Monday, July 23, 2007

The Agony and the Ecstasy part3: Fetish in fragrance

That German word….heavy with connotations, but also a common element of the vernacular. It makes anything seem more naughty that it might have sounded without its tag attached.
And yet, isn’t it very true that perfume lovers are “turned on” by smells? That they use them like a fetishist would use a high arched stiletto heel or a silky piece of lingerie (preferably après l’action)? And don’t perfume lovers have their own secret -or not so secret- liturgies and totems by which they swear by, able to produce feelings in them that they wouldn’t express in other arenas of their lives?

If we are to attach literary and cinematic references to those we should take a look at “Secretary”, a book that turned into a film in 2002, starring James Spader & Maggie Gyllenhaal. Directed by Steven Shainberg, it won the Special Jury Prize for Originality, 2002 in the Sundance Film Festival. If you do watch it or read the screenplay it’s not hard to see why; and also how it could be something difficult to recommend to a friend. Not because of any flaw of the film (It’s very well done! And with lots of wit!) but because of its difficult subject of a self-cutting troubled young woman, Lee, who gets employment at the weird of office of an S/M indulging lawyer with whom she falls in love (as he does as well). Romantic really at its heart, it explores all the real emotional pain of an individual who seeks to express inner angst to be told time and again by her puritan environment that this is not the proper way to go.
But the heart knows its own way and Lee ultimately has to make her choices. In a way it’s a coming-of-age film: as the young woman starts wide-eyed innocent she slowly realises her own strengths and merits through a relationship with someone who wants to make her find her inner strength in difficult situations, yet is also battling with his own demons.

Because of its urban and witty atmosphere, I would attribute the fetishy rubbery Black by Bulgari as their shared scent of choice. A sex in the head kind of perfume for metropolitan anchorites. Smoked lapsang tea leaves are crushed under a rubber gloved hand that is about to administer a spanking and you’ve entered a whole new realm of reality that you didn’t imagine it existed (with shades of the character of the narrator meets Tyler Durden in the notorious “Fight Club” from 2002).I find it fascinating that it is Angelina Jolie's personal favourite perfume, along with Carolina Herrera pour homme, as divulged in interviews. (Click here for a complete list of who wears what)

Another choice for the lead character might have been the elegant chypre that was instrumental in The New Look, Miss Dior by couturier Christian Dior. This is one scent that is always described as elegant, classy, discreet, the apotheosis of femininity. And yet, to my mind it holds the promise of naughtiness, like pristine tailleurs and bow shirts over lacy lingerie with ribbons down the sides, waiting for just that slip of the knowing finger that will untie them in a mere second. The green opening of young and fresh aldehydic greens with the lace of galbanum is met with flowery essences that blossom into a grown woman ready for the plucking, eager to explore the mysteries of patchouli, erotic labdanum and subtle leather. This is one girl who has come of age. Sadly now not up to its vintage magnificence although still passable.

And since we are talking about fetish who could omit the current queen of fetish in the US? Her eminence, the pale magnificence of burlesque performer Dita von Teese? With her homonymous book, she set out to show the world that her perfume choices are as many as her facets of sexual provocateur style (That wardrobe of scents includes her top favourite Quelques Fleurs by Houbigant, among the pleiad of JAR Shadow, Chantal Thomass, Stella Rose Absolute, Bvlgari Red Tea, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood Boudoir, Shiseido Feminite du Bois, Lancome Magie Noire, the ubiquitous Fracas and the notorious new classic Angel by Mugler).
Of all her choices Boudoir by Westwood seems to me the most appropriate one: although seemingly naughty, it keeps a pedigree of taste and old-fashioned elegance in its bubble gum rosiness and powder with a hint of tobacco flower and vanillic spice like a 50s centrefold that smiled at you from the pages of a tattered mag.
Of course it helps that Westwood was involved in the scene in the 1970s, producing fetish clothes in rubber and vinyl long before anyone else was savvy to those niche choices of attire, earning a place in the hall of fame of fashion avant-garde.

