Smell is the most evocative of the senses. It can transport us through time, take us to another place, make us feel, touch something outside our current reality. When I smell rosemary on a hot summer’s day I’m five years old again stopping by a wall to rub the needle leaves together on the way up to visit the ruins of Bramber Castle in Sussex. The smell of yellowing paper and brittle glue you get when you open a paperback of a certain vintage takes me back to school holidays long ago, curled in a corduroy beanbag while the rain pattered off the windows. We know a lover by their scent, it can sometimes linger longer than the echo of their voice. Scent is important. It’s at the heart of who we are.
When I was a little girl I would caress the soft trail of Opium my mother would leave as she wafted into my room to kiss me goodnight before going out for the evening. It felt expensive, yet somehow untouchable, as if, when she smelt like that she wasn’t wholly my mother, but some expensive, elusive creature I couldn’t catch and couldn’t quite understand. I loved the confidence of the scent but preferred it the following morning when it clung in muffled form to the arms that lifted me and set me about my day. My mother was an actress. She wore perfume well, understood the impact that a signature scent could make, understood it was an important part of the costume with which we face the world.
When I was in my teens my mother introduced me to the grownup art of scent. It came before the more prosaic lessons in makeup (less is more and don’t stick yourself in the eye with the mascara) and felt like far more of a rite of passage. The first proper perfume she gave me, after the simple fluorescent pink synthetic strawberry liquids that we played with, that matched the smell of the stationary we used in school, was Ma Griffe by Carvan. The plain glass bottle, the first I had ever had that wasn’t pink, with it’s gold plastic cap and green and white striped box, was quintessential ‘80s minimalism but the scent was far older. Created in 1946, it’s still available today. At the time I loved the freshness of it, the light summeriness that still had some depth as the perfume wore on the warmth of my skin.
I wore Ma Griffe throughout my teens, right through until my early 20s. It was my going-out scent, but a far more innocent and simple incarnation than the exotic oriental musk of my mum’s Opium. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Ma Griffe was what is known as a floral chypre. One of a group of scents defined by their mossy base notes and citrusy top notes. More specifically a classic chypre tends to have oakmoss in the base notes, that linger longest on the skin, and bergamot in the lightest, most ephemeral, quickly disappearing top notes. Ma Griffe, which translates as My Signature, has oakmoss in it’s base, along with cinnamon, sandalwood and musk, and, instead of bergamot, has lemony and green vegetal top notes, mixed with floral scents like lily of the valley, rose and jasmine.
Ma Griffe sparked a fascination with perfume that’s continued all my life. When in my 20s, I decided the time had come to find a more adult grown-up perfume, I spent months looking for a replacement. I tried to approach the decision the way I would any other, by weighing up the various options, looking at the pros and cons. I learnt about essential oils, about the ingredients of the different perfume families, who wore what. None of it helped. Our sense of smell isn’t one that responds well to logic, it taps directly into the oldest, reptilian part of our brains. It’s an emotional thing.
In the end the replacement was found by an ex boyfriend, who decided I had a passing resemblance to Paloma Picasso and bought me her signature scent. Coincidentally, Paloma Picasso, the perfume, is actually another floral chypre. But Paloma is a little like the slightly slutty older sister of the more innocent Ma Griffe. It’s still got the musty root of oakmoss and the citrusy top note of bergamot but when it’s on your skin it’s all about the musk and the so called animalic edge of civet, not to mention the sinuous sensuality of ylang ylang, tuberose and amber. I had great fun wearing Paloma throughout my 20s and 30s. It’s got that brash 80s confidence to it that sashays into a room and expects to be the centre of attention. There was a makeup range that I experimented in but soon discovered that the perceived similarity to Ms Picasso herself did not even extend skin deep. Blue-red lips and black kohl tend to make my pale skin look anaemic and ever so slightly undead. Whatever fashion trends I might have dabbled in back then, Goth was never one of them!
I still love wearing Mon Perfum (as it’s properly known) but for various reasons over the past few months I’ve been feeling that the time has come once again to change the signature. Perhaps it was the death of my mother at the end of last year, perhaps the looming of a new decade, the swagger and grab-you-by-the-throat impact of Paloma just didn’t feel like me any more. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I’m twelve years married this year and my hunting days feel like a lifetime away, maybe it’s because this is a time for retrospection and taking stock. When I was younger I would wear Mon Parfum like armour. When I was feeling insecure it would give me a boost as surely as a reassuring hand or a cloak of invisibility. It was a costume in itself and even now when I wear it I feel like I’m stepping back into an old dress. It might still fit but it’s not necessarily who I am now.
