There are at least 25 reasons why we wear perfume, and counting. This much I learned on a week-long perfumery course a couple of weeks ago in the cathedral city of Winchester, in southern England. We were around 30 students from all walks of life, nationalities and age spans.
A conductor from Berlin, an abstract artist from Surrey, a yoga retreat organiser from Tuscany, a perfume distributor, a wine buff, a sculptor, a UN lawyer and so the roll call of the perfume curious, hobbyists, novices, experienced and aficionados went. We were there for myriad reasons from wanting to up our game in perfume making, to listening to scent, painting scent and training noses to appreciate both perfume and wine.
The first question a couple of minutes into day one’s training was ‘What is perfume?’. The second followed quickly: ‘Why do we wear perfume?’. Easy to answer, these questions are not. Of course there is the technical response to the first but the second requires us to delve deep into psychology, rather than physiology.
In the 17th century, perfumery was born of the functional need to scent tanned hides. The first French perfumers evolved from the tanning industry and were adept at scenting leather used in garments such as gloves. The name of a contemporary perfume house Maître Parfumeur et Gantier harks back these anciens roots. The first 17th perfumers created scented items to wear and adorn the person. In those times, the aristos would not wear perfume on the skin. Interestingly, given today’s worries about allergens, we’re seeing the slow but sure return to some perfumed goods to adorn; scented jewellery is one product of perfumery’s past that is making an appearance
I digress. Getting back to the two questions, you might have noticed that both intertwine. What is perfume becomes why we wear perfume if you tackle perfume on the emotional level. We have no real need to wear perfume today. Unlike the 17th century tanners and aristocrats, perfume is totally unnecessary and even vilified by some as the harbinger of environmentally unsound toxins and the bane of anyone prone to allergies.
The Unanswerable Question of Why We Wear Perfume
However, ask 30 people why they wear it and you will be stunned by the divergent replies. We called out single word responses for the most part, yet within each word lay an entire novel. As individuals, we all had differing relationships to the juice inside the bottles, and reasons to wear perfume.
Below is the verbatim list; I am sure some will resonate with how you view perfume, if you have the occasion to think about it. Glancing at it, I’d say that there are three main schools of thought: perfume as a creative art; the psychological of wearing it; and the physiological aspects. I’ve not divided them like this, as I didn’t wish to influence you but you will see a pattern forming in these responses.
- Self expression
- Mask or cloak
- healing / Therapy
- Mood enhancer
- Extract of nature
- Anchored in place
Perfume as a Scented Fingerprint
Knowing why others wear perfume doesn’t necessarily bring us closer to divining why we do. And that is as it should be. As the week’s course progressed, and we trialled and created our own perfumes, it was clear that one person’s interpretation of an aroma was not another’s.
Each of us brought to the table a unique olfactory memory bank – drawn from our diverse backgrounds – that swayed our assessment of any given perfume note, oil or formulation. We could identify similar patterns and decide the makeup of a formula to within a range of notes. But, what we associated with each perfume, how it moved us, and why we might wish to wear it, remained our unique intercession with perfume.
The title of this post includes ‘self’ and ‘self expression’. I feel that whether the perfume wearer is looking inward or wishing to project an aura outwards, these two reasons are indivisible. To wear perfume for oneself – choosing intimate perfumes that linger close, like natural perfumes often do, is a secretive form of self expression. Whether perfume means to cloak or mask, or alternatively to adorn or differentiate, it will always be a form of self expression whether it goes noticed or not.
The irony of history is that a technical manufacturing process born of necessity should become artistry aimed at the emotions. I would wager that each of us 30 students went home both wiser and less wise about exactly what perfume means to us. But I would hazard that all of us love perfume for no other reason than it makes us feel good!
If you’re interested in the perfumery course I attended, see Perfumers’ World. They run regular courses at their bases in Thailand and the US as well as the annual course in Winchester, UK and other ad hoc venues around the world.