Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who are we Wearing Perfume for, really?

The above question often crops on perfume discussion fora, on which lovers of fragrances often give the resounding answer "for myself". While I can very well understand and embrace this achillean confidence which aficionados display, I have come to think of it in depth and postulate that there is a grain of self-persuasion in this. How much does perception -both quantitative and qualitative- of a fragrance by our entourage affects our decisions really?

First of all there is the easier factor of the two: quantity. No one wants to go overboard and overapply fragrance. The effect is generally considered repulsive instead of attractive and lately in cubicle-space environments it has started taking a very tangible turn for a perfume anti-mania. Reading on Bella Sugar, I came across this post in which the writer contemplates how her own habit of wearing Angel might be perceived after a smelly incident of another passenger on the commute.
What was most interesting was reading the comments of readers. One of them states:

"I wear what I like, the only person I may sometimes try to please is my boyfriend".
In a way this is almost the nullification of the usual statement that we only wear something for ourselves! Because only too often our other half might not agree with our perfume choices. There is also the desire to please that significant other, thus opting to wear something for their sake or shunning something due to their dislike towards it.
Another declares:
"I wear what I like...I don't think I ever overdo it either".
This is also loaded of the consiousness that applying a little more liberally might offend, which is to be avoided. How far that is from shunning an odour as well as the amount of odour we choose to emit?
This statement is also quite revealing:
"Everyone seems to get offended or in an uproar about something these days. So I just wear what I like and do not care. I would rather smell a nice perfume on a person than their own scent after a day's work."
The persecution mania after perfume wearers has piqued the interest of Perfume Shrine before, when a real incident in Canada gave us food for thought. In a streak of rebellion against too much political correctness one might be tempted to purposely do their own thing regardless.
"When I wear scents its purely for the thought of making me feel good and clean and feminine. If it depended on anybody else I wouldn't wear it. I could care less about luring someone in with womanly wiles, scents, whatever."
Please note the semiotics of "good", "clean", "feminine": perfume has a very demanding task to perform! Besides, although "clean" is a more or less objective term and "feel good" is perceived by the wearer -somewhat dependent on the other attributes, one feels- the term "feminine" is filled with nuance. By its nature it is defined through comparison and juxtaposition. It's not "female", but "feminine" ~who defines what is and what is not feminine?

On Beaut.ie blog, I came across another question: whether one influences one's partner in beauty and scent choice decisions. It is another very valid consideration! One does shape the preferences of one's significant other to some degree at least. Or the old adage if one didn't click with another, the two wouldn't be together applies.

Last but not least on the list of references, on Makeupalley member Winterwheat posted a fascinating quote about whether or not to wear perfume on a job interview:
"Female applicants fared best when wearing no perfume, next best when wearing typically masculine perfume. Both male and female applicants who wore typically feminine perfume did the worst. There's a second study in the same article that looks at the moderating role of sex of interviewer, and it turns out that female interviewers will be more forgiving of female applicants with typically feminine perfume, but male interviewers will not".

~Cczesny, S., & Stahlberg, D. (2002). The influence of gender-stereotyped perfumes on leadership attribution. (European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 815-828).

Perception and stereotypes are everything, it seems!

The matter of perfume acting as a powerful attraction amulet is rampant in folklore as well as modern pop culture. It is the most common question in discussion fora and emails. Whether there is any truth to it or not is matter for another article and it merits a lengthy discussion at that. The fact that it is accepted and thought upon by so many, however, indicates that there is a prevalent desire to subtly manipulate one’s milieu or sexual prey through the power of olfaction.
Every time we reach for something that has a perceived vibe of “old money” or being artsy we are responding to a need to assert our pedigree and good taste. When we reach for something warm, soft and cuddly we are transmitting our deeper need to be treated with tenderness and care. On those occassions when we pick the dynamo that will get us noticed across a room, we are not only secretly admitting a weakness to ourselves but tough it out through a means that is known only to us but perceptible to all. When we choose to wear something “hip”, we are secretly reverting to our high school uniform becoming a “me too” entity that is accepted for its integration capability. And last but not least, at those instants when we go for the weird and the antisocial we are marking our individual territory much like a feline who is segregating his area of dominance.

On another plane, we are also influenced by choices made for us through osmosis. There is something about peer pressue as well as its complete antithesis: differentiation among peers. They are both sides of the same coin, really: the axis is that in both cases the point of departure is the Other ~compliance or rebellion in relation to someone else.

So what is my point? That true, completely self-taken, insular decision on anything that has to do with taste is a rare thing. Almost like snow in August; even rarer, like a miracle by the Madonna of Lourdes.
The opinions we have heard, the compliments we received or the detractors we have endured, the memories we have of certain smells (and most importantly the sensory/sentimental value we have put upon them depending on the latter being pleasant or unpleasant), our eco-awareness or lack thereof, even our political decisions having to do with who we would like to give our money to, they all shape us. They all contribute in what we choose in the end.

So my theory goes than even if we love the smell of something as non-perfume-related as woodfire, this is not a pre-shaped gene that was passed on to us, nor a spontaneous decision that arose out of the blue, but a formative experience that has resulted in the manifestation of a specific sensibility.
In the words of John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main" (Meditation XVII). And no woman either, says Perfume Shrine.

