Of all our senses, our sense of smell is most closely tied to our memory. While many things throughout our daily life can trigger a sense of nostalgia, nothing has the power to make us viscerally relive the past like a fragrance — the scent of honeysuckle on a hot day, the smell of gasoline on concrete, the scent of someone important to you — they’re scents that become entwined into specific moments in time.
To me, fragrance is the most esoteric of all beauty products. A constellation of little bottles, vials full of colored juices nestled next to my bathroom sink and on my dresser and nightstand — they all give me the opportunity to shapeshift into whoever I want to be that day or night. Sometimes it’s for me, and sometimes it’s for someone else. Fragrances can broadcast to others a lot about yourself without having to say anything at all, which is the saving grace of any beauty product. They can say stay away, come closer, take off all my clothes, dance with me. Love me. Love me. Love me.
Spraying on a perfume is meant to enrich your own daily life and command more of a place in the lives of others. With scent, we are taking up space in the most ravenous way we know how: in someone’s personal space, in their car, in elevators, on their sheets, in their memory, places we can never be escaped. Every fragrance is a practice in living larger than our physical presence already commands by touching upon with every single sense — to experience and be experienced through as many multi-sensory facets as you can imagine.
Giving fragrance as a gift has often been an antiquated symbol of romance. I’ve given many fragrances as gifts, some to lovers and many to friends. For me, it’s been less of a grand gesture of giving somebody a single fragrance as it’s been allowing them to choose one from a select few that I may not have connected with. However it happens, giving someone a fragrance is always a gesture of hope, a time capsule of happiness, a token of trust.
People go through fragrances at different paces, much like
relationships, I guess. Sometimes it’s the bottle that runs out before
the person; other times, it’s the other way around.
I think the gift is in the giving, the excitement of all of the things this person will experience while wearing it, who this person will become in the days and weeks and years that they wear your scent on their neck. It’s that wonder of being around to see that all happen…and the hope that you will be.
Worn on them, those scents take on new lives. I’m able to see things in them I wasn’t seeing on myself. They come to life before me in ways that I couldn’t conjure them. Pair a scent with someone’s unique body chemistry, with the other products they wear — pomade, deodorant, laundry detergent — and you get a cloud of fragrance that is as distinct to them as a fingerprint. Fragrances are just as unique as people in that way.
After Marc Jacobs Beauty discontinued the Splash collection in 2006, many of my friends were left longing for our favorite scents that hung around us in clouds in the uncomfortable hallways of middle school and high school. Bottles were tracked down on eBay, half-empty vessels at four times the price on some far corner of the internet. But when they were brought back with the brand’s rerelease in 2016, they all worked as a vivid window into our formative years, often as the fragrances that made us feel like the adults we hoped to grow into — only now, with time, we could compare and contrast with the final product. After I ended up with the collection, I gave one of the scents to a friend of mine who was overjoyed almost to the point of tears. “I never thought I’d see one of these again,” she exclaimed. It was like she was being reunited with a piece of herself after ten years.
My memories tied to scent are always the most vivid when they happened in the summer. Sometimes I wonder if half of these moments even transpired in the way that I retell them to myself or if I’ve just crafted them into a cushion for me to land upon over and over again. This is especially true when you live in the midwest. You try to cram an entire year of living into the three sweet months of heat. People always tell you that the summers make the winters worth living through but they’re rarely right. This one was an exception.
I was wearing Debaser by D.S. & Durga, a fragrance crafted to smell like summer in the south, which was foreshadowing in its own way. It’s humid and green with new leaves and broken vines, pear stem, and moss — sweet like faded sunscreen from a note of coconut milk. It’s one of those scents that really is its own time and place.
The day I received it was one of the hottest days of the year. I wore it on a boat with my friends, all of us crawling out of our shirts to get the sun on our chests, clutching bottles of cheap beer, drinking in the afternoon. It was one of those sweet moments where I just couldn’t believe I escaped work and was out on a boat in the middle of the lake on a Tuesday, the kind of moment that doesn’t come often. What a life. Summer in Wisconsin feels like a sigh of relief — the release of a year of tension from sore muscles clenched in the cold days spent waiting for a thaw. I was hoping for a text, looking out at the endless stretch of July. The summer I learned it was okay to surrender.
Memories sneak up on us in different ways: songs you can’t listen to anymore, pictures you’ll eventually delete. These are experiences we can keep at arms’ length, ones that are easy to avoid or get past. Fragrances are a palpable instant replay of all of your most precious memories, whether you want to relive them or not and for better or worse. It’s not the memory itself that smarts, it’s that scent-memory’s kinetic force that rips you from the present to the past and back again that’s the most jarring.
Even though those relived moments can be excruciating, they are that
way often because of something good that’s been lost — but in ways,
that good moment still lives and breathes in the scents that recall
Our little bodies can at once feel so full and so cavernous, all in a split second, thanks to something as invisible and intangible as a scent. We’re rendered powerless by something we can’t even see. Fragrances are reflections of what was, moments crystallized behind a looking glass, seen and felt again for a moment with perfect clarity. They’re a hope that though time has passed, maybe somewhere we’re still living in that moment of pure joy, of bliss. The memories, the feelings, the truth of what was hasn’t faded — it’s just the scent that has worn off for now.
More scent sensibilities:
Blind dating with perfume: