Friday, April 19, 2013

Mementos in Scent: From Perfumed Gloves to Handbags to Scented Handkerchiefs

Sometimes inanimate objects, accessories like handbags or scarves, gain a scent patina through use which can't be rinsed by the passage of ever destructible time. They stand there to remind us of the people who have inhabited those objects like spirits inhabit an attic, ghosts of the past, memories etched in scent.

In Kathleen Tessaro's 1950s-set novel "The Perfume Collector" the reinventing herself heroine receives small consolation from her best friend upon finding out -early in the book- that her husband is cheating with a glamorous society lady: a fragranced handkerchief. "She wanted to apologize; to reach out and hold Grace's hand and reassure her. But she didn't know how. If only she'd have the gumption to wrestle Vanesa to the ground on behalf of her friend. Instead, she did what her mother used to do; one of the only signs of affection that ever passed between them. Mallory took a fresh handerchief out of her coat pocket. It smelled faintly of Yardley Lily of the Valley toilet water, the perfume that haunted the bedrooms of her chilhood. She pressed it into Grace's hand. 'Take this darling. Just in case'."

Scent can even get better on a handkerchief than on the body, but for a truly sensual experience there's nothing like a handkerchief that has been kept warm by a special someone's body and slowly diffused the fragrance they have used. I used to keep a scented scarf of my beloved when I was traveling tucked inside my lingerie, knowing the warmth when the items would be worn would rekindle the scent of him. Handbags are no less poignant, especially the old hard-structured kind, with its sturdy leather and soft silk interior. The saturation of the fabric brought its own smells: face powder, lipstick, perfume, flowers decaying, the metallic scent of loose change, paper and pen...Annick Goutal recreated that beloved impression in her room spray Le sac de ma mere.

 Gloves have a noble history behind them. Apart from leather ones, nevertheless, those made out of wool, cotton or silk can also yield their own passionate stories. Ellen, one of my readers sent me the following story: Her now deceased mother used to tell her a story about her own mother, an impeccably dressed lady who used to wear white gloves when she went out.The grandmother went out to dinner at a restaurant which was frequented by older ladies. After she came home, she realized that she had left her gloves at the restaurant and asked her daughter to go and bring them back. She of course complied and asked the owner if a pair of white gloves had been found. He brought out a box in which there were literally a hundred pairs of white gloves and shrugged his shoulders. But undaunted, Ellen's mother picked up each pair of gloves and sniffed them. After about twenty pairs, she told the manager that she had found her dmother's gloves. He looked at her and asked her how she could be so sure, and she replied that the gloves smelled of April Violets, by Yardley, and that was the fragrance my grandmother always wore. She brought them home and my grandmother said that yes, they were in fact, her gloves.

What are your scented mementos? Do you have a story involving a fragranced object? Please feel free to share in the comments.


  1. annemariec22:39

    Oh April Violets! My mother's signature scent for about fifty years. I keep a bottle and use it to scent my handkerchiefs, in her memory. I can attest to the fact that it lingers well on fabric.

    I too noticed that Yardley reference in Tessaro's book. Later I realised that in referencing a rather staid English perfume, the novelist had enhanced the contrast between the English and the French characters and English and French style. Certainly the perfumes that Grace goes on to smell are nothing like anything brought out by Yardley. There is nothing remotely sexy in a Yardley perfume, nothing suggestive of skin or hair or anything of the body. That early mention of Lily of the Valley is a darned clever device.

    Lovely post - I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Maria05:40

    I don't have a story, but I try to create one myself :) I love gloves and I have literally dozens of them, of different materials and different everything. Part of it is climate - here in Russia you need gloves most of the year, part is just coquetry: even here those lacy thins are not necessary in Summer... And I do try to perfume them, which maybe tricky as perfume can stain fabrics and even leather, so I don't recommend spraying directly on the thing itself. I came up with this technique: I spray a scent on a piece of fabric and then wrap a pair in this cloth (paper is also good). Works fine with leather gloves with wool or plush linings or with any other kind, really...
    But then there's a caveat: gloves can leave scent on your hands. It really is something to remember!

  3. AMC,

    thanks, glad you enjoyed!

    There's something about April Violets then. :-)
    As to Tessaro's book, indeed there are a few cleverly put references that should give the ambience and the changing scenery. She's not a bad writer at all either, even though this is not my usual style.

  4. Maria,

    I love your approach! Good for you!

    In a way you're lucky. In Greece we only wear gloves for a month or two, really. I find them so very elegant, especially when in fine supple leather. Scented gloves have many a romantic novel peppered with repercussion of a forgotten pair where it shouldn't have been forgotten! ;-)

    Thank you also for the most useful tips on scenting such items!

  5. my scented mementos are many...a coat that belonged to my beloved grandmother is one. it hangs in our coat closet, and though i can't wear it, it still smells of her. likewise her handkerchiefs, which i have never been able to bring myself to wash, for fear of losing that faint connection to her.

    when i was very young, perhaps four years old, i happened to open a lovely little indian carved and inlaid box that was in the library-sitting room, among other global bric-a-brac; it smelled deliciously of sandalwood inside, although i didn't know the scent at that age. (sandalwood was somewhat thin on the ground in rural maryland...) i was enchanted with that scent, and returned again and again to open the box and revel in it. it was such an exotic scent to me, so beautiful, so like yet not like the more familiar cedar wood fragrance which i knew well from living trees and cedar chests. somewhere in the world, there existed sandalwood trees that produced this glorious smell, and i wanted to know all about them and walk among them, and most of all, i wanted to own a precious vial of their fragrance . it's no exaggeration to say that the scented box triggered a huge fascination with other lands and with perfumes that never faded away with age or education or travel. the little girl who was enamored of sandalwood went on to play with globes, wondering about the scents and colors and flavors of all the world, and one of the first things i bought with my own pocket money was a tiny glass bottle of sandalwood oil at an import store. the smell of sandalwood still fills me with longing and delight.

  6. NFS,

    that's such a wonderful story, thank you so much for sharing! It is uncanny how certain sensual stimuli can "unlock" desires we never knew we had.

    As well as memories of course. I have done the same thing with my mother's handkerchiefs. A small remnant of faint scent reminds me of her hug.

  7. gosh I really need this book!

  8. Rose,

    so good to see you here! Hope you're very well!
    (and sorry for lagging behind in checking your posts, I just have such a busy time these past few months)


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