Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Romancing the Scent

Love is in the air and the perennial question on what constitutes a romantically attractive fragrance and just how scents are perceived by the opposite sex.
The February 08 issue of Allure comes to the rescue, centering on fragrance and romance, as is usual in publications when St.Valentine's is around the corner. An article by Judy Bachrach, titled "Romance in a bottle", draws interesting opinions on the subject from famous people; two of which happen to be perfumers themselves: Sophia Grojsman and Chris Sheldrake. Their replies were so...what is the word I am searching for...that they merited their own commentary. Today we focus on the former.

I have never put great faith in the method via which Sophia Grojsman approaches femininity in perfume. I admit it in all honesty. Her creations from the bombastically pervading Tresor and the equally potent Eternity, to the luminous Paris, on to the oriental jam of Jaipur are so intense and extroverted sides of femininity that they register as caricatures in my mind: accentuating the characteristic traits that differentiate male from female in our perceived consious: The lush rose, the velvety peach, the intense floral sweetness...

Therefore when she suggests using baby-powder-smelling fragrances before jumping into bed (assuming it is with someone other than just your humble self!)as a nod to our subconsious limbic memory of getting our bottoms puffed with the stuff as babies and presumably associating the feeling of being loved and cared for with the aroma of baby powder, I am going a little "huh?"
First of all, because although this exact association is indeed tender but potentially anti-climatic in an amorous occassion (unless...let's not go there!). And secondly, because it has me wondering about how powder, and specifically baby powder registers in the mind of people in general and whether Grojsman is aware of this.

One of the most common complaints in the perfume arena of online discussion and reviewing boards, such as the hugely popular one in MakeupAlley, is that something smells of baby powder ~or baby wipes and similar products in general; clean ones it is assumed, mind you. The perceived image is uniformely unsexy. Still, there is a sinister trail of thought that goes into work here.

There is concern among some women who do have babies that it connotates tasks that remind them of burdening responsibilities and a period in their life when they felt unattractive. Therefore they would not associate those moments with a sexy afterthought. Understandable.

There is also the more sinister syllogism that babies and infants are off limits sexually (not that I disagree, of course), therefore finding an aroma associated with babies sexy is reminiscent of perverted pedophiles. Now being seen as a perverted pedophile -even in the context of merely favourite smells- is a stigma. You want to avoid that by all means.
This train of thought however takes one thing as a foregone conclusion: that perfume is first and foremost supposed to be sexually attractive and thus seen only in a sexually mature context (which is why lots of people object to kids donning fragrance). Ergo, if perfume is to be taken seriously, it must not smell of babies, or it is "sick".

To that opinion one might radically disagree, especially if one has a keen interest in olfaction in general.
And this is also one of the great divides between American and European sensibilities, as European advertisements do not hesitate to present talcum-scented products in appealing ways that suggest some tinge of sensuous allure. Whether that has to do with widespread pedophile circuits and infantilism, well...let's not go there. A can of worms that can't be opened with impunity.
Suffice to say that for Americans the baby powder connotation is smelling of Johnson & Johnson's citrusy, lightly floral vanilla, while for Europeans it is the orage blossom-and-light-musk of Mustela and Nenuco, as evidenced by the experience of Jean Claude Ellena.

However in typical paranoia and irony some baby powdery scents have proven to be huge bestsellers, eclipsing other scents that launched tagged as sexy. Examples of talcum-laced scents are Flower by Kenzo or Cashmere Mist by Donna Karan. Others have proclaimed their baby pedigree unashamedly, like Petits et Mamans by Bvlgari. And still some have become cult classics with their vat-of-talc odour, like Teint de Neige and Keiko Mecheri's Loukhoum. The choice is yours...

What is your opinion on this subject? I would be interested in reading your comments on this.

To be continued.....

Pic via Flickr


  1. Although I do admire Sophia Grosjman (Paris is a masterpiece, Bulgari pour Femme is simply lovely and I love how it changes..Spellbound is to me, classic Lauder and thus, Good!, etc etc) I have to agree with you that this is one weird suggestion!!! I would like to first of all dissociate generally powdery 'fumes from Baby-powder smelling ones. The latter...they CAN'T be sexy! Comforting, yes. But sexy? Not to mention that only lately I read a statistic that proclaimed that fragrances smelling of baby powder are the ones that men find least attractive on women. Wish I could remember the source and the exact wording. If I come up with it I'll post back :)

  2. Ahhhh.
    The ALLURE article....
    I just laughed myself sick, E. !

    I adore scrutinizing things as much as the next forensic maniac, truly I do-
    But sometimes you just have to sit back and relax!

    Bottom line [ all puns intended]:
    If it works for you and your beloved, all well and good-
    Enjoy !
    But leave the babies out of it....

