Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why French (and European) people grow up to love scents while Americans don't

One of the most frequent and controversial divides among Europeans and Americans has to do with the scope of this venue: smell! The things we like to smell, the way we smell, the cultural milieu in which this function happens, our perception on it and the reaction to the olfactory environment. Why are the French (and most Europeans grosso modo) so much more attuned to smells and more receptive of them, even when they tether on the edge of the unpleasant, than North Americans? Before anyone says that this is not true, let me state: There are of course exceptions, on both sides. And I bet our American readers are here exactly because they belong to that percentage of exception; even though they are numerous, let's admit it, on the grander scale of things, perfume is only a small niche. But incidents like trying to ban scented products from public spaces in a whole city or refusing to carry a passenger in public transport in Calgary, Canada, because her perfume is disagreeable, not to mention the augmenting complaints of real and imaginary "allergies" to perfume which we discussed recently, tend to happen across the pond mostly. Why is that?

Certainly one cannot in any sanity of mind even entertain the thought that there is some inherent, chromosome-induced difference in olfactory perception or reception, because a)that would sound completely Nazi-like and b)both North America and Europe consist of largely mixed populations which have effaced lots of their indigenous DNA makeup through centuries of intermingling. We all, more or less, start from the same standpoint, but we tend to diverge early on. So, if it's not nature, it's got to be nurture. Education, to be exact. It's not just a 9-letter word, you know.

This train of thought lagging at the back of my brain was sent to the forefront again when I came across a post on Sylvaine Delacourte's blog, the artistic directress of parfums Guerlain, who elaborated on how they actually organise special "workshops" led by Marie Birin (in two levels, mind you!) for children starting from the age of seven (!) so they can learn how to organise smells in their mind, see the perfume creation logic at work and therefore appreciate scents better. One might cynically exclaim that this is a tool to convert children into little consumers. And in some part it does create an affinity for the brand, I suppose, when they grow up. Wouldn't you have fond memories of a brand who allowed you to get your hands dirty with all kinds of smell stuff and got you out in the garden to sniff flowers and wet earth? Yet I wouldn't wager this is intended with that objective to begin with (they also host workshops for adults anyway). No other society on the entire planet is more consumer-and-business driven than the American one and I have yet to hear of children's perfume appreciation workshops there. The powers that by do try to make them little consumers, all right, what with the Disney cartoon characters embossed on innocuous "waters" for playing dress up and what not, but is this really on a par with sitting down and educating them about smells and raw materials? I don't think so.

Ask what perfume signifies across different cultures and you will hear interesting differences of perception, converging on its overall goodness: To some it's a pick-me-up, a moment of freshness and joyful, frank pleasure, a smile at both yourself and the world, if you will. Think of the Spanish, the Greeks and the Italians who use literally liters of eaux fraiches and Eaux de Cologne throughout hot summers both on themselves and on children. To others, it's part of a glamorous living in which they can indulge into after decades of being deprived of these luxuries. Think of the Russians and the formely communist Eastern Europeans who had no varied access to perfume for decades, because it was seen as a decadent representation of capitalism. To others, still, it's a nostalgic representation of nature scenes for when the sky is all gloomy and overcast making them dream (think of the Victoriana English perfume scene before the advent of niche in the last decade) or an accessory which is providing a tie with both long tradition and latest fashion (think of the numerous German and Dutch apothecaries, or the au courant designers' scene hailing from North Italy, Austria or the Netherlands). And of course there is that special intimate rapport between a person and their chosen perfume; the latter standing as an extendable, inviting aura for the revelation of the former, which is so well met au valeur (put to its besty advantage) in France...

These are so much ingrained to children from an early age that they grow up to view them as perfectly natural, expected, par for the course: An experienced pedagogist was telling me the other day regarding potty training that she recommends when a toddler is successful to congratulate them with "well done" and a drop of their parent's cologne or perfume on their hands. An Austrian acquintance of elementary school age came back from a trip grabbing not only chocolates, but also minis of 4711 Eau de Cologne. For herself and for her friends I might add. Relatives give small sips of red wine to their little kids so they develop the palate to appreciate them at a later age. French friends routinely give camembert (a non pasteurised cheese) to their small children without as much as raising an eyebrow as to any microbe scare. Heidi, in the famous Yohana Spiri novel, a Swiss child, was accustomed to drink goat's milk (a quite smelly kind of milk in its raw form) straight after the milking off the animal. The antithesis in the form of revolted apostasis to that was Miss Rottenmeier, the austere, dried-up sprinster who was responsible for the kids at her German friend's home in Frankfurt. European children in short are taught from the craddle onwards that smells are not a bad thing on the whole. Sure, some are more likeable than others and everyone has personal preferences, but they form part of the sensual world. And the sensual world is something to embrace and indulge in, rather than reject and demonise.

Contrast with the American reality and lore, where smelly stuff is (seemingly inherently) bad and many things having to do with the body are demonized by the status quo. Even the phrase "it smells" usually has a negative connotation: Putting perfume on small children is generally seen as sexualising the child, even by people who themselves are responsive to perfumes. The value of keeping childhood innocence for as long as possible in nowhere more pronounced than in American culture, as attested by children's fairy tales of local origin, films and prototypes which, enthused as they are into passing the best possibly intented pedagogical messages, sometimes tend to overexaggerate in their zest. If Snow White was an American tale, she would never have eaten the poisoned apple but instead would have responded to the wiles of the evil stepmother with a "This isn't washed nor peeled, talk to the hand!".
Flowers are increasingly grown devoid of any particular smell, as if they are meant to look nice and just play the virgin. Come to think of it: Why was it such a big deal that Brooke Shields and Britney Spears were presented as virgins at the time of their prime? I have never heard such claims by any aspiring or established star in Europe (and if they did dare bring this up, it would be confusing and ridiculed, like "what the hell does this has to do with what your job is"?)
Urban kids eat chicken drumsticks coming out of a pack of 6, almost never having the experience of seeing someone defeather a real chicken (never mind a rooster) and seeing the guts discarded in a plate, unless they live on a farm of course. If you showed them or if you mention that process in a classroom full of kids, they would sooner respond "eww, don't gross us out" than make appreciative noises at the inherent violence (yes, children do embrace violence in healthy, necessary ways too) and curiously "dirty" satisfaction that such an act produces (Have you ever cooked a mean coq au vin having just received a rooster from a small supplier at the village? Do try it and then tell me!).

