Even if you didn’t have a calendar, you would know it’s December by the staggering volume of perfume ads in women’s magazines. This marvelous array of deeply evocative images stirs the female of the species to want to run out and snag a scent that’s sure to capture the attention of the man in her life or to reflect her inner self.
Since that first powder-puff whiff of pink Tinkerbell toilet water when I was about 6 years old to the time I poured over December Seventeen magazines, I was hooked on the power of scent to alter mood and weave some magic, especially at Christmas time.
If you’re like most women, your dressing table or bureau top is crowded with multiple bottles of scent, most of which have been gifts from well-meaning, but sometimes clueless, loved ones.
But aren’t you yearning for that special “signature” scent, the one that whispers secrets about your soul?
The aforementioned staggering array of perfume choices out there makes it daunting for any woman to go forth and try to find her signature, so I’ve called on my dear friend, Donna Macdonald, to help us suss out which scent is most likely to speak your language so you can ask Santa (or that hunky GI) to bring it your way.
Donna is a talented writer and blogger; one of her specialties is fragrance. You’ve met her on these pages before–she’s also deeply addicted to lipstick and contributed to my study on the power of red lipstick.
Donna’s been sharing her insights and reflections in several venues, my favorite of which is her blog, A Lovely Inconsequence. I’ve asked her to help us make our way through the bewildering options at the department store counters and of course, we’re going to assign both categories and specifics to your Star Style. (If you haven’t taken the Star Style quiz yet, this is a dandy time to do so.)
Donna: I love that scent becomes part of who you are. It wafts around you and emanates with every movement you make. If you wear the same perfume for years, others recognize it as uniquely you. And when you are not wearing it, they may accuse you of not being completely yourself without really knowing why, so ingrained is your scent in their psyches.
This makes fragrance a very powerful element – even more powerful than the pair of eyeglasses or signature ring you wear every day. Scent is also very primal – babies quickly learn their mothers’ scents and are comforted by it. A wife recently told me that when she smelled the top of her husband’s head, she felt safe.
I also love the immortality of perfume. How often have we smelled someone’s perfume and longingly thought, “My mother wore that”, or “You smell like my favorite aunt”. Suddenly you are not just remembering your loved one, on some level you are with them again as if in a dream. I find that very compelling. Perfume wraps itself around memories for years and years.
K: Let’s start by breaking down the categories of scent–I’m sure that some types of fragrance are more apt to resonate with different Star Style types. So, could you spell out for us the classic divisions of scent?
D: Scents are now classified under four categories: Floral, Woody, Oriental, and Fresh. Under each classification are subsets which are have room for lots of interpretations. Here are the categories and little bit about each: The most ancient of all scent types is the Floral.
Today, florals combine many different elements and are not the single-note florals that our Victorian sisters of yore loved and wore. A floral today is quite complex and bursts open with a bright symphony of what can only be described as “mille fleur”, or multiple flowers.
Certain flowers have come into vogue through the years and therefore, the makeup of floral perfumes have changed dramatically. The trick with florals is to find one that is different from others even though the same blossoms are in the makeup.
Woody note fragrances are considered the earthy scents. You can almost smell fresh soil in a true wood perfume.
Most people think this category is made for free-spirited natural women and although they may be a good choice for them, Woody scents should not be taken lightly – they can be deeply sensual and persuasive.
Think of a scent that is as dramatic and spellbinding as the billowing cape on a maiden walking on the moody moors.
Fresh fragrances are sparkling and light like the first warm June day. This makes them a perfect match for the summer months. They are generally effervescent with tangy top notes that hint of youthful laughter and love.
Not as complex, they speak to the simplicity of warm-weather months when life slows down and becomes more fun.
Perfumes in the Oriental category are classically rich in accords.
Many of the first elaborate fragrances created by the great fashion houses such as Chanel and Lanvin are considered the benchmark of great Orientals. They are elegant, thoughtful and womanly. They speak to the best of the world of a Jazz Age beauty – ruby red lips, silks, pearls.
D: Perfume (in French “parfum”) is scent in the most pure form and therefore, the “strongest.” Since perfume has less alcohol and more oil, it is dear and costly. It also may last longer on certain skin. It is a potent way to wear scent. A bottle of real perfume also looks amazing on a woman’s dresser top – special and elegant.
