I find them intriguing but difficult, evocative but hard to imagine wearing.

Lo and behold, this morning John gifted me with a gorgeously wrapped (reptilian green paper with a red ribbon, tulle poof and a little fake violet) gold box of L'Heure Bleue (purchased from Harvard Square's adorable Colonial Drug). I spritzed a bit on my wrist so we could experience the magic & the melancholy on skin. In the first blast and for the first hour or so, the bygone-era miasma was strong, very powdery and almost medicinal, the diametrical opposite of a fruity body spray from Bath & Body Works. This is the acquired taste part, the part I can appreciate but that I'm not sure I want to smell like. Now, about four hours later (and after a brisk run, no less), my wrist smells rather delicious -- quite like that sweet, smoky scent in the air when it's cold outside (which I've always associated more with snow than fire), and the faintest hint of vanilla at the edge of perception. Need to spend some more time with this one.

So, remember how I said Angel smells like bug spray? I know why! Imported silks were once wrapped in patchouli leaves to keep away moths, because patchouli has a camphoraceous smell, and insects hate the small of camphor. (What does camphor smell like? Carmex. And moth balls.) The scent rubbed off on the silk and came to be associated with luxury, so rich women wanted to smell like it, and patchouli was repurposed in perfume. (I don't know why it was later appropriated by hippies and potheads.) Angel is constructed as a candy-sweet fruity floral overlaid on a masculine patchouli base, which is why, to my nose, it smells like raspberry cordials and bug spray. (NB: I love it.)

Some more recent purchases:

Envy: As previously mentioned. This is a frosty green floral that smells like women more important than you. If I ever had cause to wear a suit, this is what I'd wear with it. Downside: It doesn't last very long on me.

Parfum D'Ete: Another Kenzo purchase, this is also a green floral but with a friendlier more open nature.

Some more perfumes I want:

Broadway Nite: This brand (Bond No. 9) is too expensive for me (>$100 for the smallest bottle) so I need to hold out for a gift or a good reason to treat myself. Broadway Nite, as the name suggests, is bright, trashy and brassy, reminiscent of the 80s, like what "Mama's Fallen Angel" would have worn in that song by Poison.

Pure White Linen: Clean, breezy, summery. I want to wear this with the gauzy white linen lounge pants I've had for three+ years and have yet to wear, because I'm sure once I do I will ruin them. This one is tres affordable so it won't be long now.

For further consideration:

Hypnotic Poison: Heavy, overtly sultry orientals don't feel at all like my style (or that of anyone I know, really) but it seems like I need something on this end of the spectrum to round out my collection. This is readily available so I'll keep sniffing until I figure out if it might suit me.

(Photo credit: Ctd 2005)


  1. Love that photo. And yes, I agree, that time of the evening is the saddest hour of the day. I've had that sensation about that time of day since childhood.

    Regarding patchouli and hippies: a poet friend commented once that patchouli has been popular among artist cultures for at least several generations. I'm not sure of any source of documentation for this, other than maybe anecdotal stuff she'd heard/read, and her own general impressions, and I didn't ask in detail. Surely it's remained popular among successive generations of artist/hippie-ish types, punk-rockers during the 80's and 90's, whoever the 21st century equivalent people are, etc.

    As to why that might be, I don't have a strong theory. I discount speculation that patchouli (or incense, for that matter) was used to disguise the smell of certain botanical contraband -- most of the people I know who have used "substances" haven't been too paranoid about getting caught.

    It's probably just been popular because it's a highly aromatic and somewhat earthy smell, doesn't smell particularly muskish or industrial, and artist cultures tend to be peopled with people who enjoy pleasures of the senses. This is my own offhand guess anyway.

  2. I love angel.... and Lolita Lempicker!

  3. I liked Angel before, and after reading your description of it, I like it even more.

  4. I like Lolita Lempicka too, and in fact, Kathy, you should try it as an alternative to Angel -- it's a touch too licoricey for me but I bet you'd like it! And the bottle is beautiful.

    Lyle, I've heard that for some people the smell of patchouli and the smell of pot are so intertwined it's difficult for them to tell the difference. :)

  5. wow, gorgeous writing about l'heure bleue! i like the notion that cold weather smells smoky. i have to pause here though and admit to a touch of skepticism about the metaphors people use to describe smells. as evocative and poetic as they are (a fave: pencil scents in red wine), are they always accurate? is there sometime a power of narration happening, a fantasy tale spun by a good writer we are only too happy to come along on?

