Perfume as a Costume

Today Elisa discusses perfumes that she wears not necessarily because they suit her personality, but the opposite–they become her means to fantasize and play dress up.

As a child, I never wanted to be something scary for Halloween; my costumes were always aspirational. Instead of dressing up as a witch or a ghost, I was a bride or a ballerina. As I got older, I’d pile on my grandmother’s costume jewelry to be a fortune teller; for several years in a row as a teen, I borrowed my mother’s embroidered purple suede platform boots from the ‘70s and called myself a hippie.

Colorful Bracelets

Whether Halloween is approaching or not, I think of everyday fashion as a kind of costuming. I admire those chic women with a well-edited closet and a simple daily uniform, but I can’t resist buying beautiful but impractical items that don’t necessarily go with anything else in my closet, then trying to find ways to mix them in. I haunt consignment shops to find my costume pieces: a tie-print Diane von Furstenberg dress that makes me feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie; the perfect ‘80s-era ankle boots for walking in SoHo (though my ankles were killing me by the end of the night); the black velvet tuxedo vest that I fantasize about throwing on with everything (but never actually wear). When I approach getting dressed as putting on a costume, I never worry about being overdressed or looking like I’m trying too hard; I’m just having fun with it.

Perfumes too can serve as a kind of costuming. I have my go-to favorites that always feel perfectly “me” whatever the occasion – Donna Karan Gold works in any season, day or night – but I also have scents in my collection that I wear to feel less like me. These are a few of my costume scents, the ones I put on to go clandestine, escape myself, or perform a character.

Paloma Picasso

I blind-bought a bottle of Paloma Picasso from a discount store early on in my perfume days; it was cheap and I wanted to build a collection of classics. When I got it home and sprayed it on paper, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I instantly recognized it from my childhood as the smell of women both older and fancier than my mother, women who wore heels as a rule and used plenty of aerosol hairspray. It was shot through with a bitterness completely absent from the more recent florals I’d tried (Dior J’Adore, Gucci Envy); it smelled sour-faced and mean. Luckily, I hung on to that bottle until I understood what a bit of moss can achieve.

Now, along with the sharpness of bergamot and oakmoss, I smell rich, honeyed jasmine and funky patchouli, and just a flash of the icy beauty of rose. When I wear it, I stand up a little straighter and hold my head high, imagining that I have shoulder pads and carry the kind of cosmetics cases that snap shut with a satisfying metallic click.

Caron Le Troisième Homme

Caron’s Le Troisième Homme, AKA Third Man, is my drag scent. As a big old-fashioned fougère, it smells unmistakably like a man. Not a boy, a man – square jaw, full suit, and five o’clock shadow. What makes it more beautiful than the typical shaving-cream fougère is the floral notes: an enormous bouquet of soapy, herbal lavender followed by spicy geranium and jasmine in the heart. The base, which lasts forever, is musky, mossy patchouli, with all its chocolate and menthol aspects present, deep and warm as a bear hug. It’s the last thing you’d expect a small blond woman to smell like, which makes it feel like a subversive comfort.

Donna Karan Black Cashmere

I managed to snag a bottle of Black Cashmere, in the original reclining pebble bottle, in a perfume swap, having confused it with Chaos. Of the two, Black Cashmere is subtler, more contemplative – a smoldering ashy incense with a dark clove note. Because I conceive of fashion and perfume as forms of costume, I’m often drawn to the loud and garish – bright, crazy prints and perfumes that announce themselves proudly, like Bond no 9 Broadway Nite and Thierry Mugler Angel.

Black Cashmere, on the other hand, is quiet and refined, and seems best suited to a gothic beauty like Rooney Mara, or a fashion editor seated in the front row at a show – someone who wears black, drapey, architectural clothing that is both simple and dramatic. I’d never reach for this when I’ve got on my leopard print skirt or a statement necklace, but it’s perfect for a winter night spent in solitude.

