Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How French Women Do It (Wear Perfume, That Is!)

There is a huge market of marketing all things French to Anglosaxons and in that respect the title of today's post is in part taken off a popular "French lifestyle guide" aimed at Americans. Even though I have serious doubts about the factual veracity of both the "glamour puss" image of the French or the "gauche" approach of Anglos on all matters lifestyle (or is it?), there is something to be said about the interest that is generated about the use of perfume the French way in the hearts of fragrance lovers who devour all perfume advice with an insatiable appetite! In that regard I have amassed some excerpts from various sources which I will present to you in installments.

Allure Magazine recently published a beauty article called "French Lessons", by Judy Bachrach, focusing on perfume choosing and application rules. Even though most of the "rules" are field for heated discussion (especially since they rely on a certain national stereotype that seems to perpetuate a humiliating response in the American reader, following the trendy viewpoint of dumping on everything American), we thought it might provide fodder for discussion for our readers.
So here are the 7 Rules on How to Wear Perfume the French Way, according to Allure magazine:
1. There is only one reason, if you're French, to wear perfume. And that reason is seduction.
2. In France the scent you dab defines who you are.
3. A girl who picks a fragrance at 12 doesn't have to remain true to the scent for life.
4. There are times when you simply have to divorce your perfume.
5. Try not to wear the same scent as your mother.
6. Never leave home without it.
7. Never ask a Frenchwoman what perfume she's wearing. They don't want to share their signature scent.

On the other hand, even in books which rely rather on expanding the above mentioned social divide that lies between these two very different countries (and in general between Anglos and continental Europe), there are interesting tidbits about perfume use. The reason probably is that even though it's the French who made perfume the marketable good that it is, cultivating the fragrance industry early and seriously, it's really the Anglos who have a keen interest in fragrance, smelling it, owning it, collecting it and alternatively enthusiastically embracing it or shunning it with just as much passion.
Writes Helena Frith Powell (an author on the subject): "French women use everything they can to seduce men, including perfume. They’re mad about it. Most of them won’t leave the house without it. If you go into a perfumery in France once the sales assistant will offer to ‘perfume’ you. I can see why. Their men are equally mad about the way women smell. I once sat next to a French man at a dinner. Half-way through the starter he turned to me and whispered: “Your perfume is intoxicating.” As an English girl I’m not used to that sort of comment. It half made me want to throw up, but it also made me feel rather, well, intoxicating and seductive."

In Fatale, How French Women Do It by Edith Kunz, the seminal little guide into all things French which spawned a legion of similar style  volumes, (some more serious than others), there is a chapter devoted to French perfume use. In it, the author rightfully demonstrates how the habit of perfume wearing began in France as a temporary cure for a general state of filth and expands into describing the (supposed) French ritual of wearing fragrance for purposes of seduction. Even though the procedure isn't particularly novel ~bath soak in aromatic oils, followed by scented body lotion and scented dusted powder, with fragrance as an end note~, it does present a couple of interesting tidbits: According to Kunz French femme fatales apply perfume to the pulse points with a generously moistened cotton puff instead of fingers or the stopper (My own suggestion of a better way to do that would be to use a small silk handerchief on the stopper, which can then aromatize your handbag). As to where to put that perfume, perhaps the most famous quip comes from Chanel who suggested to a client asking "wherever you want to be kissed". Not to quench anyone's imagination, but there is a plethora of (unusual) key points to consider in your fragrancing ritual:

heels, arches and between the toes
the inner and outer ankle bone
behind the knees
the underside of the derriere
the pubic area and the navel
under each breast and between the breasts
the shoulders and upper arms
inside the bend of the elbow
the pulse points at the inner wrist
the back of the hand and between the fingers
the hollow at the bottom of the neck
all around the collar bone
under the chin
along the jaw line
behind the ears and on the earlobes
on the temples
along the back of the neck to the shoulder blades
around the hairline

If this isn't enough for your routine, I don't know what might be! Surely a loaded, decadent perfuming process, but one which would make one unforgettable. Whether that would be in a positive or negative light remains within the grasp of your actual perfume choice and one crucial detail, in the words of Powell "don’t overdo it, perfume has to give a hint of sweet things to follow, not knock your date out". Eh, bien sûr!