    [Love to you, E. and D.-]

  3. Anonymous00:30

    I would differentiate between baby powder and powder. With the latter I associate very sexy pictures indeed, such as an old Hollywood vanity with (among other things) a beautiful powder box and a gorgeous puff to go with it. The powder, of course, is beautifully scented. Siren sitting in front of the mirror, powdering her face, mhmh.
    Having powdered three baby bottoms myself, I perceive that to be something lovely and tender. Sexy it is not. However, I've never felt unattractive when I was pregnant or performing 'baby duties'. While I wouldn't want to smell of baby powder, I don't associate it with feeling unattractive either.

  4. Wasn't there some discussion a way back on PoL about this? Seems to faintly ring a bell... unless it was about the study where men are aroused by a combination of vanilla and pumpkin (they were too deeply impressed by a certain scene in American Pie), and women, by licorice and cucumber..
    Anyway, back to powdery odours: they have of course very different connotations, whether you were raised in North America with Johnson's baby powder, or in Europe where the powdery smell evokes old-fashioned powder puff and sweetly scented Caron face powder..
    As for Mme Grosjman, undoubtedly an amazing lady, I haven't found a perfume of hers that didn't send me scrubbing. Not that I think they're bad. But her style just shrieks it's not for me -- or my full-blooming, all-out feminity.

  5. Helmut Lang's Eau de Cologne for men is pure violets, powder and talc. I'm male and often wear it when in a self-nurturing mood, yet I wouldn't think of it as a turn on for my (female) partner. Maybe I should? The advertising is non-descript, with a catch phrase of "I smell you on my skin" - sentimental rather than sexy. I personally would agree with the majority that, even on the guys, powder is more for snuggling than romping.

  6. Anonymous14:17

    I saw a reference to this article yesterday on PST and was perplexed for the reasons set out in your post. Maybe she meant the sweet powdery smell of baby talc to arouse tender cuddly feelings rather than full on raunch? If so, that's fine. Anything else I do find a bit disturbing by association. I also wondered if I was unconsciously misconstruing what she said because I'm not a big fan of her fragrances!

  7. "As for Mme Grosjman, undoubtedly an amazing lady, I haven't found a perfume of hers that didn't send me scrubbing."

    I'll second that, definitely. Obviously, she knows what she's doing, but most of her scents have, as you say E, a rather cartoonishly feminine element.

    I'd also agree with the idea that powdery and baby powder are two very different things. It's complicated, though, because some mature powdery perfumes are often perceived as "old lady" scents--both because they are of a distant era, and because people have an association with the fragrances used to cover the aroma of incontinent oldsters.

    Oh yeah, there's also the phenomenon of what I call the "baby head" scents, such as the Philosophy line (Grace, etc.) They seem intended to replicate the sweet, fleshy scent of a baby's scalp. They are certainly wildly popular, and frankly, they give me the creeps because of their association. But I seem to be alone in that response.

  8. D, I am glad you thought the same thing. I am not alone then. Powdery smelling things are glorious and often very sexy indeed! Baby powdery scents are as you say: comforting. And tender and cuddly. But sexy? Hmm..

    I think she must have meant it in "tender-feelings-producing" mode. Otherwise, I'm stumped.

    If you do find the study about baby powder and men it would me much appreciated, thank you! :-)

  9. I, dear, perhaps I am too analytic. Yes, forensics would be an ideal career I guess. *chuckle*

    But yes, a Valentine article in a popular mag merits a little sitting back and not taking everything on face value. True.

  10. Sabina,

    this is exactly what I picture in my head when I smell powdery perfumes: glamour, goose-down puffs and sirens. You describe it well.

    Personally, I do not feel that talcuming bottoms equals an unsexy phase in one's life, but some women do, from what they tell me. It's all up to the individual I gather and I believe you were lucky that you didn't feel that way.

  11. D,
    It was on Perfume Isle, I had started it prompted by a relevant comment ;-)

    That study had always seemed pretty ridiculous to me (and very US-oriented: pumkin pie is very rare around here ~one would presume if they relied merely on that stimulus we would have been wiped out as a nation, LOL)

    I'm with you on the your observations on powdery smells and SG's style :-)

  12. Mark,

    I appreciate the male perspective on this: trully illuminating! "Snuggling vs. romping".
    I wonder which smells you associate with the latter: our readers would be interested.

  13. Donanicola,

    I think this is what was inferred, but saying it in such a way was a little weird.

    We could be misconstuing! ;-)

  14. M, dear,

    I gather SG knows her share of the market well, since lots of her scents are very successful commercially.

    The "Old Lady" syndrome is something that I follow with intense fascination, a very open mind and a sociologist's -almost!- focus: it's trully overwhelming and intriguing to watch ~ perfume people on the Net deny it with vehemence, everyone else comments on it on those terms. Trully amazing stuff!

    I would be interested in people's comments on the baby head scents: what do they think, let's hear it.

  15. Oh, darlin'-
    I'm the forensic nut !
    Love the stuff !

    Seriously, Ms. G. is brilliant, but I can't wear her scents at all, and I'm certainly over the top at times....

