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