Therefore, if this talk among perfume enthusiasts about "stopping the madness of banning perfume and scented products" is to be taken seriously, then people, please try starting at the source: at the hand that rocks the craddle. It is the hand that rules the world. In the foreseeable future, at the very least.

Photo Erich Comeriner Petit Mannequin, Anonymous Weight Problems.


  1. Great article!!

    As a Spanish girl myself, I have grown up smelling all kind of smells, good and bad, clean and dirty; I've worn Eau de Cologne since I was a baby, and as a child, I knew that chickens were not born without feathers nor head in a supermarket, but in a farm. And I've seen death rabbits being skinned too :(

    I have never heard about places where perfume is banned in Spain, but we are not tolerant with body odours. We like people to smell clean, with or without perfume :)
    In fact, best sellers in Spain are fragraces like Eau de Rochas, Loewe Aire, Light Blue... Oddly, Angel is a best seller too LOL

  2. Sorry, I made a silly mistake. Dead rabbits, not "death" ;)

  3. Great post! I love the Snow White bit.

    The puritanical streak remains very strong in American culture, though it has been subverted to serve the capitalist/consumerist agenda. We are suspicious of true sensuality (as opposed to piggish consumption) because it's a distraction from work and the generating of money. We actually buy a lot of perfume--we just don't want it to smell like anything much ;-)

  4. Fiordiligi22:42

    Splendid post, my dearest E! As an Englishwoman from less than sunny climes who grew up without the eau de cologne culture, I nevertheless feel totally connected to the continental European idea of scents and smells and have never gone a day without perfume (not ever would) since I was about 12. I despair of the "uber sanitization" prevalent in North American culture - a fear of any kind of smell at all, it seems.

  5. Anonymous01:27

    I was born in a former communist country, Romania. Perfume was not demonised there as a symbol of capitalism, far from that...sound actually a bit silly. Those were isoolated countries, not concentration camps. No one was really thinking that capitalism was bad, we were crazy about everything western.
    We had sometimes French perfumes when available, if not Bulgarian, Polish or Romanian fragrances. We used a lot of perfume and we liked it a lot. Please, review your opinions and check the info before writing.

  6. Anonymous03:58

    well, you are painting us with a broad brush, my love. i'm half-french, but have lived in america my whole life, and i have yet to encounter any american who doesn't love a good, quality perfume. i though, have recoiled from bad ones more often than i would like.

    are we trained as a society to recognize art in perfume? no. are we trained to pay attention to the odors around us? no. are we sold a lot of scented crap? yes. do we tolerate it? yes. but do we learn once we're exposed to the good stuff? in my experience, definitely.

    most of the compliments i get from "average americans" are for the high-end, good stuff, which is often french. they do not know what they are smelling, they just like it. today i got a compliment on an arabic perfume by swiss arabian - rose, oudh, incense. not the american palette, but a very normal american male told i smelled really good.

    and do you remember that little experiment we did a while back, when i had a bunch of people smell tommy hilfiger's tommy girl? most of them really didn't like it, but they could tell me why they didn't.

    i personally would be happy to ban the body lotions from bath and body works from the workplace. my coworker slathers that crap on (forever sunshine, with its faux tobacco note, is the current choice), and it reeks. for a long time. but i would never suggest banning it, because i don't want my own scents banned. (this is the same person who bathes in flower bomb as if she can't smell it.) i just put up with it.

    which is what i think those who try to control scent need to do. that, and learn more about good perfumes. education goes a long way toward taming the beast. i think people who get interested in cooking, wines, and other stinky adventures have a headstart on that education.


  7. Isa,

    thanks, welcome on the Shrine!

    Yes, this is something I have noticed while in Spain, hence my mention. The light eaux are very popular (as is Light Blue, isn't it everywhere? LOL). Angel I hadn't smelled so much, but I take your word for it, because it sure is on every country's best-selling list, so it's got to be something there that clinches it for everyone.
    And double yes on BO: I think warmer countries are naturally more attuned to them, because everyone sweats a lot so it's considered very bad manners to go unclean.

    Thanks for the interesting comment.

  8. And don't worry about typos, I make hundreds myself, some slip sometimes too. :-)

  9. M,

    praise from you I take with pride, thank you. You know, I was re-reading my Max Weber these days and there is the very famous analysis on how the Protestant work ethic -in which work elevates the person into a higher moral plane than idleness and indulging- shapes an outlook to the world of sensory stimuli. In a way a Puritan outlook is perhaps an outlook of work=morality predominantly and good honest work doesn't smell of frou frou smells, does it? (In a way this reminds me a bit of classical antiquity, where too elaborate oils and essences were considered fit for a slave and not for a free man; which is a contradiction on the surface as free men didn't "work" in so many words, but they did consider their ethos to be determined by lack of frou frou, i.e. morally elevated than those who indulged a lot into hedonism)

    I don't know really, I can't really suppose that such a diverse nation as the US only has a puritan streak running through accounting for it all, although it seems like the pleas for banning scented products is aided through a semi-religious in its zest polemic. I'm sure there's lots of money involved in that as well, though. It just doesn't show up as evidently.

  10. D,

    I know you do! :-)
    The English did create some very "impressionist" fragrances in decades past, so I think there's an endearing degree of escapism in that. Plus the Victoriana, which although is generally regarded to be a time where proper ladies wore perfume on the hankerchief and not on themselves, still, that hankerchief scent was de rigeur, wasn't it? And of course the reproduced Victorian aesthetic scents are taking more potent forms today (Floris, penhaligon's etc)

  11. Anon,

    thanks for your comment and personal experiences.
    I didn't mean to imply those countries were concentration camps, but it's generally agreed upon that distribution and access to toiletries and perfumes was severely limited in scope well into the 1970s.
    I don't know your age, but surely you must know through your elders if you didn't live before that time frame.

    A Russian writer in the RealUSSR has two excellent articles and I quote:

    "It does not seem like much but these brands listed above would compose the whole range of perfumes available in the Soviet Russia until, maybe, very late 1980s. The only other alternative was to be lucky enough to have a perfume imported, as a gift. The reasons behind such limits were purely ideological as spending time and money on beauty products was labelled as absolutely unnecessary."



