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  • The Scent of Always: A Personal History, with Perfume
  • Alison Townsend (bio)

A perfume is always a medicine.

old chinese proverb

Each day, after i shower, apply body lotion, blow my hair dry, coax it into a pageboy with a curling iron, and get dressed, I put on perfume. My current choice is Innisfree, a lavender-based scent made by Fragrances of Ireland, which claims to be “the essence” of that country. Fresh yet elegant, Innisfree is a ladylike perfume, one that projects beauty, calm, and secret inner depths. Depending on my mood, the season, and the occasion, I either apply small dabs behind my ears and in the base of my throat (adding cleavage, wrists, and the inside of my elbows if it’s a formal event), or spritz it into the air before me, walking quickly through the scented mist as it falls like fine rain in my hair. It is my ritual, the last thing I do before leaving the house, and I feel naked if I forget as I rush out the door, as if I have omitted a crucial ingredient of my own identity, leaving my woman self in some way incomplete or unprotected, not fully me.

Or, at least, not the self I want to present to the world, for there is an element of artifice in perfume. Without my scented aura as statement and foil, I feel vulnerable, exposed in a manner that, even after a lifetime of wearing perfume, I do not fully understand. Do I wear perfume for the world, to be attractive, alluring, even sexy? Or do I wear it for myself, to delight in the sheer, sensual whoosh of it all and the sense of possibility applying it summons, to feel reassured as I catch a faint whiff of it rising from my body during the day that I am, in fact, who I think I am? Do I wear it to remember, something in my past aligning with my present, so that, like the transparent overlays of the human body I used to pore over in my family’s Britannica, I am whole? What is it about perfume that continues to seduce me, even as it seems counter to the values of the woman who cooks organic food and uses natural cleaning products? All I know is that without perfume, something intangible is missing. While it’s gotten a bad rap in the era of chemical sensitivities [End Page 112] (there is even a movement in some municipalities to ban perfume, the way cigarettes are banned), perfume is, for me, a tonic, an anointment, a blessing.

Perfume ambushes us through our sense of smell, our most unmediated sense. Whatever message perfume communicates, whether it is sex appeal or personal identity, it does so in an instant. Mainlined into our limbic system at the cellular level, perfume travels to that part of the brain where, unfettered by language or reason, we experience the world directly and completely. Perhaps this is part of perfume’s power, why certain kinds are said to be intoxicating or even aphrodisiacal (and why it’s important not to wear too much). But I think it goes deeper than that. Perfume interacts with our individual chemistry, becoming something as unique as a fingerprint or signature. It is also something we select, making it our own, in the same way we create a personal style, opting for the elegance of calf-length skirts or the mystique of gypsy scarves and dangling earrings. Maybe this is why we say we “wear” perfume, as if it were an article of clothing. And perhaps it is exactly that, an invisible accoutrement that announces our presence as we enter a room, then lingers behind, a subtle reminder of who we are, even after we have left.

The first perfume I ever had, Friendship Garden, by Shulton, wasn’t even a real perfume but toilet water, a surprise gift from my paternal grandmother, Susie, the year I turned six or seven. I still remember the glossy white box, decorated with pale watercolors of spring flowers bending in the wind. Lifting the lid was like entering another country, a grown-up...


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pp. 112-127
Launched on MUSE
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