Eau de Toilette is perfume’s youngest sister. It is a refreshing way to wear scent as it can be spritzed lavishly without offending. With more alcohol, however, it doesn’t last a long. I love keeping my eau de toilettes in my handbag for refreshing spritz during the day, especially in summer. They can also be kept in the refrigerator for cooling summer comfort before bed.
Eau de parfum is my most favorite way to wear scent. It combines the best of both perfume and eau de toilette. You will find eau de parfum more lasting than toilettes but not as expensive as perfume.
Many scents now come in portable solid compacts. This is an easy way to take scent with you. I also love the new perfume “jewelry” I’ve seen where a lovely locket or brooch is filled with a solid perfume. This is another way to “wear” scent and I really love the idea.
K: Okay, now that we’ve got a working vocabulary, let’s get specific. Debbie Reynolds is the captain and cheerleader of the Lively Girl-Next-Door team. What scent might she have worn in her heyday–a classic for this vibrant, bouncy, sporty type? What scents are perfect for her today?
D: I imagine effervescent, innocent Debbie Reynolds in Caron’s Fleure de Rocaille. This classic perfume is inhabited with all the pure spring flowers: lily-of-the-valley, lilac, rose, carnation, and iris. However, it is presented with a peppery cedar tone which creates a strong floral with a temper – much the way that Debbie portrayed herself in magical “Singing in the Rain” and the romantic “Tammy and the Bachelor.”
Today, I sense Debbie in Viktor and Rolf’s Flowerbomb, a vivacious and multi-faceted perfume for buoyant and energetic women who still love to be feminine.
K: The Sophisticated Ingénue’s poster girl is Audrey Hepburn, so one classic scent for that Star Style is a no brainer. Please tell us a bit about the perfume Givenchy created for her. And what modern scents have the fragrance notes that typify the complex, contemporary, fashion-driven nature of this style type?
D: L’Interdit, the inimitable fragrance fashion powerhouse Givenchy created just for Audrey, is a beautiful perfume that has been described as indescribable! Its jasmine and violet notes are blended nearly seamlessly with an elusive mandarin orange at its core. This effect lends a petite powdery component as soft and elfin as Audrey and yet, as worldly and sophisticated as her movie star guise.
Audrey captivated us with her natural beauty and style and later in life; she astounded us with her deep generosity and kindness. The world-famous dress designer tried to put into a glass bottle all that Audrey was, and oddly enough, L’Interdit means forbidden. Yet Audrey’s role in life left nothing verboten; not the cultivated silver screen siren or the selfless and tireless disciple of the earth’s children.
Today, Audrey may have chosen Dolce and Gabanna’s Dolce for herself, a lovely blend of water lily and sandalwood. Although stripped of the myth of L’Interdit, it still captures the beauty of a giving and beautiful woman with its warm heart of white amaryllis, a South African flower never used before in perfume. Its faint green elixir and its creamy floral stopper are as delicate as the woman herself – tender and innocent but with designer power on its side.
K: Elizabeth Taylor is the epitome of the Passionate Beauty and she created her own line of incredibly popular perfumes in the 1980s. Please share a bit about her own line, then offer your thoughts on which categories and fragrances best speak to these women who drink so deeply of life.
D: Movie star Elizabeth Taylor will be remembered for many things and among them will be the perfume she created for the women of the world, White Diamonds. This scent is soft with florals but has a crisp green center which makes it very wearable.
Elizabeth wanted her brand to be beautiful and affordable and today, it remains a true inexpensive luxury that women everywhere are still faithful to. The bright notes remind one of not only diamonds, but Elizabeth’s intense and fiery violet eyes. She really gave of herself in this perfume.
Today, Elizabeth might dab on Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino, an unconstrained amber with touches of jasmine which, like Elizabeth Taylor, leaves a substantial impression.
K: Ingrid Bergman’s fresh, breezy Naturally Charming self would be reflected in which classic scent? Is there a time period when “natural” scents were the rage and what’s on the shelves for this uncluttered soul today?