    "If you were a reg­u­lar Soviet with no access to the imported good­ies (and we would not be fright­ened to assume that it would com­prise to about of 95% of population) – then you’d grab a bar of soap and hope it’d last you a month or so, and this was the real­ity till maybe mid1980s." Source

    I do know that acquaintances who were ecstatic upon seeing sanitary napkins (of all things, hardly luxury!), recounting how those weren't available for women!
    Of course I have also heard that under Ceauşescu (brrr....chills...) women went to the hairdresser's twice a week, but Romania seemed to be an exception in that regard, as far as I know.
    Certainly there were some perfumes distributed from the socialist camp countries (Poland and Bulgaria which you named), but again I doubt the selection was as great as in other Western countries such as France, Italy or Germany, was it?

    Limited access to luxuries does make the heart grow fonder, so I'm not surprised that people loved perfume! I never said they didn't, I only said that it was a "denied luxury" and testimonies seem to corroborate that.

    Here is another on Red Moscow (Krasnaya Moskva) and its perceived "ideal":

    "In Soviet Russia, the perfume became a symbol of success and a hard currency of sorts — a small bottle was used to thank a doctor for a complicated surgery or a city official for granting a free apartment. Young men were expected to bring Krasnaya Moskva when meeting their girlfriends' mothers for the first time, that is if they hoped for a favorable outcome.
    A small circle of high-ranking female Communist party officials also preferred Krasnaya Moskva over the famous French fragrancies, claiming that the Soviet-made perfume was better and represented a clear victory of socialist scientists and producers over their capitalist rivals.


    The above articles seem valid info research material and my own perfumery books in my library seem to corroborate everything, yet if you have further reading suggestions I'm all ears!

  12. For some reason Blogger posted my final comment thrice, my apologies, fixed it!

  13. Minette,

    hi there, thanks for as always an interesting and varied comment! (hope you're well and congrats on the compliment!)

    Well, I wouldn't want to paint you with a wide brush, honest.
    Not really meaning that a good quality perfume cannot be appreciated (nay, loved) by any American, plain or otherwise! I'm certain that there are many Americans with a more sophisticated taste than an average rural boy in the Pyrennees for instance (just for illustration purposes, nothing against them), but we revert to what I said: There's got to be some education behind it all. The former must have arrived there through finetuning and through learning through exposure. Perhaps through a loving mother who knew how to guide, through living on a varied stimuli environment, through being in a city with lots of shopping choices, what not...Readers of this venue are proof of that, we attract a sophisticated crowd.
    Hence your little (delightful) experiment, in which indeed people told you why they didn't like it: I think you inspire them to find the words to articulate their impressions, which is the mark of a good "teacher"/guide. Certainly being interested in sensorial occupations like wine tasting, (microbrewry too), cooking etc. gives a head-start, absolutely no doubt about that!

    In the system, in the media, in the whole cultural milieu as perceived from a third party, from what I see, perfume is meant as a commodity for business rather than personal pleasure in the US (endless harping on on how it will land you men, how it will make you look younger or thinner for men and other women, how it will make you look confident at business meetings like you're chewing 100,000$ cheques for breakfast, how it will mop the floor and take the children for a walk under sunny skies etc etc etc). I leaf through American magazines and I watch American infomercials all the time on TV and there is so much emphasis on achieving! Everything has to work, and god forbid if it doesn't give "bang for the buck". There is a very strong emphasis on things "working out as they should" and where does this put perfume? How should perfume "work"???

    I was also going on what I have read by an American, living half-time in US and half-time in France, married to a French guy, namely author Debra Ollivier, who was also commenting on that aspect (she's your mirror image, I guess in a way, LOL). She seemed to make comparable observations. Of course I realize some is more impressionistically painted so as to sell copies, but still...

    I do hope they stop using cheap sprays at your workplace or at least they use them very very sparingly (I can't for the life of me imagine how anyone wouldn't be able to smell Flowerbomb!). It seems like education goes a long way into knowing HOW to apply too!


  14. I do want to emphasize that literature of the kind that glorifies one nation's women over another seems a bit bent on capitalizing on a kind of self-loathing imposed on US women by the media (and therefore sells copies), which I personally find rather repulsive. So, while I do concur with some of the observations per se, I wouldn't want to draw the same conclusions out of them! (ie. some nation's women are "better" than others> no, that is not so!)

  15. Helg, interesting post! In general, America is a nation that does not place particular importance on things that do not move us 'forward'. That old phrase, 'stop and smell the roses' is considered an indulgence, and is not particularly the norm as a way of behaving. From a young age, most of us are taught the value of moving...doing...achieving...exceeding. Only now, as our economy slows, am I seeing a cultural shift in this way of thinking. Perhaps Americans of the future will be stopping to smell the roses more often. :)

  16. Mary,

    thanks for stopping by! How are you?

    It's a very interesting observation you make as I was just above commenting to Minette that the feeling I get is that there is an emphasis on achieving, exactly! (Of course this also has its own upperside you know; contrasting with my own "tired", jaded, "seen it all" culture which often relies on the past with no big effort to go ahead in the future, I can vouch for that!)

    Time to smell the the roses, indeed! Perhaps it's a good thing that Americans have the chance to slow down a bit and enjoy themselves more with less (At least in the big cities, because I always pictured the farms and the rural places being so very picturesque and sloooow, people being extra helpful and talking to you when offering lemonade etc.; sounds cliche I know, LOL).

    BTW, I was reading recently how it was American housing crisis that catapulted the financial crisis in the first place and I know how you people give such a strong emphasis on a proper, nice, cozy home (like we do) and I was thinking "gee, people deprived of one of their core values, how gross". It was a disgrace (there's something comparable happening here as well and I can tell you, people are pissed!)

  17. Oh, what a great post! Thank you for that. But now I want to run out & dab perfume on all my friends' kids. Do you think they'll mind?

  18. SS,

    thank you, glad you enjoyed.
    If you ask their mothers' first, I wouldn't think that would be a problem! :D Great idea, in fact, bet they'd have fun!

    (Seriously though, although I'm sure you're talking playfully, I'd always ask a mother first before suggesting anything to a child; every house has their own "rules", not just about perfume, and it's important for the child to know where they stand. Served me well so far.)

  19. Great article!

    "The reasons behind such limits were purely ideological as spending time and money on beauty products was labelled as absolutely unnecessary."

