Ancient philosophers called the sense of smell a window into the soul. And neuroscientists claim that smell is our most primitive sense, well developed before others such as sight. Over the millennia, humankind came to depend on their sense of smell for everything from avoiding bacteria-laden food to mating–especially mating. By 2000 B.C.E., perfume had become a highly prized trade commodity throughout the Middle East and Asia. With this innate desire to attract others, it’s no wonder that perfume sales worldwide this year will hit 40.1 billion USD.
While I’ll change outfits at the drop of a new hat, I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to perfume. I’ve maintained long-term committed relationships with with scents since high school. Now, like memories popping up when I hear a golden oldies, if get a whiff of a former perfume I’m taken back in time and place.
In high school I wore Wind Song. Sometime back Mother told me that for several years after I graduated it’s sweetness wafted through my room. I’ve never been high on single florals or exotics. Prince Matchabelli advertised “Wind Song whispers your name,” and I let it do it’s understated trick for me.
I went to college and left my high school fave behind. For the only time in my life, I was a two-timer. The lightness of L’Air du Temps wasn’t all that different from the old Wind Song. But Shalimar–sexy and mysterious–did a lot more than whisper my name. Carl Jung would have had a field day with this chunk of my unconscious floating to the surface during my freshman year. For it marked a lot of firsts for me. L’Air du Temps, however, prevailed and became my one-and-only for years.
Sometime in my early 30’s, I tired of Nina Ricci’s best in the Lalique bottle. Boredom and maturity, after all, is the killer of many a young love. Estee Lauder’s White Linen as introduced 1978 as the signature scent of the ’80’s career woman. Marketed as “strong but refined and polished” it suited me to a tee (a designer tee, to be sure). It remained my main spritz for 10 years.
By my mid-40’s I was established in Los Angeles and venturing into new career opportunities for international travel and publishing outside the cloistered world of my university teaching and research. On a long layover at the Hong Kong airport I stopped into a duty-free shop and fell in love. I’ve heard this snap in sensibility can happen. The outcome of the nagging mid-life restlessness. One sniff, and I knew everything was about to change. Here was Giorgio–sophisticated, Italian, expensive. I was hooked!
I stayed with my Italian love until my career brought me back to reality. In 2000 I helped L’Oreal launch a new hair product for mid-life and older women. Working at their Fifth Avenue corporate office, I had full access to the products in their company store, gratis. I’d used Lancôme skin products for years and felt like I found a pot of gold. It was there that I met Ô Oui, a scent launched in 1999 with a nod to earlier days of sweet, fruity sensuality. My infatuation with it was short, but mid-life brings about urges to rehash earlier days. And it gave my mid-50’s psyche that opportunity.
The only time I returned to an ex was in the fall of 2001. I’ve never thought of the coincidence until now, but as I write, the urge to revert to White Linen at that time becomes clear. It was a dark time for our country and for me, personally. On Sept. 9 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, on the 11th our country was attacked by terrorists and on the 14th I went into surgery wondering what the future held for me. A return to the familiar is what we all wanted and needed that fall.
I stayed with White Linen until I turned 65 in 2011. That morning, with no previous intent to do so, I drove to Nordstrom and bought a bottle of Chanel No. 5. My 65th birthday lacked all the trauma that I’d read of. I’d weathered some major storms in my life, was at the top of my career and felt as strong and beautiful as ever. I looked forward to what lay ahead. Why not take Coco Chanel, one of my lifelong muses, along with me into the next phase of my life?
In that spirit, I still wear No. 5 today.