The Ars Poetica of Perfume: A Manifesto

BRB, sniffing poetry books.
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"I’m so glad I’ve checked myself out of all attractiveness rhetoric,” I said to one of my friends recently and she laughed. “Says the girl who doesn’t leave house without perfume,” she said. I quoted Monroe – a girl who doesn’t wear perfume has no future – and she rightfully noticed that if that’s what it takes to have a future, she’d rather do without. 

It’s hard to find a beauty item easier to poeticize than perfume: each fragrance interacts with the natural smell of your body, producing a unique result. It’s the muggle equivalent of potions. Perfume even has a poetic structure: a head, a heart, and a base. It unravels in steps, like humans do when you come to really know them. Like cigarette smoke, – “per fume” means “through smoke” after all – it is brave in taking up others’ air, but instead of poisoning the surroundings, it subtly announces one’s presence. 

Who hasn’t followed the trace of a loved one’s scent into the jungle of a crowded shopping mall only to find the disappointment of another woman wearing the same perfume? Fine, fine, maybe not everyone has done that, but a scent’s ability to summon memories and associations is common knowledge. When I left my husband-Applied Math for my lover-Literature junior year, I bought a Forget-me-not scent from Urban Outfitters and every time I use it now, the happiness of those first free days sneaks into my room anew not just as a reminder, but as a restatement.

CK Summer

To go perfume shopping means to participate in a centuries old tradition and find out about yourself, while you’re at it. Women on perfume review websites come to develop a certain glossary and meaning for talking about their favorite scents. Perfume preferences tell as much as fashion choices do: Are you committed to a scent or do you easily change your tastes? Do you prefer the woody notes of Indian patchouli or chocolate, the frequent guest of youthful celebrity perfumes? Which season would you rather smell like? Would you protest to making people around dizzy with heavy, sweet Middle Eastern scents? As you delve into the world of scents, you’re surprised by its subtle poetics. Agarwood or oud, one of the most expensive perfume ingredients, is made of the scar tissue of certain trees and Elizabeth the First heavily used perfume to mask the smell of sweat from her panic attacks. Smaller niche perfume brands dedicate their fragrances to certain historical periods or people, like de Sade or Moulin Rouge and another brand is inspired by imaginary books by imaginary authors.

Soon one develops certain sensibilities and doesn’t wear a perfume unless one means it. Only a cruel girl would wear a scent that smells simply sweet and isn’t balanced by anything else to say, if she’s not in the mood for light-hearted flirtatious banter. If you choose Shalimar, a perfume inspired by the woman for whom the Emperor built the Taj Mahal, prepare for an evening of mysterious poker face. Of course, perfume is one of the more grown up beauty attributes and can be expensive, but going on the hunt for one thoughtful purchase of a signature scent is worth it. Let’s bring aromatherapy back into college campuses. Spray the word!


Do you wear perfume? Which scents do you prefer?

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