    Not quite so. This ideology overruled our society during 20-50 years. But even in these years we had a few of perfumery factories, which made colognes and perfumes (even world-famous as Krasnaya Moskva). Men used aftershaves, e.g chypres. After 60s we had even more wide assortment of scented goods, but... they were not so good as French. :) So every woman could have domestic perfume, it was very cheap (1-5$) and quite accessible, or far better Baltic (Dzintars factory) - but she had to try find it.
    But attitude to perfume was quite puritanic, especially in old men.

  20. Remember that Poison, Giorgio, and the like were popular in the 80's! Then there was a backlash, and I believe now is mixed with the crazy trend of can't do or say anything around here lest we offend "someone" (which covers everything from perfume to politics to religion to lifestyle). In our quest to honor individuality, we're squashing all individuality by saying, oh, you can't do that, it may tread on your neighbor!!! What irony!!! If we don't stop this trend, we're all going to turn into generic representations of nothing. Total BLAH!!! OK, perhaps that's a bit extremist, but don't you totally see it??? I think I need to move to Europe, though it's probably not much better there...

  21. Oh, boy. This is fascinating...and has so many paths in. And out. Which cross each other.

    Path: Modern Kitchens
    The evolution of the modern kitchen, in the United States cropping out of a movement ca. 1920's, which emphasized antiseptic-ness. White, easily cleaned, devoid of clutter. An emphasis/influence that lasts to this day. Is there an equally traceable evolution in Europe? Do extra centuries of kitchen-existence mean less compulsion to modernize a la Lister and the antiseptic hospital?
    (You see, I am going to muse here, without trying to pronounce. Yet.)

    Path: Open Spaces
    We raised this one before. What if more room to roam means heightened desire/expectation for others to stay out of one's personal space...including via fragrance? Remember the big study showing the difference in "personal zones" between cultures? (At least half a foot, yes?)

    Path: 180 on an assumption
    This one I'd like to put a little "oomph" behind: why would a leaning toward "clean" manufactured scent de facto mean a person was less attuned to smell? (c.f. your first paragraph) Could it not mean, conversely, that the person/people were MORE attuned to smell, and choose to filter, because that which one adorns one's skin with follows you everywhere like a miasmic veil?

    Path: Striving
    Ho, boy, now here's a thesis. And a tough one, if interesting. I have for years heard multi-pats talk of the different cultures of work-ethic, of reaching, etcetera. Why would striving have anything to do with an aversion to "stronger" scents? (I am SO leaving out a rant on white musk here.) Unless--and this is appealing to the feminist in me--if scent for striving American women is a means to counter the aggressive message that other "apirational" ("bitchy?") behavior might be sending. Or perceived as sending. You know.

    I'd keep the Protestant messages linked to sexuality, but moving on to desires to be "clean" may well need to consider other paths, and not just church imposed sexual repression.

    Or maybe that's what it is all about.

    Or maybe Americans are constantly trying to wipe away history, to "clean" as it were, in order to clear away the messy business of how success might come with (bloody, unclean) costs. Because there is a manifest right to improve oneself. And an unpleasant whiff of suffering behind you.

    Whooooah...kind got going there. Anyway, I'll close with the last path:

    Path: Apologia
    Somebody else mentioned the big fragrances of the '80's. Maybe we're still running some sort of Superfund clean up of the perfumed realm? ;)

    By the way, my kids both started off in the garden before they could walk, rubbing plants and smelling hands. They have not, however, plucked a chicken.

    1. Latitude-2904:36

      Great analysis Scentscelf. Loved it.

      I think all what you've observed & transmitted could apply to all cultures that evolved from former Euro superpowers.

      What would be fascinating is to observe how much the santization zeal, effects former colonial countries, outside the Anglosphere.

      Would they have a greater connection to slowing down & smelling the roses, broadly; aesthetic from their original source? Or would they too have a diluted adherence, made thinner by the residual lust to make it in the new land; even if said new land aint that new now, & the subjects under observation have been born of many generations settled before them?

      Foot note:
      Newer countries mean newer bathrooms & kitchens too.

      Mainland Europe & the UK had small bathrooms in lower socio-economic abodes & sometimes none (tub in front of the fire once a week) up until the 1970s. UK governments offered 'bathroom' grants to have them retro-fitted.

      US: "a bath or shower a day" promoted as an economic great-depression recovery aid. ie construction, spending on everything related to the physical incarnation of the bathroom to repeated consumption of soaps, shampoos & cleaning products to keep new big bathrooms super-sanitary.

      Literally sold more bricks & bubblebath.

  22. Anonymous02:02

    i would love to see some sort of curriculum devoted to scent. but our schools can barely teach our children reading and writing. here in houston, we are now paying children to do well in math (parents get cash, too). there is so much emphasis on only teaching kids what they need to know to pass the TAKS test, they are lucky if they get any arts education at all. and guess what gets cut first when they slash budgets? art, music, theatre... because they don't test them on those subjects. heaven forbid you cut the football budget, though.

    scent awareness certainly enhances one's life, and it would be a lovely form of enrichment. i think i will look into finding funding to do some of it. as a writer and producer with connections in education, i certainly could. the only way a school district would present it to kids is if it were paid for by somebody else.

    another thing about our culture is our extreme busyness. busy, busy, busy. no time to stop and smell the roses. the only time i ever lingered for hours over a meal was in france, with family. here we eat meals standing up, at our desks, in our cars, and in front of the tv. we love good food, but we want it fast. and i don't see a lot of savoring going on.

    and people don't take a lot of time to just shoot the breeze about stuff - to share their discoveries. you can do it for a few minutes, but then you feel guilty, like someone is watching you and thinking you are "wasting time." so you scurry back to your desk and get back to work. sadly those precious short moments of sharing life's experiences wind up being the best of your day. there should be more of them, but we cheat ourselves out of them.

    thanks for the incentive to look at ways to counteract these shortchanging forces.


  23. Tatyana,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    So I take it you disagree with the Russian writer you quote? Or is it that there were perfume toiletries and people embraced them, they just weren't as good as you'd like? I deduce the later, eh?
    Funny about the puritanical view on perfume by old men. Why is that I wonder? Cultural, religious (I assume Puritanical in eastern orthodox countries is just a figure of speech) or political reasons?

    Very interesting at any rate!