Hanae Mori Butterfly

Hanae Mori Butterfly takes me back to the days of real “dress-up” – this is what I would have wanted perfume to smell like when I was eight. It smells like every kind of enchanting dessert: lemon curd, strawberry tarts, almond macarons, cheesecake with shortbread crust. But, somehow, the buttery, salty edge to the caramel note and the whiff of a floral bouquet (girly rose mixed with jasmine and peony) lend it sophistication. This classic gourmand is like choosing petits fours over sandwich cookies at a tea party.

What perfumes do you love even though – or because – they don’t suit you?

bride-halloween

First image by VeraK (© Bois de Jasmin); second–Elisa in her bridal Halloween costume.

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53 Comments

  • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for the lovely post, Elisa. I was smiling all the way through. You look so happy and excited in that picture! I always feel that I’m not feminine enough to wear big, floral perfumes. I usually lean towards light, clean and unisex scents (although my taste seems to be slowly changing), and my usual outfit consists of shirts and jeans/Khaki trousers. Although it’s very far away from my personality, I adore Carnal Flower. For me, this is the epitome of feminity – beautiful, elegant and alluring. I fantasise about wearing this perfume and going to a ball in an exquisite ballgown with full make-up and updo hair. October 25, 2013 at 7:49am Reply

    • Elisa: Carnal Flower is so beautiful and vivacious! Wearing it makes me feel rich. 🙂 October 25, 2013 at 9:41am Reply

  • george: This article has really made me think! thank you Elisa! October 25, 2013 at 8:19am Reply

    • Elisa: Thank you George! October 25, 2013 at 9:41am Reply

  • Zazie: This post is precious! Thank you Elisa for the big smile!
    I have a few totally-not-me-but-I-love-them-because-of-that perfumes.
    Most of them lie in the “chic, understaded elegant woman” cathegory. They are n°5 parfum, Amouage Gold and iris poudre.
    If you thing Amouage Gold and understated cannot belong in the same sentence, well, what can I say? The ideal woman wearing these fragrances doesn’t laugh too loud, does not know the meaning of messy, and never trips on the sidewalks. Oh, and she is not spending the evenings on youtube with her husband looking at vintage episodes of Mork and Mindy!!!
    So, sometimes I take a break from myself and slide in a sophisticated trail of aldehydic iris and jasmine, with an aloof “deneuvian” expression on my perfectly made up face – despite still tripping on the sidewalk!
    😉

    p.s. you look darling in that last pic! October 25, 2013 at 8:38am Reply

    • Jillie: Zazie – your definition of the Amouage Gold woman is priceless (a bit like the perfume itself). I’ve just got to spritz a bit of my sample on so that I too can feel “deneuvian”, in spite of being a clumsy klutz. October 25, 2013 at 8:44am Reply

    • Elisa: Thank you Zazie! Like Jillie I LOVE the idea of “Deneuvian” perfumes and expressions. Chanel No 5 is definitely Deneuvian. I always feel more elegant than I really am when I wear vintage perfumes, like my old Shalimar EDC. October 25, 2013 at 9:43am Reply

    • amy: Zazie,

      I can completely relate! 🙂 October 29, 2013 at 11:05pm Reply

  • Jillie: You looked so cute!

    I loved reading this, and I think you are absolutely right – wearing perfume does have an element of dressing-up about it, and it can help you fantasise and dream. Sometimes your choice is to reflect your mood or the weather, but at other times it is to create a personality that you wish to project (especially when you want to seem confident and that’s the last thing you actually feel).

