One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Prologue: 1963-1979

Looking back, I can easily see that I was obsessed with scents from an early age. It is only surprising that it took so long for the obsession to come to the surface.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I was surrounded by fragrances: I just wasn't allowed to have them. It is hard to imagine nowadays what it was like back then, now that there are perfumes for children, for pets, body sprays and scented deodorants for teenage boys, but in those days, girls got to wear light fresh things; grown-up women could wear any of a huge array of perfumes; and men could wear after shave and cologne, of which there was no shortage. But boys and teenagers were expected to smell of soap and good clean sweat and nothing more. Once you started to shave, you might be able to get away with after shave, but a teenaged boy smelling like anything as affected as fragrance was probably going to be made fun of: best not to risk it.

Like so many women in the 1960s, my mother sold Avon (and Tupperware, though that is neither here nor there), and I vividly remember her packing up little bags of purchases for her customers. The makeup didn't interest me, but the scents did. I can barely remember what most of them smelled like, although I have a vivid memory of the powdered-sugar floral of Sweet Honesty, but their names stand out in my mind: Charisma, Wild Country, Moonwind, Come Summer. All my sisters had Sweet Honesty in a tiny teddy-bear-shaped bottle covered in fawn flocking; my father, of course, had on his dresser a clutch of bottles that were more important than the contents--masculine shapes like a pipe, a car, a chess knight with a brass ring through its nose, which was what it took to remove the curse from a perfume for a man.

Up until the day she died, my grandmother had a container of Avon Topaze dusting powder on her vanity. Uncharacteristically, I never opened it: it seemed mystical, totemic. Was it a gift to her from my mother, an attempt to make some sort of peace in the family? (If it was, it didn't work.) Did she ever use it? Or was it sitting there untouched because she liked the way it looked, that golden-yellow plastic box with the little fake topaz perched on top as a handle?

She was a practical woman, and not much given to perfuming herself. She had bath-oil beads (every woman did), but I doubt she used them much. Her only scents, which surely must have been given to her as gifts, were Chantilly, which she occasionally wore, and Youth-Dew, which she probably did not, or perhaps I have only told myself she didn't: I could never reconcile the name of a perfume called Youth-Dew with a woman who seemed ancient to me.

My cousin Vera, my father's age, wore Ma Griffe by Carven, or at least she owned it; I remember the iconic striped box in white and green, but I don't remember how it smelled. Vera, from my grandmother's side of the family, looked up to her and, I think, modelled herself after her; scent would have been a frivolous thing, and Vera was not frivolous.

In addition to the usual Avon bottles shaped like a mantelpiece clock or a Christmas stocking, my mother had a tiny blue bottle bottle of Evening in Paris--again, didn't pretty much every woman?--tucked away in her dresser. She usually wore a few drops of scent when she was going out: I wish I could say she had a signature scent, wafting into my bedroom in a cloud of Shalimar or Miss Dior to kiss me goodnight before heading out for dinner, but she was no more addicted to perfume than any other woman in my family.

My three sisters, of course, were surrounded by scent as they grew into teenagers, smelling like Kissing Potion and Bonne Bell Lipsmackers, Sea Breeze and Noxema at bedtime,"Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific!" shampoo in the mornings, and the three inescapable mainstays of every girl's vanity: citrusy Jean Nate splash, Avon Sweet Honesty, and Love's Baby Soft, eventually supplemented by such novelties as ceramic pomanders, perfumed wax statuettes shaped like Chinese ladies, and the Coty Sweet Earth solid-perfume compacts, perfect for tucking into a purse for a pre-flirtation touchup. As the Seventies wore on and the girls grew up there were bottles of the liberated-woman Charlie and the slightly more regressive Babe. Eventually my older sister graduated to Halston, which I gave her for Christmas one year; another wore Bill Blass for a while, also a gift from me. I might not have been able to wear nice scents, but at least I could attempt to have those around me wear them.

Perhaps it's because wearing after shave was part of being a man, and I very much wanted to be an adult, but I remember my father's collection more vividly than my mother's. In addition to the usual Avon bottles that were certain to be under the Christmas tree every year, he wore Brut, Pierre Cardin in its unquestionably phallic bottle, the now hilarious Hai Karate, that everyman standby Old Spice, and Aqua Velva--just typing the name calls to mind the inescapable television jingle, "There's something about an Aqua Velva man," crooned by a presumably sexy woman who presumably knew just what that something was. It wasn't what I aspired to.

Eventually as I made my way into teenagerhood and started shaving (at the age of 13), I had the excuse I needed. I couldn't wear the really interesting things that were out there: growing up in a small city with limited media outlets (two TV channels!), I probably wouldn't have known they were out there, anyway. And I couldn't wear what my father wore: that was obvious. So drugstore scents were what I graced myself with: English Leather, which I haven't smelled in years but probably still smells great, if a bit dated; Wind Drift, from the same manufacturer, about which I remember little, something that is probably for the best; and Tabac Original, which I think smelled more of citrus than of tobacco, though that didn't stop me from liking it.

My first introduction into the bigger world of perfumery came at the age of 16, when a small boutique opened just up the street from my piano teacher. Since one or more of my sisters and I would usually have our lessons in succession on the same evening, it was often the case that as I waited I whiled away the time wandering around the strip mall that contained among other things a deli, a drugstore, a really interesting stationer's, and this boutique, ridiculously generous with its samples, particularly so to a 16-year-old boy, and not even little vials but miniature bottles: in addition to makeup and mirrors and other womanly things that held no interest for me, it sold such perfumed European exotica as Jacques Bogart and Etienne Aigner, as well as the first scent that I ever became absolutely devoted to, Dieci by Pierre Lorain. In retrospect I know this must have been a women's scent: it was packaged in an oval bottle of frosted glass with a gold-plated cap, the whole thing just soft curves, though it was not specifically feminine, nor was the scent. Whatever it was, it smelled wonderful on my skin, and I over the next few years I used it down to the last drop and then mourned its passing. From the beginning it spoke to me in a way that nothing ever had before; it was complex and fascinating, probably an oriental chypre, now that I think about it, and light-years away from the drugstore fragrances I had known.

That was how it all began.


  • Oh, that was a stroll down memory lane... I had all the things your sisters had. And I wore Halston exclusively for twenty years. I still do occasionally.

    By Blogger StyleSpy, at 11:37 AM  

  • This was lovely. I think I'm of the same age/era as well. One of my sister's boyfriends at the time worked the men's colognes in Marshall Field's and gave her GOBS of samples. So here I was, a 13 year old, getting into Chanel Cristalle (still a favorite) and yes, I do remember the guy fragrances as well, like Farenheit and others. I was spoiled for Jean Naté and all of those--just couldn't do them. But I did have a bottle of Windsong forever, and my mom had a very small sample of Joy--she also never wore it!

    By Blogger Isabelle, at 1:39 PM  

  • My grandmother, an Avon aficionado, used to buy me all those little cutesy girl smells - Sweet Honesty in a roll-on necklace pendant shaped like Rapunzel's tower, some innocuous solid scent in a brooch shaped like an apple with a worm in it...

    And when I was twelve, she bought me Chloe. Looking back at my mother's strictness concerning my perfume (when I was 17, in '85, she made me return Sand & Sable to the drugstore where I'd bought it, insisting that nice girls don't wear big sweet white florals), I can only imagine that Mom's inclination to not upset her own mother was the reason she let me keep the Chloe, big friendly flirty white-floral bomb that it was...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:04 PM  

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