D: Naturally beautiful Ingrid Bergman would have worn the velvety soft and romantic L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain. Named for the suspended hour between light and darkness, Ingrid’s ethereal exquisiteness would have found its home in L’Heure Bleue’s natural harmony.
Although not a true “natural” fragrance, its earthy accords had a resurgence of popularity in the back-to-nature decade, the 1970s. This is when women were smitten with herbs, plants and spices – even strawberries! After the straight-laced 1950’s and early 1960’s, women were searching for more natural cosmetics. But L’Heure Bleue’s unpretentious tones although artificial, would have fit right in with the back to basic beauty movement. (Editor’s note: Below is a 1970’s ad for L’Heure Bleue.)
Ingrid would have found her perfumed soul in Estee Lauder’s Modern Muse, a lush blend of rich florals and sleek woods made for women with timeless, quiet, un-artificial beauty.
K: The sultry, languorous Sensual Bohemian soul is captured by Lauren Bacall’s gorgeous come-hither expression. What perfumes evoke the satin-strewn harem in her time and what can today’s Boho gal put on her Christmas list?
D: Lauren Bacall’s languorous sexy waves often caught men off-guard but it was the insouciant gaze behind the waves and the iconic husky voice that ensnared them for all time. Her feline come-hither was perfect for the burning embers and just-blown-out-candles scent of Guerlain’s Shalimar. Bacall’s sensuous bohemian style cried out for the fragrance’s sultry amber and it would have swirled about her like aged brandy in a glass, reminding everyone that this woman lived her life with a romantic and aching passion.
Today, Bacall may choose Bvlgari Black with its meandering tea and sandalwood that wispily trails like the moody poignancy of burnt October leaves. The perfume is strong and heady and yet, has a bruising tenderness that rests with a single mortal rose – a doomed flickering light that merely leads through the ashy fog to a woman’s neck – the very place where a man inhales and hungrily devours the essence of the woman he desires. Bacall’s confidence belied her need for affection but Bvlgari Black’s exotic and slow smolder would have make sure she got it. (Editor’s note: Donna assures me that Bvlgari Black, while advertised with the scruffiest man alive, is a unisex fragrance. This image portrays another Bvlgari scent, I know, but I like it better because of the lion and the lyin’ around. So I’m going with it.)
K: Kate Middleton’s regally restrained wardrobe is making a lot of today’s Classically Ladylike girls very happy, as does Grace Kelly’s continual inspiration. What are some of the classic scents for this feminine, refined type? And should our delicate Ladylike women dab behind their ears today?
D: Classical ladylikes such as the Princesses Kate and Grace would love Lanvin’s Arpege. Returning to the notion of true womanhood, Arpege captures the love of mother and child with their iconic bottle image. Said to depict Madam Lanvin herself frolicking with her beloved daughter, new mother and now, mom-to-be encore Kate Middleton should find herself in this classic fragrance.
Like the scent’s namesake, the musical term “arpeggio,” its floral and spice notes stack up and gently chase each other like a mother and child on a sunny playground or in a winter frolic.
The modern princess’ wardrobe already tells us she adores the British classics of tartans and wools, so I think she might choose the newest Burberry, My Burberry. Its fresh bubbly top note dries to a deeply satisfying geranium hint and no doubt this fragrance is slated to become as classic as the Burberry trench Kate often sports.
K: Brisk, bold, business-like, and boyish Smartly Tailored women might even be tempted to skip scent, but I’m sure Kate Hepburn splashed on a little something before she went flying with Howard Hughes. What scent is a classic for this androgynous type and what should today’s tailored gals ask for?
D: It is known that Kate Hepburn favored Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, a perfume named after “Night Flight”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s gripping and romantic novel of aviation. No doubt Kate read the novel and it may very well have fueled her adventurous love of flying especially as co-pilot to a young and dashing Howard Hughes.
Vol de Nuit’s composition is both warm and cold much like Kate’s tempestuous heart which never rested long in any one place. Its woodsy amber accords found their balance, however, with the long cool lily and like Kate, there is no mistaking when a lily is nearby. Its touch-me, touch-me-not supplanted Kate’s feminine and masculine style and could not have been a better choice for her personal scent.