    I used to act, and really did use perfume as part of the dressing up process – I would wear something that I felt my character would like and this would help me get into my role. I hope I didn’t overdo it, though, as one critic remarked how fragrant I was! But he was in the front row ….. October 25, 2013 at 8:40am Reply

    • Elisa: Hi Jillie! I have heard that professional actors sometimes do that too — choose a perfume to wear while they are playing a certain role. I was recently in a play and wanted to do that, but couldn’t seem to decide on a single perfume. I did associate the character with violets though. October 25, 2013 at 9:45am Reply

      • Jillie: Oh, Elisa, violet is just one of my most favoiurite notes in perfume. Perhaps your character actually liked smelling the flowers rather than wearing the fragrance? That could explain why you couldn’t decide on anything. October 26, 2013 at 3:12am Reply

        • Elisa: Perhaps! Jillie, have you tried La Vie en Rose from DSH? It’s a sort of contemporary interpretation of Paris, very heavy on the violet. It’s really beautiful! October 26, 2013 at 12:23pm Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: What does DSH mean? October 26, 2013 at 1:11pm Reply

            • Elisa: Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. She’s an independent perfumer based in Boulder, CO. October 26, 2013 at 1:24pm Reply

              • Cornelia Blimber: Thank you! October 26, 2013 at 5:21pm Reply

          • Jillie: Elisa – that’s so spooky you mentioning Paris: see what I said below! I have to try La Vie en Rose now, it sounds pretty near perfect! Thank you for your suggestion. October 27, 2013 at 1:57am Reply

            • Elisa: I saw that! Do try it — I actually like it more than the original Paris (don’t shoot me) October 27, 2013 at 2:31pm Reply

              • Jillie: I wouldn’t dream of shooting you!! I am very happy with you and your recommendation! October 28, 2013 at 6:06am Reply

      • Victoria: The funny thing, I’m sitting right now at a coffee shop and there is a couple of aspiring actors at a table next to me. And guess what they are talking about! Yes, how wearing perfume helps them get into a role. The tables are close together and they are speaking loudly, so it’s hard not to overhear. October 26, 2013 at 5:28am Reply

        • Elisa: How funny! Did they mention any perfumes by name? October 26, 2013 at 12:24pm Reply

          • Victoria: No, they were just talking generally that scents help to get into the character and that they also listen to music from the period. October 26, 2013 at 1:37pm Reply

            • Elisa: I haven’t heard the music technique as often as the perfume one, but that seems like a genius idea. (The play I was in had an uncertain/imaginary setting, so that would have been difficult!) October 26, 2013 at 1:39pm Reply

        • amy: What a coincidence, Victoria! October 29, 2013 at 11:06pm Reply

    • Zazie: Well then, you are *deneuvian* Jillie! Like you, Catherine Deneuve has used perfume to “get into” different characters!

      In case you are curious, here is one link:
      http://boisdejasmin.com/2011/12/catherine-deneuve-on-her-favorite-perfume-and-other-fragrance-topics.html

      p.s. I’m sure the critic mentioned your sillage as a compliment! Do you remeber the fragrance? October 25, 2013 at 9:48am Reply

      • Jillie: Zazie, thank you so much for this – I admire Catherine for her beauty, talent and impeccable taste, especially in perfume! I was playing Kate in “She Stoops to Conquer”, and I decided that, as it was an 18th century play that L’Artisan’s La Haie would be good, since it was meant to be inspired by Marie Antoinette’s garden at Versailles and this fitted the period. It was quite austere in a way, so I layered it (ever so slightly, honest!) with a little Eternity, just to sweeten it and make it more playfully feminine. Maybe it was overkill after all …… October 26, 2013 at 3:08am Reply

        • Jillie: Drat it! Brain malfunction. That should read Paris, not Eternity! Eternity was one that I wore a lot around that time, and I was wearing some vintage only the other day (so that’s why it was on my mind), but Paris went better with La Haie. I’m not normally a layerer, but that just seemed right at the time. And I promise I didn’t spray too heavily! October 26, 2013 at 5:46am Reply

  • Patricia: What a great article!
    Speaking of “deneuvian,” Deneuve is one of my favorites when I want to appear more polished and sophisticated than I really am.
    On the other end, anything with vetiver will toughen up a too-girly outfit. I sometimes like to use perfume as a foil to my clothing style.
    As you say, it’s all about having fun with it :). October 25, 2013 at 9:47am Reply

    • Elisa: Hi Patricia! I like that idea … I usually try to “match” my perfume to my outfit, but going against it instead is sort of like wearing red lipstick to dress up jeans and a tee shirt (which also seems very French to me). October 25, 2013 at 10:04am Reply

  • sol: Beautiful post.

