As a teenager and college student, I searched fervently for my signature scent, spending hours in department stores, sometimes with a beau who’d dutifully help me hunt down The One. There were a few times that I thought I’d succeeded in meeting my soul scent, often a floral floral that was more concerned with smelling clean rather than evoking all of the splendid richness that more nuanced fragrances are capable of. But inevitably, I grew disillusioned with each new scent. No single perfume, I realized, could holistically capture who I was—and my small collection of scrubbed-clean essences really only reflected my surface-level attributes: quiet, calm, sweet, inoffensive, conventional.
I am more, of course.
But it took me still longer to internalize that knowledge. My grad school years found me eschewing big-brand beauty products, avoiding anything that wasn’t naturally formulated, which meant that I stuck to essential-oil based fragrances, many of which I still love and still wear. I was pleased with my efforts to “detox” my beauty arsenal, but my nose was never ready to wed a single blend.
In part, my unending search was an olfactory manifestation of humans’ love of the chase, but it was (and still is) about something deeper—it’s about the under-appreciated art of fragrance, it’s about indulging in all of the invisible, silent journeys a scent evokes, it’s about identity—but that’s why it’s so complicated.
My identity, like yours and that of everyone around us, resists coherence: a condition that most of consciously or unconsciously struggle with—it’s probably natural to desire a linear narrative about yourself (I often do), and it’s quite practical, too; indeed, participating in the notion that we do have mostly static identities helps us maintain relationships. Understandably, we have to act like relatively the same person every day in order for people to “know” us. That’s not to say that there aren’t truly consistent things about us (there are several; I’ll probably always be a natural morning person, for example), but my point is that most of us probably spend little time allowing our inner worlds and outer expressions to be difficultly incongruent, to present us and others with intellectual challenges, to contain multitudes.
Personal scent, as it turns out, is the perfect medium for celebrating and exploring the various parts of ourselves that may or may not suit a tidy and safe self-concept. The fact that fragrance is temporary contributes to this, of course, but more poignantly, scent can be wonderfully subversive, an argument eloquently made by Barbara Herman who posits that “smell is our underground sense and links us to sex, emotion, memory, and those messy things our allegedly logical culture tries to repress. In other words, scent is subversive…scent is a path to getting closer to our senses, to instinct, and to our bodies and the earth at a time when those attachments are threatened.”
Once I started to accept—and embrace—my own inner inconsistencies and those mossy, unpruned areas of my psyche, I released myself from my mission to find a signature scent or even define my daily fragrance choices by the seasons of the year or the time of day. I also stopped paying as much attention to which fragrances are considered classics or which contemporary perfumes are the current “must-haves.” For a freeing, intoxicatingly provocative experience, I invite you to do the same.
The question to ask yourself when you’re testing fragrances isn’t is it me? But, do I love it? Do I want to live in the world it evokes?
Since I’ve stopped worrying about having a single scent associated with me, I’ve stopped wearing fragrance for the benefit of others. I wear for me. I delight in my own subtle forms of subversion, too—I spritz myself with something witchy and rooty, containing notes of iris and vetiver. I splash on something unisex with whispers of powder and musk. I no longer try to wear fragrances that are consistent with others’ idea of Mary. After all, sweet and accommodating are only my top notes.
Do you have a signature scent? What are your favorite ways to wear fragrance?
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