Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Closet Case


….and the winner of the samples drawing is: Flittersniffer! Get in touch with me at the email address to the left and I'll get your samples out posthaste.

In the recent L.A. Times article "Embracing Chaos" mystery writer Denise Hamilton lets her readers in on a secret: she’s a closet perfumista. One of those who waits for late night to haul out her box of clinking vials, dabbing and sniffing while her family sleeps.
No mystery, really; we’re a club. Welcome to the closet, Denise!
So why are so many of us closeted?
There is always talk here, on the blogs and forums, about the perfume-averse and what makes them that way. As do many of the other bloggers, I believe that the no-perfume thing is a vestige of Puritanism. But is that really all there is to it?
I can only speculate about my own reasons for this. Who knows what subliminal lessons stick around forever? Insights come much later, I think; often they come only after no one who might know with any certainty is left.
So here goes. My mother was an odd mixture of American colonial and midwestern plainspoken. She grew up in Canal Zone, Panama, a mile-wide strip of Norman Rockwell’s America, stretched across an isthmus full of third world poverty and squalor. I don’t believe that her mother ever owned a bottle of perfume, given as she was to Tangee lipstick, modest rayon “house” dresses and short hair she never once dyed.
By the time I became a “perfumista” -- don’t like the word, really; what is the root? Fashionista? Sandinista? -- my mother was already gone. I wonder sometimes, though, what she would have thought about my fragrance hobby habit. I still have two of her perfumes, big bottles of Moment Supreme and Arpege, extraits bought in some Air Force base exchange store, as we were a quasi-military family. I’ve written about this before but not the later chapters, stateside, where the base exchange stores didn’t sell Chanel, or Patou or pearls, and then did not exist for us at all. We came home, and  my mother put the fancy French perfumes away.
After that came lots of Avon. She must have had a friend who was an Avon lady, because I remember Charisma, and one called Here’s My Heart, I think, and some solid perfume compacts, and travel sizes of Flora Danica and Madame Rochas (which I hated) and, later, Moon Drops and Charlie. She wore those two for twenty years, while the good stuff remained, untouched, in the closet.
When I read the Jonathan Frantzen novel “The Corrections” a few years ago, one of the themes seemed to be the eagerness the grown children had to introduce their rock-solid, unpretentious parents to all the big-city “betters” -- better wine, better food, better furniture, better coffee, you name it -- in some convoluted pageant of Taste designed to do...what? Show them...what was it, anyway? How backward they were?
I had some of that with my parents too. I could tell, sometimes, that they were looking at my husband and me as if we had what my very Southern dad called “the gimmees.” It was a harsh judgement. I could see that “taste,” as I understood it, didn’t really exist for either of them. What we thought of as “Taste” seemed to be inherently suspect. Modesty was key, as was making others feel comfortable, no matter what. Money was something that was not discussed. Nice people were not openly aspirational -- there’s something so, well, grubby about that. 
Nearly ten years have passed, and I understand this a little better now. There is something -- a lot actually -- to be said for modesty, as out of fashion as that concept is. And I’ve never liked people who flaunt it. I’m a bargain hunter, and I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what I paid for my treasured little bottle of Amouge, but you know, don’t you.
Now I’m wondering about those of us who confine most of our perfume talk to the web, this, our secret society. How many of us lead our flesh-and-blood friends to the perfume cabinet? Not many, I bet, unless we’re lucky enough to have real-life friends who are (that word again!) perfumistas.
So, back to the past: I’m thinking that, once we got off the foreign-assignment circuit and resettled in our suburban town, the exotic French perfumes might have seemed a little, well, much to my mother, might have made her less traveled friends uncomfortable or resentful, so she never wore them. And maybe that’s why I keep my collection hidden: it just feels right to do so.
Here in our little clubhouse, we speak of wishing we could wear more or stronger fragrance, wanting to be a scented swan in a sea of lead-footed ducks -- but only a few of us do it. Something stops us. What is it? Fear of offending a perfume-o-phobe? Manners, self-consciousness, guilt?
Hamilton, when asked to reveal the size of her perfume collection, takes the Fifth. I tend to mumble something about yeah, having quite a few bottles, but I bought them all of ebay for a song, so, it’s, y’know, OK.
So...how about you? Do you make excuses? 
What’s in your closet?