Nevertheless, apart from the frivolity and vagaries of fashion, one could delve much deeper into the abyss of fetishy obsession, going to the extremes of the classic 1976 Nagisha Oshima film “Ai no Corrida/Realm of the senses”. (it literally translates as Bullfight of Love). Based on a true pre-World-War II story that got published in a 1963 Japanese newspaper, it narrates the manic journey of a man indulging an engulfing passion with one of his female servants in a tale for steely nerves where angels fear to tread. No forbidden act is held and the film caused a ruckus when it first appeared on screens as it was rumoured that sexual acts took place for real and the finale was shocking in its climactic power.
For such a film only really strong, raunchy almost perfumes like Ambre Sultan by Lutens or Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein would suffice. Both orientals, rich in resins and ambery tones, they explore two different pathways of olfactory agony: the bitter and the sweet.
The herbal opening of Ambre Sultan plays upon culinary herbs such as oregano, bay leaf and myrtle giving a bitter edge that assaults the nostrils with the remnants of something half dead, half alive. It makes you question everything you have ever known, fanning resins that talk of far away lands where people indulge in rituals that might shock you. A primal call to carnal knowledge manifests itself in the labdanum rich base paired with benzoin and the whole is like watching the imaginary natives in Rapa Nui worshipping at the shrine of their holy ancestors.
Obsession for men (far superior to the women’s) on the other hand, although might be linked to the smell of a bombarded brothel, has all the sweetness of mainstream amber to render itself wearable and likeable by those who like it bold and 80s. Art directed by Ann Gottlieb, it came at a time when it was considered good to emit a little piss smell from your person. Shocking and disgusting as this might sound, it has been rumoured that it explored the same elements that make Miel de Bois by Lutens the derisive wonder that it is: love it or hate it, it can’t leave anyone indifferent.
Obsession to me is not the smell of seduction, but the memory of a familiar thorn in the side that pains you yet you’re not wont to pluck out.

Top pic of Angelina Jolie courtesy of celebritiesinc, pic of Dita vin Teese courtesy of


  1. I enjoy your writing and insight much. You tie fragrance in brilliantly with so many things.

    Along the lines of this series of posts, BDSM and fragrance. I wondered if you have read the book The Story of O, or seen the film. I have not seen the film, but have been reading the book, and there is mention of perfume in parts of the story, and in one place, the scent was described.

    The book is not an easy read, not for me anyway. I have been having mixed emotions the whole time, but I have to finish. I just want to know more about the perfume she wore. I was hoping you may have written something about the story and her perfume, ad maybe the kink around it.

    I didn't find anything about O, but I haven to left your page. It is so rich.

    1. It's been ages since I have read the book and have watched the film. I believe they're both considered modern classic in the genre. There should be no comparison with 50 Shades etc. since the very few extracts I have read from that are worthless fluff and with a very poor vocabulary.
      Can't recall a specific perfume mentioned in O (though if you're keen there's one implied very definitely in Exit to Eden, maybe your next read?).
      Not an easy read, agree, but a good solid writing style and imaginative one. The final metamorphosis and objectification into a bird has a loadful of semiotics behind it, both in BD shades and in general. I find that even genres that do not immediately appeal to us can have rich undertones that are useful and stimulating to a reader; for instance sci-fi, for me personally. When it's good, it's good. Doesn't matter I don't like sci-fi.

    2. I agree with you on the sci-fi, not my thing, but I can appreciate it sometimes. Every genre has something to offer from time to time.

  2. I have finished Story of O. It is definitely worth reading, if you have not already. It has many layers, like perfume. It is hauntingly beautiful, and at once terrifying. The top notes are quite harsh, but once you get to the base, it is sublime.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the story, and the perfume aspect as well, not just the scent, but the application.

    BDSM can be scary for some people (most actually) and wile I am not submerged in that ethos, I really appreciate it on a deep level, and let the positive aspects of it waft into my experience.

    You seem to be the only person that I have found, that has talked about fragrance within that context, and I am greedy for more.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. You inspire me to releaf through it to find the perfume reference. Will update! ;-)

  3. Oh there is absolutely no comparison between O and 50 Shades. I could hardly get through the books. It was Twilight goes kink, but more poorly written. E.L James made bank though. I did like that there was mention of fragrance, which was carried throughout (even though it was described exactly the same way over and over again.. criticism done) 9 1/2 weeks was much better. I have not seen the directors cut, nor have I read the book. The book was actually a true story. I think the movie took liberties, and was also a bit softer, from what I read about it. (Micky Rourke was very handsome then) He mentioned her smelling nice once, but fragrance was not played up at all, at least not in the film.


    O is very different from both of them, and definitely carries more depth and weight. It is a novel, that I can see reading a few times, just because it has so many layers of meaning. Still it is a fantasy, and it is meant to challenge and seduce, so there are missing pieces within that story too. While I am no expert here, I do know that is actually more balance within a BDSM relationship, and the submissive actually has a different and equal kind of power, that sets the parameters and gets to decide what the limits are.

    What we want to talk about here, is the perfume. O describes the fragrance that she uses just a little bit. but it seems pretty important. It is also used quite liberally. Here is her description..

    "René had given her, in an atomizer which released a heavy spray, a perfume whose name she didn't know, which had the odor of dry wood and marshy plants, a pungent, slightly savage odor. On her skin the spray melted, on the fur of the armpits and belly it ran and formed tiny droplets.