  24. Karin,

    I do see it, I do recall the craze for powerhouse perfumes very distinctly and I have also mentioned in the past how perfumers have told me that some perfumes were compounded in a way that the US version was more concentrated than the European one, because Americans wanted their perfume to be strong (this also ties with the "bang for the buck" theory I pronounced before under Minette's comment). I also recall SJP pronouncing that "we Americans love our body odour" (which sounded totally weird at the time, but I wonder if she's into something actually). So you see, it's all very puzzling!!!

    The "offending" phobia part seems to be a product of the last decade or so (maybe a little bit more) and it is very much guided through official channels and media, instead of just being an underground movement of the people. I have a theory that this first started from skincare and leaked into perfume later on: remember how Clinique in the late 60s (the late 60s for Pete's sake!) first started insisting on her "fragrance-free" products? (Of course we have learned that there is no product that doesn't smell; if it doesn't it means there are some substances involved used to mask the ingredients' own smell). This was heavily marketed to the point that "fragrance-free"="pure", aka good for you! After some years of pressing that, the leap into fragrances being bad for you, somehow makes sense to the general public. Does it not?

    I think that Europe doesn't engage in polemic against scents on the whole (I smell perfume and scented products routinely and sometimes quite a lot too), but there are other inherent problems: Are you ready for cultural clashes that haven't been already ingrained, a blase attitude to most things and a roaring financial crisis spreading like wildfire across the continent? :/

  25. S,

    thanks for as always a thought-provoking comment which opens up indeed paths I hadn't even thought of myself.

    Let's take everything one by one:

    Kitchens: If so, the American evolution is practical! And one wants to be practical in the kitchen. (Ask me and my oak-panneled kitchen cupboards and how difficult they are to maintain). But is it as antiseptic as all that? I think it's also a fault of "design" starting to be en vogue because European brand kitchens (I am thinking Italian of which I have knowledge) are very influenced by design, thus having this metal and chrome and granite look which looks a bit "sterile" (contrast with the rustic style). Aren't rustic style kitchens with warm colours a la Martha Steward desirable in the US anymore?

    Open spaces: I hadn't thought of that one and it totally makes sense!! The proximity of people and dwellings in Europe (historically) cannot be compared to the openess of the US.

    180 turn & "clean": Hmm, I didn't specifically refer to "clean manufactured smells" as a cultural preference of Americans: I think this is what is being gorged down your throats as a "desirable" scent milieu, not that you necessarily like it yourselves!! (and here enters SJP's remark about how "Americans, we love our body odour"!! Puzzling & intriguing, no?). Of course absence of smell could very well mean that one chooses to filter smells and opt for less. Can't argue with that. This would be an interesting (but very difficult to conduct) experiment: constrasting the pulchritude of the natural smellscape of different countries, cities, regions. And see whether it affects scent preferances to people unrelated to other factors.

    Striving: This was -above to my comment to Minette- referencing Max Weber and his own "thesis"-like analysis on the denial of pleasure as evidence of a religiously sanctioned ethic (and religion does propound work as a means of purifying one's soul, at least after the teachings of Pope Gregory the Great who cemented the 7 deadly sin etc etc).
    Whether American women use scent (or are led/coaxed) to counter the agressive messages of "achieving", this is a very interesting pronouncement. It does present its own difficulties though: Because historically the feminist movement and the era of "agressive" women's elevation in the workforce happened in the 70s and 80s. And that was an era of very powerful, almost "agressive" perfumes!

    On the other hand, you say: "Or maybe Americans are constantly trying to wipe away history, to "clean" as it were, in order to clear away the messy business of how success might come with (bloody, unclean) costs. Because there is a manifest right to improve oneself. And an unpleasant whiff of suffering behind you."
    I think you have brought up a very insightful observation. There is a lot of suffering behind people who came to the US in hopes of a better future, so perhaps they did want to improve themselves, scent choice or lack thereof tieing in with the whole package? What do you think?

    And yes, as I explained above to Karin, I DO think this whole "sterilising", "cleaning up" of the perfumed realm is somehow suspect and there's got to be some money being made involved in it, someplace: Superfund indeed! It's just got to! Something as zealously propagated and insisted on...hmmm....

    I had no doubt in my mind that kids of our readers are properly trained! :-D

  26. Minette,

    I can hear you! The observations you make are certainly rather depressing and unfair to a kid's (especially) whole outlook on the world later on. It's very true what you say: scent awareness does enhance one's life.

    But I can tell you that here education has also taken a course for the worse, exactly because there is immense emphasis on what children will be tested on for their University entering exams (which are much feared; there is a 1 in 4 ratio of kids entering on their first attempt, because higher education is free and therefore there's got to be some selective process to wean out the weaker links). Plus creative lessons and classic studies although included take on a weird path: There is 5 hours per week of teaching of ancient Greek for children of 12 and up (6 hours per week for lyceum kids), but the lesson has become quite "sterilised" so that kids don't see the point in learning it. Pity, no?

    Food is another interesting can of worms, as there is delicious cuisine in the US (I'm thinking of Southern cooking and Cajun, I'm sure there are other varieties as well) but what is advertised? Fast food and prepackaged food. Where are the traditional Southern ladies (whom we have a romantic notion of and thus admire in Europe) with always a good roast and real home-made stew on the pot?

    As to no time to smell the roses and the work ethic of "wasting" no time , well, I for one applaud in some small way the American ethic of really working the hours you're in the office. Many Europeans spend more time in the office accomplishing less because they're so distracted all the time! I have heard more life experiences from colleagues than I could really care of, LOL! There's a flip side to everything it seems ;-)

  27. I'm here...I'm thinking...I'll be back... :)

    (Love it all, btw.)