The drawing winner was chosen using Random.org.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I do feel sometimes that I belong to a "secret society". My extreme love of perfumes is just not something the mainstream would understand. My friends and family understand or at least accept it as a cute quirk. I've even brought my mother into the fold. At last count she has close to 90 bottles. I'm not exactly sure of mine. In the hundreds I'm sure. But on the rare occasions that strangers are privy to my little secret they just give me a funny smile. A look that says something like, "Yea, my aunt collects used toothpicks. I bet you two would have a lot in common." At work I'm surrounded by what I call the "Mall Smell". Whatever is popular at the moment. There's only been one woman in the office that I just had to know what she was wearing and to my surprise it was Opium. It was warm & subtle on her.
I guess in the end I'm OK with my little secret. I've always been kind of the odd man out so maybe I'm just continuing to be true to myself. :-)
-MELISCENTS-

Anonymous said...

I'm a former military brat, and some of your recollections struck a chord for me. My Southern parents also thought it "tacky" to talk about money, and I don't think my mother ever owned more than one bottle of perfume at a time. If she were still here, I think she'd be shocked and disturbed by my 80-bottles-and-counting collection. I'm beginning to purchase less impulsively now: there're only a few fragrances left on my buy-someday list. Did you like "The Corrections"? Franzen's memoir, "The Discomfort Zone" put me off reading his fiction, but maybe I ought to reconsider.

BitterGrace said...

Fascinating post, and comments. I think most of the people I know have no idea what a fine perfume can cost. The few times I've let something slip that suggests how expensive this habit can be, I've immediately felt a silent disapproval--or was that just my embarrassment?

I think the vague sense of shame a lot of us feel is tangled up with a lot of things, so thoroughly tangled that there's no hope of sorting it out. Class issues, sexual issues, mental health issues--they're all there. A certain intellectual insecurity operates, as well. Some of my egghead friends think fashion and perfume are for airheads. If I love pretty things, I must be an idiot, right?

Rappleyea said...

Ah... wonderful post. You always speak right to my heart. Despite my love of perfume, I've retained - consciously or unconsciously - a lot of my Depression-era parents' values. I've never been a collector of anything and even now, it makes me nervous having more perfume than I'll ever wear. I live alone, work in a very small office, and dab lightly so the issue never comes up among friends or co-workers.

Tamara*J said...

It is very real, this passion for perfume, to find the long lost ones,to have a piece of history that will never come again.I've just barely scratched the surface of discovering vintage and I love it - all the while bemoaning the fact that it costs so much.
But it doesn't stop me .
I have a modest collection of perfume but I treasure it and dream of making it grow.
I don't have anyone to relate to on my obsession except the blogs and for me , that's enough.
I've "met" many wonderful, generous, sincere people from them and I look forward to the emails and PPP(perfume pen pal) packages and sending them out.
I have four daughters ages 17,14,12,7 though and believe me they are being raised to appreciate the beautiful but strange, the lost glorious perfumes of the past along with the latest and greatest.
They see (and smell) the value of it and also that sometimes you can't put a price tag on beauty.
I hope it is something they always remember about me, that perfume brought me joy and that I shared it with them.
Just yesterday we all sat on my bed and sniffed samples and decants galore from a very dear friend and had so much fun discussing notes and houses ,sniffing each others arms and hands. It's so satisfying that they are loving it as well.

Now only if they would just stay out of Mama's stash! ;)

kjanicki said...

Yes, our own little club, or people who see the art in perfume. It may seem expensive, but it's more like affordable art. My bottles are no more expensive that my shoes, but they last me longer and give me more pleasure.

I was brought up in a very middle class, wasp family, where you took off one piece of jewelry before leaving the house, and you were supposed to have a signature scent, one bottle of perfume that you received each year at Christmas or your birthday. We didn't collect anything, that was tacky at the worst, self indulgent at best.

I still don't have any friends who understand. Most seem to have the modern disease of perfume "sensitivity" - the main symptom seems to be wrinking of the nose. I don't care. My office has a door and I'll wear Rochas Femme and Bandit and Incense Rose anytime I want to.

Olfacta said...

Hi Meliscents -- Me too. Your mom has 90 bottles? Now that's impressive!

I know the funny look too.

Olfacta said...

Hi Meliscents -- Me too. Your mom has 90 bottles? Now that's impressive!

I know the funny look too.

Olfacta said...

Hello Anonymous -- I think my mom might not approve entirely, but she'd sure be sampling....I've never read the essay you mention. I'm not sure if I liked "The Corrections" or just appreciated some things about it. His characters are all flawed through-and-through, sort of like real people. I'm reading the new one now and these characters are even more unlikeable, but something -- maybe just the next train wreck -- keeps me interested. We'll see.

Olfacta said...

Hi BG -- I had just written this long reply when Blogger apparently crashed for a few minutes. Anyway, I think my point was that fashion and perfumery weren't always linked as they are now -- perfumery is as old as any other art. Unfortunately, most people seem to think that being into perfume means having to own the latest Marc Jacobs or whatever, which is a shame. As far as loving pretty things = idiot, that could just be one more vestige of good ol' American puritanism, don't you think?