When I discovered, earlier this year, that Mon Perfum had been reformulated (an unfortunate fact of life for perfumes that coincides with changes in the availability of ingredients, not to mention public tastes) it was the final straw. The new perfume, changed when oakmoss was restricted as an ingredient, is a sad shadow of it’s former self. I’ve still enough to last me well into the future any time I want to try on that old dress again but I won’t be buying the style new.
So the hunt was on. The tendency for retrospection led me straight to the Yves St Laurent counter in Brown Thomas but Opium wasn’t the way to go. While I have no problem wearing my mum’s clothes or jewellery (she had far too good taste not to) wearing her perfume just seemed creepy in a rather Norman Bates kind of way. I can incorporate a coat or a skirt or a top into an outfit that suits my taste but a perfume is a different kind of statement. In the past I’ve worn a bit of my mum’s Opium when I was visiting home and hadn’t brought my own perfume just as she more than once borrowed some of my Paloma Picasso but we always knew that we were wearing the other’s scent. We had quite different personalities and perfumes reacted differently on our skins. In my mind I always linked this random fact to my mother’s attraction to the midges that would fly past me to feast on her. Whatever the reason, when it comes to signature scents, we were two very different women.
In the end I stuck with my faithful chypres. Even though the restricted oakmoss means that any chypre you buy today is not really the classic scent, I found myself drawn to one of the grand dames of the family. Created in 1919 Guerlian’s Mitsouko was named after a popular literary heroine and was a favourite of stars as varied as Jean Harlow and Charlie Chaplin. This is a proper old school chypre, not floral, not fruity or any other qualification. It came two years after the original scent that gave the family a name. Made by Coty, Chypre was an avant-garde masterpiece. Mitsouko built on this reputation, coming at the end of the first world war and heralding the flappers of the roaring twenties. What we have today might only be an evocation of the original but it’s a lovely scent nonetheless.
When I first smelt it I knew it was the one. It’s got a quieter confidence than Mon Parfum, it’s mustier and more complex than Ma Griffe. But most of all it was familiar. When I was in primary school we had to paint a glass bottle. I came home from school and asked my mum for something that would work for the project. She thought about it for a while and then rooted in one of the drawers of the Welsh dresser that lived against the wall of the breakfast room. She gave me an empty bottle made of heavy facetted glass with a metallic cap. The bottle was empty but the smell lingered. It was Mitsouko. I don’t remember my mum ever wearing the scent but she must have since the bottle was empty and she had kept it, for sentiment or to know it again I haven’t a clue. The modern scent is still recognisable and had that shock of recognition I had been looking for.
I know that I’ll be wearing Mitsouko for years to come. As time moves on I won’t need the crutch of the familiarity. By then it’ll just be part of the costume, part of who I am. It’ll fit as snugly as a favourite pair of shoes or the perfect all-purpose black dress. It’ll give me a flourish when I need one, an extra line of dialogue I don’t need to say. I’m looking forward to laying down all the new memories that it’ll trigger. It’s always exciting to be at the beginning of a new relationship.
This is an amazing post, Abigail. Scent is so evocative. And I agree with you that finding a ‘signature scent’ is really part of becoming a woman.
When it first came out, I made Armani’s ‘She’ my signature scent. I loved it and it was the only perfume I wore for years. I loved it, and other people loved it on me. In 2008, I finished my bottle of it and went to buy another bottle in the Duty Free shop in Charles de Gaulle airport. Sniffing from the sample bottle, I recoiled! It didn’t smell right anymore.
Cue years of frustration trying to find a replacement. Just last week, I was in Boots (I’m not as glamorous as you are!!) and, out of idleness, sprayed the inside of my wrist with some ‘She’. Suddenly, I liked it again. I’ve decided to wait another week or so before deciding I am in love again, or just in love with the nostalgia of the scent/ One of my biggest disappointments is that so few men realise the power of scent and, therefore, so few men wear any. There are few things more deliciously provocative than the scent of a man’s perfume as he leans in, wafts by – or just leaves it innocently in the lift for you.