Scent of a Femme

After writing about actress Kate Walsh’s new scent “Boyfriend,” billed as “a women’s fragrance tinged with the scent of a man,” I had to check it out for myself. I dabbed a little on my wrist in the local Sephora, and I’m here to tell you this fragrance only smells like a boyfriend if he was freshly scrubbed, taking supplemental estrogen, and coated in vanilla bath oil. There’s not a darn thing butch about “Boyfriend”.

I should know. I’ve worn both men’s fragrances and women’s fragrances over the years. I know my own fragrance preferences pretty well, gravitating toward scents with a little darkness – leather, spice, pepper, and musk. I like a drop of vanilla to smooth things out, and while I like fruit scents, I steer away from anything powdery or overtly floral. Roses and lilies make me sneeze, in vases and in bottles. And, what perfumers like to call “white flowers” – narcissus, jasmine, etc. – often smell like cat pee to me, and give me screaming headaches.

I’ve never been random in my scent choices, usually researching and testing before I buy. I’m also not a fan of fragrance gifts, preferring to pick out my own. Being surprised with a bottle of a fragrance I don’t wear would be one of the least romantic gifts I could imagine.

As Marcel Proust acknowledged in his novel, Remembrance of Things Past, scent is a powerful memory trigger. A whiff of the right stuff can send me flying back in time. I love comfort scents – baking bread, laundry soap, a little Pine-Sol in the bathroom, Vicks Vap-o-Rub, Breck Golden Shampoo, Carmex, and Hall’s cough drops. God help me, my mom wore Jean Naté when I was a kid, so that carries a certain memory charge, although I have no desire to revisit it. I love the smell of leather (preferably black leather) and the smoke from a wood fire. I burn good quality Japanese incense, usually sandalwood.

While I know that perfumed bodies are frowned upon by lots of people, I still like to wear perfume when I’m pretty sure I won’t offend or annoy someone. I’ve worked at jobs where it was completely verboten, and sometimes came home and wore it to bed, alone, for the sheer sensual pleasure of it. Even when I wear scent in public, I use a light hand, preferring to share it only with people I would gladly embrace.

I have changed perfumes as I’ve grown and as my tastes have changed. I have changed perfumes when I’ve left relationships and changed lovers, sometimes preferring to leave those scent memories behind. The scents I’ve worn, both with and without success, could read like a journal of my life. The list is as intimate as a mix tape, influenced by culture, the decade, my maturity, my relationships, and my sexuality.

I picked out my first scent in my early teen years. It was Love’s Fresh Lemon and it had a certain zing. I went around in ski jackets and platform shoes, wafting clouds of it, smelling like Pledge furniture polish. After I discovered sex, I tried Coty’s Wild Musk Oil and a brief foray into a scent called Light My Fire, which was supposed to heat up when I did. I think I spent all of $5 on a tiny bottle of the stuff. My father, dropping me off at high school, told me pointedly that it smelled like bug spray.

In my later teen years I worked for a local department store and started to exercise my taste and my employee discount. I wore Cristalle by Chanel (light and crisp with lots of citrus) and Chanel No. 19. While No. 19 had plenty of floral, it also had sandalwood and leather. I wore these for years, often layering them, into early adulthood. Then, when Chanel released Coco, I switched to that for a few years. I was well out of college and married to a man, and Coco seemed very elegant to me, spicy and citrusy – a big 1980s kind of fragrance. I first tested it by gathering magazine strips and then drove 60 miles to San Francisco to get a bottle while it was still in limited release.

During the years I was married (the subject of a whole ‘nother blog post), I often bought my husband colognes as gifts and then filched them for my own wearing. Later, I butched up and bought myself a bottle of the original Chanel Egoiste, a fragrance reformulated three years later to a crisper “platinum” version. Yeah, I still thought I was straight.

(As a side note, some men’s deodorants – notably Brut and Old Spice – make me want to make out in the backseat of a muscle car, although now with a hot butch.)