    I'll add that I am notoriously bad at describing scents. like autistic bad. so that may have a lot to do with me thinking this! :)

  6. Chris, I encourage a healthy dose of skepticism in these matters (e.g., if everyone at the table claims to smell it but you, it might be an emperor's clothes type of deal) ... but I also think some of it is just training. After reading a shit-ton about perfume in the past couple of months I'm getting much better at picking out notes and describing scents, whereas before I basically only knew if I liked something or didn't. Part of it is pattern recognition and you need to smell a lot of perfumes before larger patterns emerge.

    Also, unlike wine, where a lot of what happens is basically accidental (depending on the weather and the soil in a given year, etc.), perfume is created from the bottom up in order to smell like something. So it's not like you're just discovering a substance and trying to impose real smells upon it. If a perfume contains a material that smells like X (be it smoky or rosy or peachy) the perfume is probably going to smell more or less, to some degree, like X.

    The best perfumes, however, don't just smell like X + Y + Z (e.g. smoke plus rose plus peach) but some fourth thing that didn't exist before, like the difference between black and white stripes and gray. I remember once making a salad with spinach, grapefruit and avocado and marveling that it tasted exactly like its parts and nothing more, which when you think about it, rarely happens in cooking. (Cake doesn't taste like flour and sugar and eggs.)

    Anyway we should go sniff together sometime!

  7. I honestly don't think I could ever confuse patchouli with wonder weed -- patchouli, to me, seems to have a slightly softer edge, and a little bit deeper fuller body to it. May also have to do with the fact that all the patchouli I've smelled has been vaporized oil, rather than smoke.

    On the other hand, one time I visited a friend of somewhat pagan/wiccan leanings, who was burning some sprigs of fresh sage in her house, and that had me fooled for a minute, till I asked her what it was and she told me it was just sage. There's apparently a type of sage, scientific name Salvia divinorum, native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico, which has been found to have marked mind-dancing effects.

    Word Verification is "untsing". Sounds like some new type of Olympic event. "And the Gold Medal in men's long-distance untsing goes to..."

  8. Interesting! I think I've heard some people perceive sage as a vaguely sweaty smell, though cumin mostly has the monopoly on that.

    The sage and mesquite that grows in the desert where I grew up (El Paso) makes for the most incredible smell when it rains. I was heartbroken when I learned rain doesn't smell like that everywhere.

  9. Chris: pencil scents in red wine is absolutely true, or at least, can be. Pencil shavings, really–I first encountered them in an organic Washington state Merlot (Powers) – it is unmistakable. French wine often uses the term 'terroir' to indicate the aromas imbued by the microclimate–these are typically, as you might imagine, more reflective of the soil than anything else - wet leaves, mushrooms, truffles, tree bark (a lot of these in Northern Rhone wines, for example.) Of course my personal (un)favorite is the aroma most commonly associated with German Scheurebe: "cat piss." I always thought that this was fanciful invention, but only because I didn't own a cat, yet. Once I did, oh woe is me, I appreciated Scheurebe more, and less, at the same time.

    Sometimes it is pure invention and (forgive me) poetic license–but not always. Inglenook Hearty Red Burgundy might have wafting aromas of early Spring mornings, but that's only because it smells like the vinegar that you soak your Springtime Easter eggs in.

  10. AQB: "Cat piss" is also a perfume note! Really!

    Yeah I think part of it is just a matter of paying attention. I've definitely smelled/tasted weird stuff like cedar and (I swear to god) hot dogs with mustard in wines. Sometimes I think when people refuse to acknowledge stuff like that, they're just being stubborn, like they've just decided that wine smells like fermented grapes, period.

  11. Civet indeed. I've worn the same scent for years. I never tell anyone what it is. I just pretend it's my natural smell. But I wear it so rarely and I'm offended when I'm confronted with perfume in a small office or elevator or train. I spray mine on my sheets even though I bought it in Paris and bog knows when I'll get to Paris again or be able to afford another bottle. I know exactly what's in it.

    I recently bought a small bottle of oil that smells like tomato vines and dirt. My son says it smells like dog. And old hippies.

    Nice post.

  12. I hope I get to smell it some day, R.

    Was the tomato dirt oil from CB I Hate Perfumes?

  13. Elisa, they used to say of former baseball player and then manager Lou Piniella that Lou "could talk about hitting all night long." Whether you'd literally want to stay up all night, would it be possible to say something similar about you when it comes to perfume/scents?

    Goofy question, but I have my reasons.

  14. Staying up all night gives me bad face days, but theoretically, yes, I could talk about perfume for a long time, especially if I actually had a bunch of perfume around to aid the discussion. That sounds rather joyous: a perfume party. Though it would devolve into a noxious cloud at some point I guess.

  15. Yep, I Hate Perfumes :)

    ps. Mark, I miss Sweet Lou
    Seattle Baseball Worshiper