Pic Ball Park Jebusite/Flickr. Pic of Clive Christian perfume courtesy of Living Scotsman.


  1. Insightful and beautifully written, E .

    If we are truthful with ourselves, then we freely admit the many mitigating factors which inform our choices.

    I moderate mine according to the needs of others, frequently-
    After all, I AM a people people, and work intimately with the terminally ill.
    It would be unthinkable for me to
    distress them any further; but by the same token, I dearly need my fragrant fix iin order to ground myself and steel myself agaionst the many emotional onslaughts with which I deal daily.

  2. Thanks a lot, dear I.

    What you so wisely say resonates with me as well: it is polite to think of those who have problems (I mean real problems with fragrances) and be accordingly considerate, but on the other hand our fragrant habit does help us go through the motions.

    A conundrum!

  3. donanicola15:45

    A very thoughtful treatment of this subject, E. I know what I love but I won't always wear what I love out of respect for those I will come into contact with. I work in a cube farm and have heard the odd disparaging comment about co workers fragrances which has made me feel rather sad for that co worker (though actually I think Opium at work might be a tad too much!). So my choice of what and how much to wear and when is influenced by other people but not my taste. You got me thinking about what I'd wear to a job interview (as I would need something to complete me!) and I think it would be a dab of what I have on today - 31 rue Cambon.

  4. Dear N,

    thank you for your most kind words.
    I appreciate your opinion, being one who actually works in such a type of office.
    Yes, it's a pity that scathing language is used for those people who wear fragrance at work :-(
    I believe the general advice for job interviews (corporate, at least)is to forego frags completely. But 31 RC is rather chic for that kind of thing: maybe if one only used a tiny dab?

  5. What a thoughtful article on the subject! As much as I claim that I wear fragrance "for myself," I care what others think (besides the sillage issue). An example is Guerlain Pamplelune. As much as I love this amazing fragrance in its entire development, I don't wear it out of the house. So many say Pamplelune turns to "cat pee." Never having owned a cat, I don't recognize that smell, and I'm afraid others may perceive Pamplelune as pee on me. *shudder* So yes, I cannot say I don't care how my scent choice comes across.

    Another example is Caron Tabac Blond. This scent seems suited to a tall, commanding woman. I am anything but -- petite, soft-spoken and conventionally feminine. So while I like TB, it would be a discordant note in my personal style, the presentation of the self to the world.

  6. Joan17:45

    On a day when I feel Lutensian but need to consider the fragrance sensitivity of others, I use a scented body lotion. The Musc Ravageur body lotion, for example, is identical to the perfume but somehow softer, I don't feel I am imposing on others while still enjoying the scent myself. I used to spray opium, angel, cinnabar, with abandon when I was younger, but now have adopted a less is more attitude in many areas.

  7. Dear Iris,

    what amazingly perfectly-put examples! Pamplelune is notoriously difficult and Tabac Blond is one which has such an image to it, right?
    I am finding myself nodding in agreement.

  8. As one gets older I think we tend to reconsider some things: it's not always for the worse, either! ;-)

  9. what a very cool post. i might have to blog about this. i do wear perfume for myself -it elicits emotional reactions, and i like being able to alter how i feel with something relatively simple. however, at all times i make an effort to modulate my behavior to be appropriate for the environment, and that includes my scent. if i'm out of the house, bathing in Chergui when i'm down would not be appropriate. but in my own home, when i'm alone, i have no such restraint. ;)

    i suppose it's somewhat like public displays of affection - affection is wonderful, and you don't kiss someone to entertain others, but when in public moderation and consideration is key.

  10. Thank you Risa, you flatter me :-)
    I would be very interested to read your thoughts if you do blog about this.

    Your analogy with affection displays is PERFECT!
    When in one's snactuary of course anything goes and scent does affect our psyche.

  11. Very insightful post. I was nodding in agreement as I read it. I used to say I wore perfume just for me, but I've come to realize that's just not true. It's not so much that I shy away from certain scents for fear that they'll offend, but that I am drawn to scents I know other people like. I really enjoy the idea that I smell good to people. If someone compliments a perfume, I'll make a point of wearing it the next time I see that person. If that's pandering, so be it!

    I feel very lucky that I don't work in an office, and don't have to worry about the hazards of the cube farm. While I like pleasing people with my scent, I don't want to feel compelled to please everybody.

  12. Anonymous15:46

    Nice article!
    Everytime I walk around a strongly perfumed woman/man (for example yesterday) I feel that I don't like it and I don't want to be like that. It's like to talk too loudly.
    But as my father says - it is better to smell good than to stink. :-)
    And less is more.

  13. It is true that perfume is about getting attention, but sometimes we run the danger of depending on it for personality (like a woman who has an LV bag on her arm, "I can AFFORD this"). I have found it simpler just to wear what makes me happy (a complicated question, of course), rather than worry over the impression it makes.

  14. Anonymous10:05

    What an intelligent article. Thank you helg. Everything i thought about has been said by other commentators, you are all so very right! How i do enjoy this acccompany of understanding!