    At Roissy, O had learned to take her time: she perfumed herself three times, each time allowing the perfume to dry."

    I have nowhere near the understanding of scent or perfume as you do, so what I had to draw upon was limited.

    At first I thought it might be something along the lines of Aromatics Elixir, but one if anyone applied as much of that, as she did, you would smell her for miles and for days, two, AE was not created at that time, and three it may be too sweet.

    So her perfume was earthy and animalic. Patchoulli, oakmoss, maybe amber. What do you think?

    1. No wonder you think it's Twilight goes kink, since the 50 Shades books, from what I know, began as Twilight fan fiction. (!?! wtf? yup)

      The writer of O from what I have read about her meant to address the book as a love-letter (possibly of giving herself over metaphorically) to her intended lover. Obviously it's cleverly woven and carries a very insightful weight and layer of meaning, as she explores many themes within the psyche of women and of men and of the bonds that tie them together (no pun intended).

      I am not sure if in O a particular perfume was even envisioned (though the animalic and earthy description probably allude to a liberated stance on the senses, bringing her closer to both "anima" and animal, and to mother earth). I believe it is the ritual that is stressed and indeed the passage you include seems to stress that aspect of the use of perfume: the application, the time, the frequency, the "set" perfume that acts as a code between lovers....Ritual is a big part of any esoteric writing on sensuality, exactly because it brings us closer to the senses and to our inner sensibilities. It's also integral to bdsm, because it gives a shape and structure to a session (and a lifestyle, if people are into that).

      Regarding 9½ weeks, I have read the book (a memoir) and it's VERY different than the movie. It rings true enough, from what I can tell, which is saying something. In it it's clearly described how she uses Miss Dior (the old, original one, the pungent one). This might be an interesting clue of the author interpreting the perfume from O or it could be a real life experience. Who knows?
      The movie was shot rather more tamely in subject, but more provocatively in visual and settings (no perfume though, yes). It was a huge success from what I recall as a teen in my country. It has even inspired local commercials. Watch:

  4. I knew I could count on you to reinforce the depth of the story, via scent and ritual. What you suggest makes perfect sense. Yes O started out as love letters as well as a challenge to prove that a woman could write in somewhat of the vein of Marquis de Sade. Evidently her lover was very fond of de Sade's writings.

    Pauline Reage'/ Domonique Aury actually surpassed his challenge, because she was able to write an erotic novel that would have the darkness of de Sade, and at once be empowering and spiritually transformative.

    I think one of the reasons that O has stood the test of time, is because of its depth and layers of meaning.

    I would like to read 91/2 weeks for sure, as my interest has been stimulated. There was one scene in the movie when John (Micky Rourke) says to Liz (Kim Basinger), as he walked into his apartment for the first time that she smells good. For some reason, film does not bring scent in very often.

    With Twilight goes kink, at first I had no knowledge that E.L James was a fan girl of the Twilight series, but as I was reading, I kept thinking this is reminding me of Twilight, only written poorly. Then I found out more on the author, and she pretty much lifted the storyline and went BDSM sort of....

    I mentioned that I am not into the BDSM culture, though I can easily see bringing aspects of it into my world. If done properly, it is based on trust and communication.

    My last boyfriend sort of introduced me into exploring some aspects of it. I will say this. It is only possible to for me to surrender if both people are on the same page, and are of a stable mind set. It is only a game and the players have to know what the truth actually is.

    I would love for you to write more on these topics. The sacred within obscurity, and how scent and ritual ties in to all of that.

    I am going to watch the video you linked for me.

    1. Thanks Arline, you're welcome.

      Well, hopefully intellectualizing things a bit too much won't spoil anyone's diversion or pleasure. I'm analytical by nature, what can I do.

      I think scent doesn't enter film a lot because the medium is video-audio focused to begin with, by its very nature. More visual and auditory too, given how voice-overs backfire usually; have you noticed? It's not the cinematic thing to have someone narrate things. The basis of the performance arts is in the doing and doing is mostly witnessed visually. Smell is only peripheral in the witness of doing when at long distance (molecules can disperse only so much and the threshold of detection is only so low) and the technology to use smell has lagged, though it is not for lack of trying (there are at least 4 experiments throughout the 20th century to incorporate it in the cinematic experience I believe).
      Therefore scent stands as something that acts like the voice-over does; we hear or see scent mentioned (like we hear action described in the voice-over), but we can't smell it as viewers, creating a lack of direct exposure that subtracts from our empirical pleasure. I'm going all Wittgenstein, perhaps, on you.

      As to incorporating play elements into a lovers' session, the only one who's to judge are the consenting participants of lawful age. All the rest is speculation and gossip.


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