Today’s tailored types would love Hermes Un Jardin Sur de Nil, a unisex fragrance by the great fashion house that gives us all those colorful and languid silk scarves even Kate was known to don occasionally. Sur de Nil is an impressionistic and refreshing ode to Egypt’s River Nile with its extreme notes of mango and white lotus. It is not an easy perfume to wear – its host must rise to meet it, not a difficult feat for a woman with Kate’s dramatic flair. Its hint of hyacinth brings it all down to earth with its softer inner core of femininity. The delicate purple flower sings a song that simply cannot be ignored. It would have been perfect for the daring and adventurous Kate who even in her menswear, wore her heart on her sleeve for all the world to see.
K: Some of the perfumes you’ve referenced here can be really pricey. Are they worth the cost? Why are they so expensive? Is there some way to enjoy these costlier scents without breaking the bank?
D: Perfume is not easy to make anymore. Regulations on elixirs have made it difficult to obtain for perfume creators. As well as new limitations on what are believed to be irritants. All of this has changed the way perfume is made and it has therefore, increased the price. But I believe that she who loves a lot, should have.
If your favorite scent is costly, I would look for decants of it which can be found on eBay. Decants are poured-offs from larger bottles that sellers divide up. These small bottles can be used on the most special occasions and filled in with your next favorite scents. (Editor’s note: Try asking for these pricier scents as gifts, too, when that certain someone asks you what you REALLY want for Christmas.)
You can also look for other versions of your favorite perfume in soaps, body creams, bath products, and lotions. Perfumed soaps are becoming the new hot scent product as they have been made to be incredibly fragrant. Smoothing on the matching body cream will perfume you almost as much as if taken straight from the bottle.
I do believe, however, that perfume is worth it because it adds to your sense of self, becomes a part of your personal style, comforts, and rejoices with you. And then there is your immortality. What price for your legend and your legacy? How lovely to be remembered for your scent after all?
K: What’s the difference between a true high quality perfume and the pricey-but-cheap “celebrity” scents that seem to crop up like mushrooms after the rain?
D: The elements of a high quality perfume have integrity. The flowers are grown and tended with care and are cut at the most optimal time for their fragrance. They are handled with care and blended with the most high quality ingredients possible. When perfume creation is treated as an art, the result is a high quality scent with substance, heft and staying power.
Many of the new genre of celeb scents are made to hit the market quickly or at high shopping times, such as the holidays.
They are usually fruity blends and I find the citrus is often noxious and too strong. I am also surprised at how similar they smell. Usually it’s because they are using the floral-du-jour which makes the scents cookie-cutter.
K: What’s the best way to wear a perfume? Behind the ears?
D: Of course, Coco Chanel said it best when she said that women should wear perfume where they want to be kissed. The traditional thought, however, is that since the pulse points (such as behind the ears) on the body are generally warmer, scent placed there would “heat up” and waft more.
I prefer to put perfume in unexpected places such as the open forearm and just above my collar bone.
Also, the back of knees and even the ankles. Fragrance should be activated by even the slightest body movement such as taking a step forward. If you are wearing a skirt, it will help swirl the scent into the air. I especially need my perfume near my collar because I want to enjoy it too! It is such a comfort to have a beautiful fragrance on during a tough stressful day and you want to be able to garner strength from your own true self.
That is the beauty of perfume – it’s not just for others. I also recommend a light spritz before bed which will scent your sheets and is so nice to wake up to.
K: Why do perfumes seem to change their scents when we put them on?
D: Perfumes is made to fade by levels and each level brings out a newer element of the scent. For example, the top note is the first burst of scent. But one should not select a new perfume solely by the top note’s appeal. I’ve loved many fragrances by the top note alone only to discover hours later that the middle note and/or dry-down note is not palatable or even becomes sickening. That’s why you must wear a potentially new fragrance for a while before you buy it.
K: How much perfume is too much?
D: Even a light and bright scent can be overused. It is better to keep a form of the scent with you and reapply if necessary throughout the day. As long as you remember that perfume is for your benefit as well, you will keep it close to you and not overdo it. You must always have your audience in mind. An intimate dinner at home with your partner calls for subtlety but a fun New Year’s party cries out for more daring applications.