    Eroticism is by nature disturbing, isn't it ?
    Profoundly troubling.

    But I hope that we can enjoy perfume without worry !
    [It is fascinating about the cultural nature of 'security' through scent]

  16. Anonymous18:43

    Ms. G. certainly has a thing about powder. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Champagne/Yvresse. I have it but can't wear it because its powderiness feels oppressive. If I wanted to smell like powder, I would put on powder.

  17. I think one of the issues here is WHY we wear scent in the first place.

    I love that fragrance can shift the wearer's mood and "outlook" on the day/evening, but I wear fragrance for myself....not to attract someone - so it doesn't make any sense to me why someone would wear fragrance to turn on anyone but yourself.

    If smelling like talcum powder makes YOU feel sexy, then have at it. But to assume that a fragrance is going to "get you a man (or a woman, for that matter)", or put someone else "in the mood", then you are putting way too much accountability on the fragrance.

    I would hate to discover that an "over night" guest stayed the evening because I "smelled like a baby"....ewwww, yuck.

  18. I,

    thanks for replying. "Forensic nut", I like that ;-)
    And I admit that the "cultural nature of 'security' through scent" is a concept dear to my heart. What wonderful discussion we could have!

  19. Good point, Maria. Cheaper too!

    I admit I kinda like Champagne/Yvresse: smelled from afar....(it's fruity chypre napalm).

  20. Marko,

    I couldn't agree more with you. Why attach so much importance to how scent influences other people? If only it were that easy...But companies and magazines have to sell. And this concept sells, apparently.

    I can see how "smelling like a baby" can be interpreted the wrong way, yup.

  21. I like and wear several Sophia Grosjman scents (Bvlgari Pour Femme, Paris, S-Perfume 100% Love). They are hyper-feminine, and I wear them when I'm in the mood to be girly.

    Powdery scents are not "sexy" to me. Extreme powdery scents (I'm talking to you, Teint de Neige) are choking. Blech, nothing amorous about a cloud of powder.

  22. Iris,

    Bulgari pour femme is a lovely scent, I have to admit: subtler than her others. But I can see what you mean about wearing them for a certain mood.

    Teint de Neige is veeeeeeedy powdery, coulnd't make it more so in a million years.

  23. Anonymous12:22

    Interesting article, i remember the discussion on POL vividly and the mentioned "old lady" association with powdery scents. Then the following disambiguation between powder as face powder style and baby powder style. Intersting that at the peak of an Iris-trend no one seems to smell powder here. Or at least no "old-ladyish" powder... which leads me to suppose that 1)"old ladyish" is just a term used by some when the don't know how to describe a disliking therefore i don't take it seriously and 2)powder itself (be it face or baby powder with a vanilla or a musk base) is a very subjective thing. Just as smell in general. When i thnk of powder it has nothng to do with babies, maybe because i am not a mother but with a very nostalgic way of grooming. Powder is a time gone by, a smell of a soft skin, a feeling of tenderness which can maybe also lead further, but no child on my mind here. But agree with the "snuggling vs. romping" thesis... great, that description! ;-)
    And just in this moment there comes a third idea of powder to my mind here: the "kink-powder" smell, interesting it hasn't been mentinoned before. Thinking of the powder you use to put on rubber clothing... you get in Bulgari Black, for sure!
    SG is of course not a realiable source for me... please... Trésor!!! And one addition, E., when i opened the page i was deeply terrified by the above ad. Did they indeed publish that? Cannot believe.

  24. N,

    great comment and thank you for taking the time and effort to post it :-))

    It strikes me indeed as weird that we are swamped with irises lately (not that I am complaining!) and no one -in the general public I mean- seems to be bothered by the powderiness of them!!
    Have you noticed that they reserve those comments about older scents in the first place, usually? As if they're consious that it is an older scent, therefore someone old is wearing it, hence "old lady". I am thinking that the visual factor as well as the marketability of something is deciding in this: ie. Prada Infusion/ Glow/ Flower etc. is "hot", favoured by younger chicks, therefore it can't be "old lady"......
    I think it's also a lack of vocabulary. I am planning on writing something about this specifically soon.

    I hadn't thought about what you say there: the "kink powder"! Now that you mention it Bvlgari Black does have the talcum-vanillic underlay under the rubbery exterior! Were they secretly thinking of it?

    The Love's Baby Soft ad is regretably very real ~a Lolitesque concept: I don't know what they were thinking!

  25. Anonymous22:21

    Dior Homme Intense is extremely powdery and on a man I think it's very sexy. But I also totally understand people describing it as smelling of a 'lady's make-up purse'. Not something I find very sexy or even appealing. And yet I absolutely love this scent! Maybe in time I will start to experience my make-up purse as smelling sexy because of it :-))

  26. Anon, that's one mighty fine comment. I love the Dior Homme scents and find them very sexy too myself ;-)
    Maybe we could neck with our makeup bags, who knows! :-P


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