    I tried Paloma, recently. Drawn by fantasies of passionate reds, sultry venus flytrap femme fatales. One spray & I knew it couldn’t be worn ~ {too 80’s, too elegant & mature, not enough young dirty rawness & intimate sensuality. Seemed more brash & stereotypical, demanding to be noticed rather than allowing woman’s strength to surge from root subtle}. But, like you, it conjured thoughts of a shoulder padded woman of Southern France & Spain, cigarettes at dawn, a wistfulness of loving but not quite being loved. As a character, it intrigued. Made me smile. October 25, 2013 at 10:38am Reply

    • Elisa: Thank you Sol! Don’t give up on Paloma too soon. At first I thought I could never wear it, but it feels more and more “me” every time I do. I especially love the EDP. October 25, 2013 at 10:42am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: “Deneuvian” is brilliant, Zazie! Should enter in the dictionaries.
        I feel deneuvian with Y and the vintage Ivoire. October 25, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

        • Elisa: Definitely with Y! It’s so crisp, like a tie-neck blouse. October 25, 2013 at 11:26am Reply

  • solanace: This is a great post! I can say I mostly wear perfume to dress up. And that’s the reason why I don’t even bother with tiny little things. My usual fragrances are Shalimar, l’Heure Bleue, Fracas et al., because when I’m at work (or doing house chores, or hiking) I want to feel Deneuvian – to borrow the great expression – even if the French Riviera couldn’t be further away from the polluted river I see from my window… October 25, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

    • Elisa: I love that attitude, and the idea of wearing Fracas while hiking! October 25, 2013 at 11:52am Reply

  • Ann: The timing of your blog was perfect. This morning I found myself staring with confusion at the mirror. The mid-40s something woman looking back at me was in beige spandex stretch pants, ivory long top, and a beige hoodie, hair piled on top, and oddly just a little too much make-up on for taking our cat to the vet. Who was this stranger? I decided to just go with it rather than panic–so grabbed my bottle of vintage Samsara (well, vintage for Samsara–pre-2000) and sprayed. Wished I had a beige “quilted” patent leather clutch to pull the whole thing off… I hid my none manicured nails and tried to look as chic casual as I could muster. The receptionist at the vet swooned over my fragrance, and I am sure I fooled the cat the whole time! October 25, 2013 at 1:51pm Reply

    • Elisa: What a fun story. I love the idea of “fixing” what’s wrong/missing with an outfit with fragrance! And I hope your cat is feeling better 🙂 October 25, 2013 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Vinyl Queen: I use one scent for my professional sessions and another for my life when I’m not “the Vinyl Queen.” I have had clients tell me they have been in a public location where someone has worn my “professional scent” and they thought I might be near. Lancome’s Poeme is this magical concoction. The reason why I’ve stuck with it for so long is it’s staying power. It IS part of my “dressing up” now. It certainly completes my fetish costumes. October 25, 2013 at 3:25pm Reply

    • Elisa: That’s one thing I miss about having a “signature scent” — forming that strong connection in people’s minds so they automatically think of you when the smell the scent. I hope you have enough Poeme to last you a lifetime! October 25, 2013 at 3:32pm Reply

  • Rowanhill: Paloma Picasso used to be my signature scent. 🙂 I went through bottles of it in my early twenties. Oh the disaster, when I once dropped a full bottle on bathroom floor. Guaranteed the bathroom smelled heavenly for several days. There is still a bottle and a spare in my cupboards. Only now even though I still love it, the fragrance feels a tad loud for the current trends, and for the fact that I am no longer that girl. But for certain I will put some on tonight when going to bed. October 25, 2013 at 5:38pm Reply

