26 August 2011

A Life in the Nose: A Fragrance Timeline

My mom wasn't fancy when I was growing up. She was a stay-at-home-mom, then  a part-time aquatic director and swim instructor, then a high school English and ESL teacher. My dad still doesn't dress up unless we beg him. We lived in PA horse and mushroom country. There weren't a lot of parties that didn't involve tupperware or gardening. The only party I really remember my parents throwing is a Halloween party in our garage. The "fancy dress" was not of the sequin and stiletto variety. But there was a damn good grocery bag costume. The Chesire Cat and Caterpillar were there, too.

Nevertheless, on the rare occasion when they did gussy up and go out to what I suppose must have been the boss' Christmas party, she'd shower, put on her intimates, and dab on some lipstick.

And Shalimar.

I can smell it now, even surrounded as I type by croissants and coffee at Marvelous Market. I can see my parents' bathroom, my mom getting dressed in her Very Basic Nude Undergarments and getting ready. I can see the window facing our street, know it's dark outside, and picture the plain shade that shielded her from the neighbors (who wouldn't have pried anyway, but still we lower the shade). And the scent. The scent that means my mommy.

I don't think she wears it anymore, but it was a precious commodity for a long, long time. If she was running low, we'd save up our Christmas pennies for a new bottle. But even that took years, she so rarely wore it. For the longest time, even as I experimented with my own scent, Shalimar was my aspiration. Of course, I couldn't afford it, even at 1985 prices. I went through my drugstore phase, with Chantilly. I thought it smelled grown up. My brother, in his ascerbic wisdom, finally told me it smelled like "old lady powder."

I stopped wearing Chantilly.

Like a lot of us growing up in the 80s, I went through the Laura Ashley-praire-chic-long-skirt-with-eyelet-showing phase. Then I wore Crabtree & Evelyn. If I remember, I was enchanted as much with the floral boxes as with the scents. Summer Hill and Nantucket Briar were on my dresser. What I never wore, even then? Rose. Lily. The sweetness never worked for me. Ever. Still doesn't.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped my floral flounce obsession and fancied myself a sophisticate. Or perhaps I just stopped wearing scent. Probably had something to do with generally finding myself and my style. While I was always leaned a bit towards the classic, my late high-school years tended hippie. I graduated, went to Austria, and fell head over hills for coffee. On the right kind of day, when it's just a teensy bit cloudy and humid, those first misty raw days in the fall, I'll walk past a coffee shop and be in Vienna again. A whiff of a "kleiner Brauner," and be still my heart.

When I returned, I happened upon Acqua di Gio.* I probably found it via the Nice Perfume Ladies in the late Strawbridge & Clothier. It's freshness, it's summery lightness worked for me as I started college. I wore it faithfully for years. I'd found my first signature scent.

Then I left college, working full time while I finished up my degree. One day, I walked into the office kitchen and wham! I thought my beloved host-mother, Ceja, was in the room. Tears welled up, and I missed them terribly.

I recovered, and asked the few colleagues in the room what they were wearing. I think they thought I was bonkers, but I finally figured out one of them was wearing Paloma Picasso.

I'm fairly certain I would have walked 1000 miles through rain and snow at that point to track down the uncommon fragrance. While I could find it at Bloomingdale's at the time, it's not easy to find. I still buy up as many as I can when I do find it. (We won't discuss the fact that I could simply find it online these modern days. That would be too easy, thankyouverymuch.) It is, beyond a doubt, my favorite scent. It fits me, suits me, and is mine. Nevermind the memory link to my literally life-changing 9 months as a Rotary exchange student.

I didn't think I ever needed to find another scent. I like having a signature. I've toyed with others along the way, trying to find others for different seasons or occasions, but in the end, Paloma is The One.

It's an old-fashioned scent, I think. It harkens to Established Ladies, its deep and spicy scent one that most women my age would eschew for lighter notes that feel thin and sweet to my nostrils. It's no surprise that my Romanian-born, half-Greek mother-in-law likes it, too. It - and other "old fashioned" fragrances like Eau de Soir (which we buy for her much like we bought Shalimar for my mother) - bridges the generational gap for us. She's brought me beautiful vintage Parisian flea market finds and given me some of her nearly ancient but still lovely favorites, most still in their cases. Not boxes, but cases that I display proudly on my dresser. I toss the newer, trendier swag bag perfume samples aside in favor of these esteemed fragrances.

Then The Beans were born, and I stopped wearing perfume or even using anything other than Kiehl's Lavender shower gel for fear of disturbing or mis-directing their scent knowledge of me. Every once in a while, when H and I would sneak out, I'd dab a bit at the base of my neck, but never anywhere I'd expect them to hang out. Now that Bean No. 2 is 18 months old, I'd started to wear Paloma again, but only if I remembered. Which wasn't often.

Scent as Mood and Memory

Scent as Mood and Memory by dcceline on Polyvore.com

Then I went to Saks 2 weeks ago to pick up Chanel's fall metallic polishes. Unrelated, of course, to fragrance, except that the very nice Mila gave me a sample.

no. 19 arrived last week, on Coco's birthday. When I visited Mila, it was in pre-sale. It took about a week for me to remember it was there and try it out. I spritzed, and made H smell me. "Nice," he said. I wore it at work, trying all day to figure out where I stood. Was it too sweet? Too powdery (my brother's comment still echo's in my psyche)?

Turns out I'm in love. So much in love that I broke out the 2 Jo Malone Pomegranate Noir samples I'd picked up along the way. Same process: spritz, H, wear all day. I've found 2 more scents that I'm happy wearing. Which, of course, reminded me that I really, really love classic fragrances, and, well, isn't no. 5 the epitome?

I've been meaning for 2 weeks now to get my nicely scented rear end to Saks and see Mila again. I haven't managed it, yet, but it is at the top of my I'll-do-it-as-soon-as-I-find-5-minutes-to-myself.

And then I'll buy 2 bottles to add to my dresser. And one for H. Mila snuck in a Bleu sample for him. It's that wonderfully spicy maleness. Which might just find its way on to my dresser, as well.

*Scent historians, I just can't tell if Armani changed the name on the women's Gio, or if they discontinued my 20s signature scent. Anyone know? 

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