  28. Maria18:55

    Another Russian interfering with random musings :)
    Nobody, including (and especially) leaders of state, believed in official propaganda about decadent West; the popular idea was that there was no access to the perfume so that public would not face the difference in quality between imported and native products. As somebody said at the time on another matter, "if you never wore Czech running shoes you really believe that the Soviet are great." Most people just went along with what they found. But real-life experience was largely various, so I do think generalizations are not quiet appropriate here. I'd say that access to European production was extremely difficult but it still existed, and Soviet states' products were much more accessible. It's more that most people lived in very hard financial circumstances and didn't want to spend any money on anything they deemed unnecessary, be it even $1-5. Choice was limited and consumption low only if compared to Europe. If somebody wanted a perfume and didn't have ambitions to wear only “Dior” there was absolutely no problem with that in cities and most towns. You had to know places and people, but it's everywhere like that even now, I think. Village shops received only Soviet colognes, but they were always there. Imported perfume was a status symbol, and this is still true, just drive for 2 hours away from any big city. It's not the idea that perfume is generally good, it's a famous brand that is good.
    A bit off: I’m in Washington DC right now, and I’ve smelled perfume only twice during this week, both times on men and both times it was hit-your-nose STRONG smell :) Nobody complained about my Prada’s L’eau ambrée and beloved Eau des merveilles so far :)

  29. Anonymous21:08

    nice to see the discussion continuing!

    i must've mentioned this theory of mine somewhere before, but i have noticed that there is an inverse relationship between women's dress and perfume.

    back when perfumes were much more sexy, animalic and had breath and life in them - and connected with the living, breathing human body more directly, instead of just sitting on top of skin like a cupcake corsage or a fruit cocktail - women's dress was more ladylike, refined and buttoned-up. our dress only gave hints at the treats to be found underneath, while our scents whispered "she looks like a lady, and she is, but she is also one sexy beast under here."

    now, when women show so much skin, and regular young girls dress like streetwalkers to go out to the clubs, the perfumes are all about sweetness and innocence. in a sense, they negate the visual message: "she may look and dress like a whore, but she's really a sweet, innocent child underneath this get-up."

    how this happened, i do not know. but as we got more daring in our dress, we became much more demure in our scent. not that some modern fruity-florals can't scream; they can. but that sweet "i'm just a little girl" note plays through much of what's out there now. i just smelled gucci guilty yesterday at neiman's, and the SA and i were trying to place the many other perfumes it reminded us of... all pleasant, but unmemorable, gucci guilty itself. i had the same reaction to VCA orien.

    based on my wardrobe vs. perfume theory, lady gaga must smell like a can of spray starch or a bar of unscented soap. :) of course, i was bored with her look from the start, so i don't care how she smells.


    p.s. i wound up buying a back-up bottle of francis kurkdjian's lumiere noire, which i swear he made just for me. love love love it. it melds with my skin and becomes a part of me. my olfactory aura. he knew what i meant when i complained about the candy corsage perfumes - how they just sit there on top of you. he said he made his with the human body in mind - so they wouldn't do that. sweet, talented man.

  30. Whew, what an interesting post and conversation, to come into late! Yes, I think the ordinary Amurrican is of Puritanical stock, suspicious of Luxury especially with European names and smells that are hard to place or understand.....................when I began to be very involved with perfume, I was fascinaed that the worst thing one could say about a scent was that is "very perfumey" or "old ladyish" which to me meant something glam and fabulous.

    I have a friend in a class I take who is verrry sensitive to everything, she says she "hates all perfume" but it turns out that she loves all of my perfume and likewise that of a guy in our class who is also very serious about it, he and I are alway comparing notes ; ) While there are several people in the class who wear rather unbearable B & B types of scents, or normal Dept Store fare, and they don't seem to be able to tell the dif.

    They say that many American schoolkids think that flowers smell like air freshener, and I had this experience with a neighbor's child who came to chat with me while I was pruning a beautifully scented rose, eek! She was only 9 or so, and Latin, I thought she might have been exposed to other indigenous scents at home. Where to start?

    But I'm sure most of us in the audience of Perfume Shrine, regardless of our own cultural biases educations early experiences etc were always drawn to the much of this has to do with culture and education, while the rest is sensibility.

    Thanks for venturing into such interesting territories, Helg! XXX

  31. I don't want to get into the discussion - I don't feel I have anything more to say that hasn't already been said.
    What actually scared me after reading your post Helg is - are my children going to know all the scents I got to know in my childhood? I used to spend a lot of time at my mother's family in the country and remember the smells of all domestic animals they had, and places they lived. :) Drinking warm milk straight after it was milked, seeing a chicken getting beheaded (only once, that was enough), accidentally breaking an egg that turned out bad (ugh!), the dank smell of the cellar where wine was kept (that part of our country is famous for the somewhat lacking quality of wine that is usually acidic). Oh, the smells of childhood. I wish them on my children and wonder if they will be available for them.

  32. Not wise to make a point based on literary source, but I just read in Jeffrey Eugenides novel "Middlesex", that immigrants working for Ford Motor company had sanitary inspections in their homes, teaching them to take a shower every day and brush their theet. Maybe hygiene and cleanliness was and still is a kind of scrubbing "the melting pot"?

  33. Anonymous23:56

    As an American, I love smells and perfumes, but the one thing I would ban would be oversprayers. I don't want to smell your Light Blue or your Angel when I'm walking ten paces behind you. Even Coco Madmoiselle is wretch inducing at the mercy of some people's sprayer fingers. Maybe while we teach our children to appreciate scents, we should teach them the art of subtlety too.

  34. Anonymous15:24

    I grew up in USSR.
    We had many different perfumes in
    shops - imported from France, Poland and other countries and great veriety of russian fragrances.
    My first perfume (I was 14 at the time) was Diorissimo, my mother had Magie Noire, Miss Dior, Diorella, Klimat,J'OSE,my sister had Fidji, Madame Rochas, Turbulences, and later, when i was at Uni I had Gem, Dune and a few more..Please do not think that we didn't know anything, but Red Moscow and grey smelly soap..We had much much more than that)))
    p.s. I am from normal,average family.

  35. Wendy,

    [late but...]

    I sorta think that the more overexposed one is to artificiality, the more they appreciate it over nature: just look at the change that lifestyle has brought to us on how to look at bodies for instance. In the past, no straight man looked a woman in the midriff for sexual thrills (they looked at her butt or her tits or if they were extra refined to her legs and calves or shoulders and waist-ratio etc). Now they check pectorals and six-packs. Imagine how artificial that is, taking in mind no woman gets pecks and six-packs without a rigorous specified exercise regimen. Artificial.

    Same way with roses. You have to "make them up" to make them palatable these days, I guess ;-)

  36. Ines,

    sadly our children won't get to taste and smell the same environment. It's Heraklit all over again: you can't cross the same river twice. The world is changing.
    We can at least try to offer them stimuli.