K: Okay, so we’ve got a list of possibilities; it’s time to go a-hunting. How should we “try on” perfumes? It can be very bewildering.
D: As I have stated, you must wear a fragrance possibility for a while. You will need to see how it smells in a few hours, whether it lasts long enough, or whether it truly reflects your inner self. Fortunately, many perfume companies know this now and are more liberal than ever with their samples. A small decanted vial that you try for a day or two is even better. I need to see whether the dry down is going to be a scent I love or hate. The only way to find this out, is to live in the scent for a few hours or a day or two. Only then will you know that your hard-earned money will be rewarded with something worthwhile and lovely.
And don’t be afraid to try on a perfume you love on a friend. Just know that it may not be right for you. But loving it on others first is great launching pad. However, be prepared to accept your friend’s wish to not have you select her personal scent if it is very meaningful to her. She may be ok with you wearing it on days you are not together or if she discovers it smells different on you (which very well may be the case!). Bear in mind, that selecting and wearing a perfume is very private and personal and respect that.
K: Once we’ve made our choice, how should we store these precious scents?
D: As any good blend of ingredients, fragrance optimally should be stored in a dark, cool place to prevent it from fermentation. But I love the look of a beautiful crystal bottle on a woman’s dressing table. There is nothing as feminine as the spot where women dress and a well-made bottle of scent next to a sweet keepsake or a lovely hairbrush or silver frame, makes dressing so personal and fun.
With my favorite perfume, I keep one large bottle tucked away in my lingerie drawer which I use every day and a smaller elegant version on top of my bureau. Also, a lighter version in the refrigerator for cooling summer spritzing.
K: How long will they last? Should we use them every day or save them for special occasions?
D: A bottle of scent should last a few years provided it is good quality and not next to a heating vent or sunlight. You will know a bottle has “turned” if it smells acrid or faintly of vinegar. And no! Perfume should never be saved but used and enjoyed every single day. Perfume weaves a spell of interest and joy and should never be parceled out for just special occasions. After all, it is the ordinary days that we also remember. Make them fragrant!
K: While some women (like me) wear a signature perfume–in my case, Chanel No 5–every single day (here’s my true confession about that), no matter what the season, I know many women love having a wardrobe of scents. Are there any guidelines about which scents work best in which season? For example, what scents are good for winter and why?
D: Chypre scents which are part of the Oriental note family, are wonderful cold-weather fragrances.
They are full-bodies and more potent than Floral and Fresh notes. A deep enthralling chypre can actually make you feel warmer simply because it envelopes you with its cozy veil of scent.
Florals come alive in the spring just as the flowers do. They are innocent and girlish – just the way the first warm spring days make you feel. When you begin to reach to your lighter pastels, you will want to reach for your feminine lighter Florals to match your awakening optimism and joy for the light’s return.
But there are no hard and fast rules to seasonal scent-wearing. It’s a matter of whatever makes your heart sing!
D: I generally wear two fragrances. The iconic Chanel 5 is my go-to wintery weather scent. I derive such comfort and warmth from it on my long work days. Its complex accords work so beautifully with my cashmere sweaters and woolens.
It has just enough floral with its delicate jasmine and rose to satisfy my feminine side. Chanel 5 always looks like the very height of elegance on my dresser, especially during the Christmas season as it nestles beside my winter crystals and garnets. The lore and history of Chanel 5 swirls about me as much as the perfume itself!
For warmer weather I adore Balenciaga Paris. First, the bottle is a pure work of art. Its heavy crystal is delineated with several vertical corners and the crackled egg stopper enchants me. It’s hefty in my hand and feels substantial as a perfume should. I have to admit that I am not as fond of its top note which I find a tad peppery but it dries down quickly to a mauvey violet which is so appealing in summer. Balenciaga Paris has a strong yet delicate staying power. Just before bed, I can often still smell the very soul of it gently lingering on my skin.
K: Donna, thanks so much for sharing your passion for perfume with my readers! I know they’ve learned a lot and unless I miss my guess, fragrance is going to be at the top of many, many Christmas wish lists this year.