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Drapeau tricolore: Quintessential French Perfumes Selection, Stars & Stripes: 10 Quintessentially American Perfumes.

art illustration via


  1. Anonymous15:16

    Yes, and we here in the States so often ask, What are you wearing? And people will tell you. Interesting.

  2. annemariec23:25

    Fun post, thanks! Sadly, however, as nearly all fragrance (except extrait) comes in spray bottles, the romantic and sexy ritual of dabbing here and there cannot be accomplished as it used to be. We've gained a great deal (perhaps) in terms of preserving our fragrances, but the fragrance ritual has lost some of its allure. Ah well.

  3. Anonymous04:28

    Fantastic post. The interest in the French and perfume is one that is really inexplicable to me, but it certainly makes for thought provoking reading.

  4. I don't usually ask what someone is wearing, but I will often say something like: "You smell divine!" If that person is sufficiently pleased to offer the name of the perfume (and they often do), I am satisfied. If not, well I understand.

  5. Anonymous02:05

    I live in Florida and have never been to France but would love to go. I once was in my local supermarket waiting or a couple steaks to be cut and this smell hit my nose, it was someone's gorgeous perfume but one that smelled far too exotic to be worn by a southern gal. I turned around and saw the thinnest, most gorgeous 40 year old woman I had ever seen. She was in head to toe black and then she spoke, she need beef and lots of it. I sat there stunned. She smelled so amazing, her scent just wafted around her like a cloud and she was so chic. In my mind, she WAS exactly what I imagined every french woman to be like. And BTW she said all the beef was for "Zee Dog"!!!!

  6. Joseph,

    with the hindsight of several scent favourites getting discontinued due to a lack of sales, I can safely say that whenever someone asks because they're charmed, it's best to tell...Every bottle counts!

  7. Anne Marie,

    you have a point there! I guess someone can theoretically pull the plug and go for extrait...It's a romantic gesture, reserved for romantic insouciance as to the price asked. No? :-)

  8. Another Perfume Blog (hey, love your sense of humour!),

    thanks, glad it's of interest!
    I think the French have marketed themselves exceedingly well and there has always been a very close tie with the US since so many French brands have a US branch working for them (see Chanel for instance). It seems that in order to sell in the US it's advisable to reference French, while the French are also magnetically drawn (but furiously denied when pressed!) to anything Anglo: in fact, historically speaking, they often make a "trend" off something they picked up from the British, who are apparently great in innovation and rather slow on the marketing smarts.
    Of course the Americans are the real academics of marketing; they leave nothing to chance.

  9. QC,

    wise thinking! I bet you get satisfactory results most of the time.

    As I said above to Joseph, although I would be peeved if someone very close to me started copying my scent (I really don't know why, it's not a logical reflex; is it because we so often relate personal scent to identity?), I often say what I wear to strangers or friends asking: It helps keep the perfume in question in production! Not to be bypassed as an argument for sharing these days, LOL.

    There's a specific gratification in satisfying one's curiosity in asking another that loaded question though, isn't there? Confirming one's hunch or laying down the possibilities...

  10. Anon,

    the only things she missed was the beret and the baguette under her arm! Precious!

    I'm now greatly intrigued by your "far too exotic to be worn by a southern gal" descriptor as to what is considered "too exotic". Care to elaborate?

  11. Eeeeeeep. Me not want seduce.

    Most of my perfume goes onto my left arm. I'm right-handed so obviously, I grab the flacon in my right paw and spray where it comes handy and where I can smell it. In here, nobody cares much about smelling better than random drugstore thingy applied generously so why waste my precious Molyneux' old version of Vivre, which is a stunning violet chypre, on the ignorant crowd.

