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A Whiff of Mystery

When a Woman Spritzes On a New Perfume, It Can Knock a Guy Off His Guard

October 11, 1998

My wife smells. It must have something to do with the latest batch of fall fragrances. Last night, for instance, she exuded a subtle scent, faintly floral and a bit elusive (Salvatore Ferragamo pour Femme, with notes of anise, iris, sweet almonds, musk). Today, she was being obvious, ingenuous, rather bold (Ralph Lauren Romance: roses, daylilies, lotus, patchouli). Tonight--incongruously enough on a balmy autumn evening--she is cool and dressy, ready for a $1,000-a-plater at the Getty Center, maybe even a holiday ball in Vienna (Guerlinade by Guerlain: citrus, a whole spray of flowers, a soupon of vanilla). Tomorrow? Perhaps she'll wear Lancome's n Oui! and remind me of one of those Parisian shops where dried flowers and aromatic branches outnumber the impeccable fresh blooms; or maybe she'll splash on Elizabeth Arden's Splendor (say, aren't those peonies, freesias, sweet peas?) and become a gothic heroine whose swain has just tossed an extravagant spring bouquet at her feet; or she just might even say, "The heck with it," and dab Estee Lauder's Dazzling on her wrists and behind her ears (there are two versions of this perfume, the billowy Gold and the slightly leaner Silver, and it would be just like her to confuse me and wear a bit of each).

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 29, 1998 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, "A Whiff of Mystery" (Style, Oct. 11) incorrectly stated that the perfume Fleurs de Rocaille has been discontinued. The fragrance from Parfums Caron is available at selected Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue stores.

I don't mind all this olfactory jiggery-pokery one bit, I hasten to add. I'm perfectly happy to let my perceptions of my wife (or any other woman) be altered by this kind of patent sensory manipulation. I admit it. I'm easy. I'm a willing perfume victim.

Guys aren't supposed to notice perfume--or, rather, of course, we're supposed to notice it, but we're not really supposed to think about brand names or essential oils. We're just supposed to be intoxicated (or willingly misled); the scent should be part of a woman's total package, one of the sweet deceptions--along with Nice 'n' Easy and the WonderBra.

Well, sorry, but I can't help it. I recognize perfumes and know many of them by name, and, frankly, I'm always surprised when friends who find it perfectly reasonable that I can tell the difference between Cabernet and Pinot Noir or between oregano and basil find it strange that I should know Opium from Envy from Issey Miyake. And I don't just recognize perfumes; I associate them intimately with people, places and events. Scientists tell us that the sense of smell is the most direct and evocative of all our senses. The nose is hard-wired--and, more to the point, hot-wired--to the brain. And scent memory persists long after its visual and auditory counterparts have begun to fade.

Everyone probably does this sort of thing to some extent, but I will forever associate Chanel No. 5, for instance, with married women who are somewhere they shouldn't be at all (never mind why). Dune, by Christian Dior, takes me straight to a hotel suite in Nice in the winter (never mind that one, either). I can never catch a whiff of Polo for Men, even on a man, without feeling a little pang of affection for a luminous, elusive woman I once knew who was always framed by a faint halo of the stuff. My mother, on the other hand, habitually drenched herself in Jungle Gardenia, which would probably tell an olfactorily sophisticated psychotherapist (if such an animal exists) rather more than I'd like him or her to know about my childhood.

I wonder if vivid and immediate associations of this sort are becoming a thing of the past, however. It might just be my imagination, but in the last few years, I've noticed that women seem to be perfume-hopping a lot more than they used to. Oh, I'm sure plenty of them still find a single, heraldic fragrance and stay loyal to it forever--eventually being reduced (unless it's one of the eternals, like Joy or that one the married women wear) to writing heartfelt but futile letters to manufacturers bemoaning the discontinuation of Carnet de Bal or Fleurs de Rocaille. But for most women today, I suspect, the disappearance of a single scent is of minimum import; they're apt to be finished with it anyway. Now women seem to change perfumes with the seasons and their moods (or do their moods change with their perfumes?). Scent seems more an interchangeable accessory and less a defining attribute. That's probably a good thing; it suggests a greater self-confidence and sense of identity on the part of the wearer and more willingness to experiment with change. And it can sure keep a guy guessing about his wife. Colman Andrews is editor of Saveur and co-author of "Saveur Cooks Authentic American," to be published this fall by Chronicle Books.


Styled by Eric Berg/Rex, L.A.; hair: Kim Epperly; makeup: Ronna Lauren; model: Christina Hendricks, Bordeaux Models

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