  15. Dear M,

    thank you for your kind words.

    I do believe that although one might have a strong individualistic streak, there is something to be said about being pleasant to another in terms of smell.
    It always seemed to me that there is no more taboo subject than not to smell good to people and I mean that across time and civilisations.

  16. Thank you Lavinia.

    Sorry for what happened to you with that overdose you had to endure...
    It does make us rethink application, true.

  17. Dear Dain,

    very succinct comment down to the handbag reference, thanks!

    Indeed so often there is some ulterior, inferred message in our perfume choice and the way we wear it. Which might instill it with more than what satisfies our inner cravings.
    It's a delicate balance, to be sure!

  18. You're very welcome dear N and thank you for the wonderful compliment.

    Isn't it fascinating to read other people's comments and find elements of your own thoughts?

  19. When I was young, I did not wear perfume because I thought it would make me too feminine. I was a tomboy at the time.

    When I got older, I would wear the perfume for other people, like for your boyfriend or other men I wished to attract.

    Now that I am an adult women I wear the perfume for myself to make me feel beautiful and confident.

  20. Inyoung,

    welcome and thanks for adding your comment.

    Confidence sounds to me the most dominant reason for an individual who is sure about their choices; it's a seal of the personality to the point of it being manifested for all to see and to...smell. :-)

  21. Great article.

    I could say that I ONLY wear perfume for MYSELF and that no one has any relevance when it comes to me choosing a fragrance... But that would be a lie.

    I don't know if it's right or wrong or what, but I do take into consideration what other people think. If I'm with my boyfriend I wanna choose something that I like and that ALSO he likes (there are a gazillion perfumes out there, I'm sure I can find something that we both like). I just feel like, wearing something that he doesn't enjoy when I'm with him, would be rude.

    I am also a victim of advertising sometimes and would want to try a fragrance because of the way the ad made me feel/think.

    I used to think that celebrity fragrances smelled cheap and that people would judge me if I wore them. But after a few years trying on some of them I actually really enjoyed them and now own a few, so that was also something I cared about when I was younger.

    So, I can't say that I only wear perfume for myself and that I don't care what other people think. Because I do.

  22. Normita,

    thanks for commenting and brava on your candor!! Takes some guts to admit all those things, I agree with you, whatever we say something enters the equation all the same. :-)

  23. angeliki06:07

    Hi Elena! I only buy the scents that I love. Yet I am very conscious of what other people might say (or even worse, only think) of the way I smell. So, of the scents I love, I only wear the most inoffensive ones during the day, and make sure I keep the heavier ones for cold weather and evenings. I' d positively hate it if someone thought I was trying to gas others out! Last fall I had an appointment with a notary one morning, to make arrangements for a client. It thought the weather had cooled enough for me to wear two sprays of CK Obsession (I don't even like it nowadays, but anyway!). Then the sun came out about two hours later, and it was warm and humid. I a pretty sure I made the notary's secretary gag. That was the day when I decided that any orientals had to be exiled to evening use. Taking others into consideration when picking and wearing perfume is not a matter of manifesting one's individuality (not solely, anyway), but also a matter of politeness and courtesy.

    1. Hi there! Very succinct point. I sympathize.

      To be honest, I find that with the change of the climate (all this humidity in Athens at least) it doesn't really move me to wear fragrance in the summer months anymore....It's sad really, because when I pick up a bottle and spray at home when the air condition is on I wonder "why am I not wearing this? It's gorgeous!" and I pretty much say this for ALL my collection, which is saying something. I don't know, maybe I'm a little jaded? Could be.

      Another thing: Since Greeks aren't scent phobic I wouldn't want to start *making* them scent phobic by always opting for the inoffensive stuff. It'd be a shame to ruin a whole generation's or two sensory perception, wouldn't it? Therefore I say find worthwhile summer fragrances, cool chypres, tangy citruses, something with light incense, and use those in the warmer months.

  24. I think things are changing and this time in scent loving people again, because this winter I have discovered that a lot of people actually have craved scents when I have forgot myself and used Must, Scherrer, Voile D'amber, White Diamonds or other perfumes with monster sillage when I needed to be in touch with other people.

    One lady followed me while I was grocery shopping because of Scherrer, I noticed her, but thought her weird before she introduced herself, complimented me about the intoxication smell and asked about the perfume. I gave her directions on how to get herself a bottle of Scherrer. I thought it could not hurt. Even if we lived in the same town.

    Scherrer is big enough for the both of us.

    Men loves Cartiers Must, so it is a choice when going out looking for men. They automaticly wants to snuggle. It's amber is very comforting for me too.

    White Diamond is a true power lady scent and always get noticed and complimented, even if people recognise its retro feel.

    Those perfumes have in common that they are quality with a huge Q.

    I am going to order Salome soon, wonder how people will respond to that one, I am so excited...

    But I have a theory of that I think that many people hate smelling people and certain perfumes because it is uncomfortable to get turned on in a public place.

    Anyway, just a couple of years ago everybody would "hate" me if I showed up with some of my big scents, so I believe it is time that the baby sillage grows.


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