  12. L,

    I don't understand the whole "seduce" thing either! I doubt all French women use perfume as a seduction wile on top of that; I think all those rules are just a cliche. But it obviously makes some other people dream, gets perpetuated and it's worth noting down for anthropo-sociological reasons ;-)

    I tend to spray my left arm as well; it's easier to lift to the nose and check periodically, while doing things with the right hand, isn't it.
    Keep on to your Molyneux frags, but don't let them get too much hibernated; they need to get out and play too! Life is short, perfume eventually spoils.

  13. Wordbird10:59

    'The underside of the derriere'? Really? I've heard the expression 'even her arse smells of roses', but that's ridiculous! :)

    My suggestion - as a Euro gal who has several French friends - is that in fact French people wear fragrance as a pleasure for themselves, and the kind of person who indulges their senses is seductive.

    Here's an insight into French thinking: in every bathroom I've ever visited there is a large bottle of Eau de Cologne. Nothing special, just a supermarket brand, but it's there to literally 'freshen up' during the day in the summertime (and no, not as an alternative to showering - they shower a lot). When it's hot, french people go to the bathroom and splash some Eau de Cologne over their chests, wrists and even backs to cool themselves off. Fragrance, like food, is part of life for them, certainly not the sin some rather more dour Northern European nations might see it as.

    Having said that, one French friend explained that French people tend not to over-indulge and to be careful about their figures because 'they want to look good in their clothes - they're terribly vain!' So perhaps there's a little bit to that seduction idea.

  14. Wordbird,

    I'm with you. I think there is a mythology about the French that is perpetuated through these "lifestyle" "self-help" guide books into "discovering your inner French person" that sell (apparently) so well to Anglos.
    If there weren't the element of seduction weaved into the mythology the sales would take a chaffing, I bet ;-)

    I do think that ~on the whole~ the French do not shower with the frequency or dedication ofsome other nations, though, and I'm saying that through experience and without being an American myself (i.e. a paragon of 100% hygienically, surgically clean). That said, grouping en masse the French as the Great Unwashed is a fallacy as well; there are always individuals within any group.

    The Eau de Cologne habit is indeed a wonderful habit that runs its course throughout the Mediterranean countries and each one of them has their own specific local make, which they tend to favour over others. Or several! I love this idea of using fragrance for a sense of well-being! :-)

  15. Anonymous00:45

    re; the french being 'unwashed' might this myth have stuck from the pre-revolution days? The English saw the French as being generally vile for a long time and that included their personal habits. This is where you get the English saying "pardon my french" before you swear. I think for many cultures which are thousands of years old, a couple of hundred years is nothing and some ideas take a long time to dissipate regardless of how true they are.

  16. Anon,

    surely! The Enlightnment and the period of Napoleonic years changed a lot in perceptions, but it takes time as you say.
    The whole Brits mocking the French as being unwashed is pretty funny to southerner me because we also "consider" the Brits to be unwashed too! (Well, it's a cliche and individuals are individuals, but…) I suppose living in a cold climate with scaly water, not sweating daily, not having the habit of taking a swim in the sea and washing immediately at the beach showers for 4-5 months a year all play a part in this too. Sometimes geographical position dictates cultural characteristics.

    As it is, no one can compete with Americans on the clean standard today (at least what is pushed as the nation's ideal). Sometimes it can go too far.

  17. I think knowing how to apply perfume is the key to smelling good without killing others around you with your scent being to overbearing. Applying perfume to some of the pulse points mentioned above has done the trick. I had a coworker to approach me one day at work giving me a hug telling me how amazing I smelled. She even asked what I was wearing and as much as I appreciated the complement I also neglected to disclose my secret fragrance. I just told her thank you and that I had bathed that morning. I know one may say well that's just plain sarcastic. Some fragrances Do that I wear I don't mind sharing but if its one that's really special to me I will remain secretive in what I'm wearing because I don't want someone to smell like me.


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