I have my priorities straight: I selected my wedding perfume a few days after my engagement, while I bought my dress six days before the ceremony. I do not necessarily recommend following my example (discovering that something does not fit correctly a day before the big event is stressful!), but the choice of fragrance should not be an afterthought.
There is a reason why brides are the epitome of beauty and radiance—no makeup, dress or jewelry can compete with the radiance of someone happy and in love. A well chosen perfume that can make you feel beautiful and elegant is the most exquisite ornament. It also becomes a special scented memento reminding you of this happy day. My wedding was already a few years ago, but I only need to take a whiff of Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower to be reminded of the chaos and excitement of that day.
But how do you pick a perfect perfume? Do you wear something familiar or do you select a completely new fragrance? What role do scents play in your wedding ceremony? Some of these questions can best be answered by Alyssa Harad, who wrote a book about falling in love with perfume and becoming a bride at the same time. Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride is a story about being seduced by scents and creating memories through aromas. Since perfumes played an important role in my and Alyssa’s weddings, we exchanged many letters on the subject. Victoria: What would you recommend to a woman who is trying to decide what perfume to pick for her big day? Any other helpful pointers for the brides to be?
Alyssa: When you are a bride, you are part person, part symbol. I think the most common misconception about weddings–and the one that causes brides the most grief–is that they are all about the bride having her “one special day.” In fact, unless you are eloping, weddings are as much or more about the community that’s coming together to celebrate and welcome you in as they are about the bride. Being clear about this saved me endless worries and fights. But it also made rituals like make-up, hair and perfume even more important.
It would have been easy to turn choosing my perfume into a struggle–to worry about pleasing my groom or my mother or the guests or just making a match to the landscape and the weather. I considered all of those things, because it’s fun to consider them and you have to take basics like temperature into consideration, but in the end I chose the perfume that made me feel like the person I wanted and needed to be on that day. When I helped my sister-in-law pick a perfume for her wedding I approached it in the same way. After we established her basic tastes, instead of asking about her outfit or what my brother liked, I said, “How do you want to feel? Who do you want to be?”
Victoria: Why was perfume such an important catalyst for your wedding?
Alyssa: Well, in the beginning it was less of a catalyst than it was a very welcome distraction. By the time I got married I was thirty-seven-years-old and my now-husband and I had been together for eleven years. I knew I wanted to get married, and I knew I wanted to have a wedding big enough to welcome everyone, but my initial idea–which seems completely ridiculous now–was that I would be able to just show up, say my lines, and then have a good time at the party. I didn’t realize the wedding would begin the minute we told people we were engaged! So while I was trying to ignore that reality, I became more and more obsessed with reading perfume reviews, ordering samples and learning how to smell.
In the end, perfume became a kind of back door for me into all the things that scared me about becoming a bride. It was a way to navigate beauty counters, and to navigate the problem of trying to be beautiful. A way to connect with my mother and her friends. A way to conjure up and understand the self that wanted to wear a dress and be a bride.
Alyssa: How about you, V? I was a perfume newbie, but you had years of sniffing and collecting under your belt by the time you got engaged, and perfume was already a part of your identity when you met your husband. How was perfume a touchstone or catalyst for you?
Victoria: When I first met my future husband, I was already falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of perfume. Throughout our courtship, I remember thinking a lot about fragrance, both as something that I enjoyed wearing and a direction I wanted to take in terms of my career. In some ways, perfume was simply always there, and since I was immersed in it, I wanted to share it with others. The wedding ceremony meant to me not simply an exchange of vows, but a chance to meet our respective families and friends. Our loved ones are scattered all over the world, and so the wedding became more about them. I hoped that they would enjoy the party and have wonderful scented memories of the event. We used a lot of sandalwood and jasmine to scent and decorate the hall. Those are among my favorite perfume notes (hence, the name of the blog, alluding to both jasmine and wood), and they also have beautiful connotations of serenity and love.
Victoria: Whenever I looked at traditional bridal magazines during the preparation for my wedding, I was struck by the conventional bride images–white dress, gossamer thin veil, tasteful delicate jewelry, exquisitely arranged bouquets. The advertising for bridal scents followed the same logic. That image was enough for me to balk at the idea of a wedding altogether. I just couldn’t see myself as that woman. And then I would look at Indian or Mexican bridal magazines, where the color was important, the more makeup and the more jewelry the better. That was not me either, but somehow I could see how I could adapt the colors and the bold scents that I loved. In the end, for my non-traditional wedding, I wore a perfume that might be called fairly traditional–Carnal Flower, a lush white floral bouquet. It was bold, but it was also familiar. And so, what perfume did you pick? Why did you select it?
Alyssa: I’m really struck by your story, because in many ways it mirrors my own. I found traditional bridal images, with all those lovely, slender nineteen and twenty-year-olds in white dresses so far from my own experience that I couldn’t even bring myself to pick up a bridal magazine at all! I imagined myself wearing a riot of color, or something really over the top–more of a red carpet outfit than a bridal gown. The first perfume I thought I might wear was Serge Lutens Chergui. I was obsessed with honey notes, and Chergui gave me those, but it was also kind of difficult and edgy. And it was Lutens, the pinnacle of perfume cool!
But in the end my wedding was not about rebellion, it was about trying to come to terms with all the traditions that scared me or that made me feel excluded. In a way, we’d already rebelled for eleven years, so our wedding was about turning back to our extended networks of family and community and acknowledging how important they were. It was a chance to thank them for making us who we were and are, so that we could be a couple. So like you, in the end I wore something fairly traditional. But–I’m so sorry–I don’t think I should confess what it is, since that would be a little bit of a spoiler! It was definitely something from a category I thought would never be me, though–which was also my experience of being a bride.
Victoria: When you think back on your wedding, what stands out in your memories the most? Do you remember scents and if so, which ones?
Alyssa: I have to say that when I think of my wedding I remember the light and the landscape more than I remember a specific set of smells. We had the wedding in my parents’ backyard, in Boise, Idaho. They live up in the sagebrush foothills that surround Boise, and I thought a lot about the blonde grasses and silver sage on those hills, and about the desert plants in my mother’s garden, which mirror the wild plants on the hills. I think that was part of my initial attraction to Chergui–it’s connection to the colors of the desert, and to the smell of hay. Les Nez’s Let me Play the Lion is another perfume that reminds me of the landscape–much more strongly, actually. It always makes me think of the dry summer heat and dust I grew up with.
Now, I really want to hear *your* answer to it, because I know you were in a place with a lot of incredible, insistent smells.
Victoria: Henna, marigolds, jasmine, and burning wood! At one point, my husband’s parents wanted to do a traditional ceremony which is very similar to what we do in the Russian Orthodox church—invite a priest and have him chant and burn incense to bless the house and the couple. The priest came and instead of a small incense burner, he made a huge bonfire in the middle of the living room. Within seconds the whole place got engulfed in incense smoke, and all of us started choking and getting teary. But it was fun! We smelled this incense on our clothes for weeks after the wedding.
But seriously, I remember my Carnal Flower the most. I was so nervous and anxious, I wrapped myself in this perfume like a comforting blanket. These days I can’t even wear it without feeling the same “butterflies in the stomach” sensation I felt during my wedding.
Photographs 2, 3, 6 © Alyssa Harad. The rest © Bois de Jasmin (by Vera K, photo 1 © Vera, used with permission).