Notes on scent

When I was young the scent of certain beauty products clearly made an impression on me, as even just looking at a photograph of some of these products in Sali Hughes’ book Pretty Iconic brought back the memory of the smell. Strangely, it was often the scent of products my grandparents used that would stick with me more that what we used in our own house – Imperial Leather soap, Pears shampoo, Brylcreem – and one of those subtle scents became my own in my teenage years. After trying every spot treatment I could lay my hands on, my face was desperately in need of a light moisturiser to redress the balance. I had always loved the smell of the Oil of Ulay (now Olay) beauty fluid that my gran used, so I tried it myself and discovered it fit the bill perfectly. I used it for so many years that I’m not sure if the scent remains the same as it was in my gran’s day, but I still find it comforting.

My teenage years also saw a passion for cruelty free products from the Body Shop and Cosmetics to Go (the company that became Lush), ensuring that I smelt of pretty much everything rather than any one specific scent. Aside from a trusty can or two of Impulse ‘hint of musk’ body spray to get me through the sweaty summer months, and the odd birthday gift of something teen-appropriate like Exclamation, I think I viewed perfume as something that was for ‘grown ups’. However, it was my lust for a young man I worked with in a holiday job after my first year of university that properly got me hooked on fragrance. He wore Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein and it still makes me feel funny when I smell it – not necessarily because I’m a fan of the fragrance itself, but because it brings back memories of him.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I found myself developing a love of ‘designer label’ perfumes. Aside from the obligatory bottle of CK One which I hardly ever wore (did anyone actually like it, I wonder), I had a rather eclectic mix of scents in my collection including Dune, Lancôme Poême, J’Adore, Clinique Happy, Dolce & Gabbana, and Agent Provocateur Maitresse which I would wear with my favourite lingerie. I knew very little about perfume and so was led by my emotions when making a purchase or deciding what to wear. The fresher fruity/floral scents would be daywear, and I usually considered the musky or woody fragrances to be eveningwear. Slowly I began to realise that I was saving my favourite perfume ‘for best’, like I did with my favourite clothing, but rather than realising that was silly I actually ended up stopping wearing fragrance altogether as something was making me sneeze and I figured that was probably it. In the decade that followed, hairspray became my signature scent.

In the early 2010s, I became obsessed with a fragrance that a colleague was wearing (so much so that she very kindly bought me a bottle as a gift!), and the gorgeous rose and musk notes of Guerlain Idylle opened my eyes to a whole new world of perfumes. When I did my Master’s course, an amazing lecture on the history of perfume by the fragrance-obsessed Andrew Tucker started to reveal to me just how much I didn’t know about this area of the fashion and beauty industry, and then in 2016 I visited a London College of Fashion pop-up to celebrate 15 years of cosmetic science at the college, where a student talked me through the basics of making a perfume. I now had ‘learn more about perfume’ on my To Do list and it would have got ticked off after attending a Bottega Veneta event three years ago, if their stunning Parco Palladiano fragrances weren’t somewhat out of my price range!

And so I forgot about fragrance once again, until a chat with a friend earlier this year about the scents he adored piqued my interest once more. I started doing a bit of investigation – although I wish I’d done more and visited some perfume counters for samples back in the days before lockdown! – and in lieu of a purchase developed an obsession with the scent of my night cream, which soothes me to sleep with essential oils of neroli, valerian and vanilla. I had an idea of the notes I liked in perfumes, and a list of those I wanted to order samples of, or try once the shops opened again, but it didn’t get much further than that. Until, however, someone I follow on Twitter excitedly announced that Penhaligon’s had 50% off Oud de Nil in their summer sale. I still can’t quite identify the individual notes (in the same way that I can rarely identify flavours in food), but I know that this fragrance is comforting to me at a time of uncertainty. Due to the timing of the purchase, perhaps this scent will forever remind me of home?

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