    • Elisa: I once dropped a FULL, brand new decant of Dior Leather Oud on the floor in our bedroom. It’s carpeted, but the glass still shattered. So I never got to wear that, but the area right in front of my perfume cabinet smelled especially lovely for a few weeks. October 25, 2013 at 5:47pm Reply

  • silverdust: Oh, for the salad days of good (but affordable) perfume in the ’80s. I started my ‘fumer journey as an 18-year-old in the ’80s and Paloma P. was one of my originals, as well as Lauren, Azuree, Quartz and the original Rive Gauche. Now I’m nostalgic! October 25, 2013 at 7:29pm Reply

    • Elisa: I’ve heard so much about the original Lauren! I think I must have smelled it on people but I was a little too young at the time to seek it out.

      I wore Paloma Picasso yesterday and topped it off with a spritz of L’Arte di Gucci at night. Swoon! October 25, 2013 at 7:41pm Reply

    • Eastofeden: Ahhh Lauren! I babysat for a woman who wore it and always stole a spritz on the evenings I watched her boys. She must have known because she did gift me with a bottle once. How I loved it. Miss that scent October 26, 2013 at 4:30pm Reply

      • Elisa: How sweet! It’s hard to sneak perfume, one always smells the evidence 🙂 October 26, 2013 at 5:11pm Reply

  • Eva S.: I wear Montale Attar as my costume.
    Me, a sporty blonde, in this Oriental rose…I never thought this was my kind of thing.
    But I fell hard for this fragance, which ligthens up a grey rainy october.
    But it does more than that: I feel like an arabian princess..
    It is the strangest thing, but something happens when I wear it! I feel like another version of myself: beautiful with dark hair and more sensual and feminene.

    Thank you so much Elisa for this lovely post! 🙂 October 26, 2013 at 2:44pm Reply

    • Elisa: Hi Eva! Isn’t it amazing how perfume can make you feel like you *look* different? I love those big, dark, dramatic Montale roses. October 26, 2013 at 3:17pm Reply

  • Nemo: I loved this post, thank you! It put into words what perfume does for me all the time. I am a petite Asian female with an introverted personality. When I first starting trying different perfumes, I used to think very hard about whether the perfumes were “me”…i.e. inoffensive with minimal sillage but still pleasant. I gave that up pretty early on when I found many perfumes that smelled way too amazing to pass up even if they did not fit the above criteria 🙂 and like you, perfume is my way of expressing a different side of myself. Today, it is Chergui! October 26, 2013 at 6:18pm Reply

    • Elisa: I love Chergui and it is definitely not petite! You can make up for what you lack in height and extroversion with plenty of sillage! October 26, 2013 at 6:53pm Reply

  • Charlotte: So funny, you just described Me! Except the front row then, Im in the fashion business but closer to the gutter Than the sky , lets say 🙂
    White as paper and I must say that that DKs Black Cashmere i on My top five, even though I have to take consideration to its discontinuation, and use it only when I Have To 🙂
    Wish I had the Chance to smell original Chaos! October 27, 2013 at 2:27pm Reply

    • Elisa: We do have to be careful with our discontinued loves, though at least the re-releases are well done. Have you tried DK Signature? It’s really beautiful and underrated I think! October 27, 2013 at 2:30pm Reply

      • Charlotte: Elisa, I have and love signature!agree it would deserve more hype 🙂 October 28, 2013 at 8:11am Reply

  • amy: Lovely article, Elisa, thank you! I find that the Picassos and the Amouage Golds and Carnal Flowers are the ones I wear the most, as I am drawn to the opulent and dramatic.

    When I want to wear something that isn’t really me, I put on a rose soliflore, a fruity floral, or a fairly simple Jo Malone creation like Nectarine & Honey or English Pear & Freesia.
    It reminds me that simple and uncomplicated themes and ideas are just as important as the flashy ones! October 29, 2013 at 11:15pm Reply

    • Elisa: Thanks Amy! I also wear fruity-florals when I don’t want to think too much about my perfume, they are simple and easy to wear. And Tea Rose is a comfort scent for me! October 29, 2013 at 11:19pm Reply

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