Josephine said...

Great post! Yeah, I know some people think my perfume obsession is weird, but I also pick up on envy surrounding something to be passionate about.

My family, friends and co-workers ask me about perfume constantly and I envision in my own mind that I'm helping to make a beautiful difference in the world.

This justification comes in handy when I spend an obscene amount on a perfume that I just have to have.

Aparatchick said...

The Sandanistas have a lot to answer for; everything being ista-this and ista-that these days.

Your comment about the taste level (as Michael Kors would say) of our parents really hit home with me. I remember rolling my eyes at some of the things my mother wore, or ate, or had in her house. And of course, as someone in her 20s, I knew soooo much more about what was "better" than she did. And yet ... Mom was the former stewardess who had flown all over the world; she was the one who had lived the single life in New York City before reluctantly returning to her 1950s hometown; she was the one with the collection of French perfumes that were unavailable in the US. And while that collection was no secret, I don't recall her ever sharing her enjoyment of it with any of her friends. Perhaps she saw it as something more private - something you wore for your husband. Perhaps no one in the small towns we lived in would have been interested. Perhaps she thought it would have been unmannerly to show it to people - showing off, she would have called it.

My collection is mostly secret - Mr. Aparatchick knows, as does my step-daughter, but that's it. I once took some samples to work. One of my co-workers said her daughter would enjoy trying them, so I told her to take as many as she wanted. She told me no thanks - her daughter would just "stink up the house with them." OK. After that, I decided I liked keeping my love of perfume a happy little secret that I can share with other like minded people on the internet.

Olfacta said...

Hi R -- Thanks! That's such a nice thing to say.

I feel for small office people. I was always afraid of offending office-mates so would stick to something light, worn sparingly, but just didn't feel like myself! Still, it's the considerate thing to do.

Olfacta said...

Hi T*J -- Your daughters are lucky! They'll grow up wih a deeper understanding of history, because, as you say, vintage perfumes are history one can wear.

Olfacta said...

Hi T*J -- Your daughters are lucky! They'll grow up wih a deeper understanding of history, because, as you say, vintage perfumes are history one can wear.

Olfacta said...

Hi k -- Good for you!

I wonder about the sudden proliferation of "perfume sensitivity" all the time. I think it's a combination of overblown entitlement and the newer perfumes as well, the chemical stews that so many of them are. Maybe another topic for the blog...

Olfacta said...

Hi J -- You could be on to something. This is an era where everybody is supposed to be blase about everything. I like the phrase "she walks in beauty" (from some old poem). That's how a good perfume makes me feel. And I've yet to encounter another woman who, when I tell her about my blog, doesn't get enthusiastic when talking about her own perfume experiences. Not one. Interesting, eh?

Olfacta said...

Hi A -- Do you think that was why the Avon business model was so successful? That, even if you knew you were being sold a product, it was still just fun to sit and talk about it? I think that women of our moms' generation didn't want to seem vain, unless the Avon lady was there. Interesting that she put away the good stuff too.

Rappleyea said...

LOL! I'm not *that* considerate - the light dabbing is by choice. I don't want to smell a big cloud of my own sillage all day. I only want to smell my perfume if I lift my wrist to my nose. I think the sillage monsters of the '80's cured me!

Geordan 1244 said...

Love the post. I have a few close girlfriends that get together once every couple of weeks. I'm always taking samples with me to these little gatherings...my girlfriends placate me by testing them all up and down their arms, but they don't quite "get it", and rarely ever like them. People would keel over if they knew what I spent on fragrances, samples and decants. So for the most part, I don't tell them (shame?).

flittersniffer said...

Your thought-provoking post also struck a few chords with me: my mother also never knew about my perfume obsession, which came upon me suddenly at the age of 48.

Meanwhile, my partner's mother is very modest in her tastes and suspicious of ostentation or exoticism in any form, including many fresh versions of tinned foods... That said, thanks to me she is now the owner of two perfumes: Burberry Original for Women (day) and Coco Chanel (night), whereas before she wore none, so I am gradually nudging her in a more hedonistic direction - though perhaps I shouldn't interfere...?

Loved "The Corrections" - one of the best books I have read in recent years - and very painful in parts.

I tend to play down the size (and value) of my collection too, partly because it sounds pretty freaky to normal people, and partly out of embarrassment at having spent so much on my hobby. Like you, I always accompany any mention of the bottle count (60) with some airy reference to most of them coming from Ebay or T K Maxx..

flittersniffer said...

Oh, and many thanks in advance for the samples - I have had family staying this week and only just clocked that I won the draw!

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