  37. Idomeneus,

    I suppose that's accurate enough: there is a disregard or racism against people who don't conform to this "scrubbed clean" culture. Come to think of it, of course, it's more hygienic that way, though it doesn't exactly have to do with origin/culture as it has to do with means/opportunity (when you don't have running water, your options are severely limited)

  38. Anon,

    exactly! Overspraying with anything is anathema. The refinement comes with a price: knowing when to stop and put the spray down. Perfume does take up space, so we might be welcoming instead of bludgeoning people down with a hammer fist of anything.

  39. Anon from USSR,

    perhaps it all has to do with age brackets? Older generations had much less options (certainly not French imports, perhaps contraband?). I know there were people from Eastern Europe locally working who always demanded sanitary napkins from my mother as a gift to send over, because they didn't have any back home. Then practices broadened and this almost disappeared.
    So not discounting your experience at all. Just saying.

  40. Anonymous10:22

    From USSR historical excursion:
    So sorry for these napkin shortage and desperation story!! We didn’t have it. I mean napkin shortage. There were always enough
    resources to produce that kind of soft paper. Probably people see and have associations what they tuned up with.
    Yes, my Grandmother didn’t have Chanel N5 during Stalin Regime; especially during WWII women in my country had something else
    to worry about, even though, I remember fine elegant crystal bottles of nice Soviet Era’ perfumes on my grandmother’s dressing table.
    Later, all French and other imported perfumes were available in the shops, legally; we had our perfumes NOT from the black market or other sources.
    I even remember prices, shop called “Gifts” (Podarki) existed not in the biggest city of the country and it was especially busy atmosphere there during New Year period or 8March celebrations.
    Surprisingly, ones (being Uni student at the summer “work practice”) I visited small rural bush village and in the village shop I bought ...”Bal a Versailles” of Jean Desprez!!!! I still have that tiny flat round bottle, now it is vintage, but since then this particular fragrance take my feelings to deep green bush, not to Versailles silky-velvet costume Bal ambience.

    For art – history curiosity: Alexandre Vassiliev is author of many interesting books about aesthetic traditions in fashion, costumes, art, theatre and beauty values of my country. “Beauty in Exile” - is one of them.
    Thank you.

  41. Anonymous15:20

    USSR visitor
    Ah, those napkins!
    Very uninspected item emerged in such high note of Perfumery Art Site!
    Really amazed! Truly intelligent dialog..
    Just saying..)))

  42. Well, I'm going to sit and "learn" by association, I guess.


    The Soviet state of things seems to still be quite sensitive to be deconstructed completely. Perhaps in 50 years' time. :-)
    It's interesting it cropped up on a post that differentiates between Europe and the US mainly.

  43. Anonymous05:11

    USSR visitor

    Indeed, as well as common clichés and prejudice seem hard to be deconstructed, like a stubborn bug.

    I could write down long list of USSR perfumes with descriptions and characteristics, some of them were masterpieces (Gold of Skiffs – received prize in perfume exhibition in Paris, around 1984-1986, Elena, Tête-à-tête, White Lilac, Kokete…and so on….) but I guess
    It is history now and not part of European marketing. And also, probably many of them were discontinued or reformulated
    which is almost tragedy (that what happened with “Magie Noire” and “Fiji”).

    In regards of grooming variations - Joanne Harris in her “Five quarters of the orange” (this novel she wrote for memory of her French Grandmother), so writer mentioned the way French women use to resolve womanhood monthly complications and this didn’t diminish
    anything or anyone.

    From Russian woman with love.

  44. USSR lady,

    thanks for the ongoing discussion and the interesting info!

    I have heard of White Lilac though I have never been able to track some down (lilac happens to be one of my elusive "notes" I try to perfect in my mind through fragrant juice), and I seem to recall Kokete, though I might be thinking of something else, something Polish. Have you smelled all these?

    No intention of diminishing anyone, surely, by me or any other poster. The vagaries of changing administrations and political systems has its own "victims" and we're all bound by what others decide for us. :/

    I now need to track down the five Quarters of the Orange novel by Joanne Harris: not that we considered the French as being too "clean" about certain procedures (speaking from experience with French friends, though one shouldn't generalize). But it should be interesting reading nonetheless. ;-)

  45. Anonymous20:53

    First off, let me say that this isn't addressed to anyone in particular. Especially since I'm responding two years too late! Anyway, Max Weber's analysis of the US should not be taken seriously. His intriguing ideas are based on a "history" that never happened. The work has been thoroughly debunked and is regarded as history's equivalent of pseudoscience.

    In my own experiences as an upper-middle class American child, everyone started wearing fragrances at age 9. It was a fashion requirement for that age and up. And while it's unlikely that an American would spray fragrance on their child each day, it's very common for parents to use strongly perfumed lotions on their babies and youngsters.

  46. That's fascinating to read. Thank you!
    I admit I haven't been aware of Weber's theories being completely debunked, as mentioned, (certainly they do hold truth for influencing the masses), but your anecdotal experience is very important and sheds new light on the situation.

    This might confirm the schizo impression I get that Americans really do love strong scents and strong smells deep down, contrary to what is advertised as "light" and "fresh" and their recent demand for "clearing the air" and creating a "scent-free environment" (only in what concerns fine fragrance on one's person, I'm led to believe). After all, some of the best-selling scents in the US are deceptively "light" (see Eternity and al)

  47. Anonymous03:15

    I'm also two years late. Great topic Elena.
    Why are the French...

    My answer is "Sensuality" and not necessarily predominantly sexual per se'. The whole cultural revolution (back to nature) of the 60's catapulted patchouli, sandalwood and every earthy resin to high heaven! My guess is, many of them became future consumers of fine fragrances :-) Seriously, though, there are generations now that have lived in city jungles without a home garden to be seen for miles. What gardener doesn't love the smell of wet earth after it rains? That's pretty sensual to me!
    For the most part, urban families do not know livestock smells of living animals in their natural habitat. There are such wonderful subtle fragrant nuances you can't explain to people.( Wet hay/grass, even if some of it is soiled
    or maybe, because it is).

    At one time in our history, we experienced such horrible, unsanitary conditions in our slaughter houses. (You can't blame us for wanting everything plucked, washed,and neatly packaged.)