There have been rogue bottles of perfume along the way, scents that smelled like another time – lemony, citrusy things when I’ve been nostalgic for my youth – and scents that smelled like another place. (Note to self and others: Use caution buying perfumes on vacation. They often don’t work at home.)

During the years when I had a new baby and was struggling with my sexuality and finally coming out, I wore little perfume. I was uncertain of my place in the world and in a new community that was mostly foreign to me. I wore cucumber oil and a soap that smells like milk, made by Pre de Provence. I still use the soap.

Subsequent female lovers awakened my sense of self, my sensuality, and my love of perfume again. I started with light scents – Clean Ultimate, and another called Blanc de Riz that carries a heavy childhood association with the scent of ironing – heat and fabric and a very faint touch of spray starch. These are “good girl” scents, clean and crisp, never overtly sexual. I also tried scents that smelled like food – caramel, chocolate, and vanilla – but they all seemed sort of simplistic, like the blatant lemon of my youth.

Then a few years ago, I was tooling through Sephora and I picked up Black Orchid by Tom Ford. I was first attracted by the classic old-school perfume bottle. With a single sniff from the paper test strip, I realized this was a “big girl” perfume, one that hearkned back to the sensual classics. I thought it might be too much for me, but I asked the store staff to make me a tester. Then a couple of months later (a little of this stuff goes a long way), I asked for another. Finally, I broke down and committed to a bottle, and I’ve been wearing it ever since. With its exotic florals and deep spicy notes, it reminds me of the sandalwood incense I love. It has a touch of vanilla, and I think a little leather, too. It’s a warm and heady fragrance that smells better the longer it’s on my skin, and at this point in time, it smells like me – more adult and sensual, decades beyond the girl who loved lemon.

So, I have a perfume – at least for now. Although this feels like a long-term relationship, I know my perfume may eventually change.

After all, I’m bound to change too.

(Please tell me about your fragrances and fragrant memories in the comments…)

4 responses to “Scent of a Femme

  1. I’ve never been one for fragrances, but in the past couple years my students have taken to telling me I smell like soap. One girl last year even told me daily, as if it was shocking every time. I shower with Dr. Bonner’s peppermint soap and use coconut oil in my hair but they tell me I don’t smell like peppermint or coconut just ‘soap.’ It’s now a source of amusement though still a bit puzzling.

  2. It’s funny how other people have a perception of our scent. During the years I wore cucumber oil, a friend would always hug me and say “Oh, you smell just like Osento,” meaning the now-closed and tremendously missed women’s bath house in San Francisco. When I finally started going to Osento, I realized there was nothing there that smelled distinctly like cucumbers. (I’m pretty sure they had Dr. Bonner’s peppermint soap in the showers, or something similar.) I think she just recognized cucumber as a scent with spa associations in general.

  3. Most of the time I prefer smelling like my clean, shower fresh deodorant or soap. But I also have been known to wear Heart by Garden Botanika when I’m positive I won’t be around any of my “no scent” friends. It’s one of the few things I can wear that doesn’t induce a wheezing cough and sinus headache in me, and I hope for others as well. It’s a floral but very light with citrus and a deeper musk that comes out the longer it’s on my skin. When I worked in a casino years ago, a co-worker would sometimes seek me out on his breaks so he could smell me instead of the players who’d been there for days without a shower. I thought that was entirely too cute.

  4. You seem to have a similar fragrance preference as me. I am also very finicky and recently purchased a bottle of perfume that I had used as a teen, only to realize I hated the stuff now and couldn’t wear it. I now work at The Body Shop and could easily recommend you pop in and take a whiff of the Midnight Bakula, it is a very rich smokey scent, with hints of patchouli and hidden way, way down deep in there some tangerine, but I mean WAY deep.
    Also the other one that has shocked me with how much I love it is Anna Sui.

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