    Then, there is that thing called sex. There are people who are comfortable and uncomfortable with their sexuality. For whatever reason, and yes, I imagine it has a puritanical essence:-) Human bodies produce odors like the rest of the animal kingdom. (Wow-- what a shocker!) When in our history did we start masking our humanness, for that sole purpose? I don't know.

    No one wants to walk around smelling like sex, but it also isn't a "dirty" odor like most Americans call it. I've heard people say "dirty sex" so often, I cannot fathom exactly what that is. It is such a pervasive mentality here.

    Like everything else in life, there are so many different answers.

  48. Anonymous11:28

    Very interesting article. It really made me think abaut smells in general and brought back some lovely memories.

    I grew up in Poland and my childhood was filled with smells. My grandma lived in a village and I spent all my holidays with her. I remember smell of guttered chicken you mentioned, smell of cows, fresh milk, freshly cut grass, blooming linden, fresh morning air, summer rain - the list can go on and on. Now, I seem to choose scents that are somewhat familiar to me, bring memories back. I still love smelling random things and I remember situations, things, people through sense of smell.

    I live in Britain now and it smells very different to my home country. Britain smells to me mostly of wet wood, wet suede, wet stones - the range of smells is not as wide as in Poland, but it is nice as well and I love this deep, wet smell of this country.

    Coming back to perfume in Poland. I was born in 1980, so cannot really say anything about 0s or 70s. In 80s we had polish perfumes and some of them were quite good, but because there was no much variety most women wore the same scent.My mum never was without perfume. Older ladies (I mean born in 1920s)mostly did not wear perfume at all. In late 80s and 90s we had shops with western goods, where you could pay with dollars. They were quite expensive for most people. And yes, we loved everything western because it was hard to get:)

    Nowadays most of polish women wear perfume. Regarding availability of perfume we are no different from any other western country (sometimes I cannot believe how fast our country had changed!). Perfumes are still quite expensive but much more affordable and there is a growing number of ladies who explore perfume world. I have also noticed that they have quite high expectations towards their scents. What I mean is: when I read english fragrantica the reviews are mostly 'love, love', on polish website they are usually more critical:)

  49. Anonymous11:29

    Very interesting article. It really made me think abaut smells in general and brought back some lovely memories.

    I grew up in Poland and my childhood was filled with smells. My grandma lived in a village and I spent all my holidays with her. I remember smell of guttered chicken you mentioned, smell of cows, fresh milk, freshly cut grass, blooming linden, fresh morning air, summer rain - the list can go on and on. Now, I seem to choose scents that are somewhat familiar to me, bring memories back. I still love smelling random things and I remember situations, things, people through sense of smell.

    I live in Britain now and it smells very different to my home country. Britain smells to me mostly of wet wood, wet suede, wet stones - the range of smells is not as wide as in Poland, but it is nice as well and I love this deep, wet smell of this country.

    Coming back to perfume in Poland. I was born in 1980, so cannot really say anything about 0s or 70s. In 80s we had polish perfumes and some of them were quite good, but because there was no much variety most women wore the same scent.My mum never was without perfume. Older ladies (I mean born in 1920s)mostly did not wear perfume at all. In late 80s and 90s we had shops with western goods, where you could pay with dollars. They were quite expensive for most people. And yes, we loved everything western because it was hard to get:)

    Nowadays most of polish women wear perfume. Regarding availability of perfume we are no different from any other western country (sometimes I cannot believe how fast our country had changed!). Perfumes are still quite expensive but much more affordable and there is a growing number of ladies who explore perfume world. I have also noticed that they have quite high expectations towards their scents. What I mean is: when I read english fragrantica the reviews are mostly 'love, love', on polish website they are usually more critical:)

  50. Anon #1,

    thank you for your excellent analysis, from a US point of view I deduce. It's very logical and makes perfect sense.
    As to "dirty sex", I always liked Woody Allen's definition (it is if you do it right), even though with all the controversy around WA's personal life it might sound more wicked than it was meant to be. ;)

  51. Anon #2,

    fascinating comparison and point of view.

    To me England is two polar opposites: flowers and cow dung, no middle ground (if you exclude shepherd's pie which smells intensely of sheep). LOL!

    I bet POland with its exciting political history was an anomaly behind the Iron Curtain and indeed the 80s must have been a unique period in that regard. There's a treatise waiting there to be drafted.

  52. This is an older article but facinating so I'm compelled to comment!

    In North America, the saying "cleanliness is next to godliness" was the mantra. And, yes, it all stems from the puritanical Protestant mindset from early on. When you think about modern perfumery (1900+) in the early days you would be hard pressed to not find real civet and musk, the scents were positively carnal. Even Guerlain, while not a musky animaliac house, the sweetness of the vanilla, the pure richness of their scents, might have been seen as sinful.

    Add this puritanical mindset to the (irrational) fear of "chemicals" and synthetics these days and you have a perfect recipe for fear of scents. Where as in France and the rest of Europe you know scents are fine, they are part of the culture therefore they are part of you. Here in NA, not everyone has had scents in life normalized for them from a young age.

    1. Thank you Boop for explaining it so economically; much more succinctly than I ever could! "They're part of the culture therefore they are part of you" does sum up perfectly the notion of scent in the European mindset.

    2. Thank you for graciously replying! Your engagement makes this blog even better!

    3. I like to pride myself on the quality of my readers, first and foremost. Through them I learn a lot and get better myself. Thank you for the most gracious and intelligent comments.

  53. Anonymous02:20

    Perhaps the increase of allergies, sensitivities and migraines to perfumes in the US is from the US using cheap synthetic chemicals in their perfumes versus quality ingredients like essential oils!

    1. This just doesn't make sense at all. Mass produced perfumes (even niche) are made from the same ingredients. Even U.S. household cleansers are scented with chemicals developed and produced in the scent region of France. U.S. fragrance producers like Narciso and Estee Lauder use French produced scent ingredients.

      Essential oils aren't always better, citrus is a photosensitizer which is very harmful for the skin. Other oils are volatile and irritating. Far more so than "chemicals" which are often partly created to make scented products *less* irritating.

    2. Anon,

      I think Boop has explained why the argument is somewhat lacking, if we really get down to it logically.
      I will give it to you though that the rhetoric of "natural" vs "chemical" has blurred the lines of logic with their own agenda. It pains me that with it, it has taken the small artisanal lines who battle for aesthetics instead of "one gospel truth"....

      I also refer you to my more elaborate article which tackled this subject:


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