In the Defense of Perfume and Other “Feminine” Pursuits

I often receive letters from women explaining that they feel guilty about their interest in perfume, because it’s “too indulgent” or “unnecessary.” It’s a luxury and we can live without it. Or so the argument goes. Except that it doesn’t make sense. Perfume is not a fundamental need for human life, but you could say the same for music, art, fashion, sports, restaurants or millions of other things that are not strictly necessary for survival but essential for a happy life. There is no reason to deprive yourself of something that gives you pleasure, and giving in to it shouldn’t be associated with guilt.

Scent is one of the simplest and most rewarding of enjoyments. By stimulating the sense of smell, you fantasize about another time and place, uncover a whole universe of new sensations and add splashes of color to the most ordinary day. Something as ubiquitous as a trip to the grocery store can become a fun experience as you smell the earthy tang of carrots or the pungent sharpness of onions piled in the vegetable section.  New research has revealed that the sense of smell is even more intricate than previously thought, and that smelling is one of the best exercises for the brain.

But like many other “feminine” pursuits, a perfume hobby can be harder to defend, because it’s viewed as frivolous and expendable. You rarely see indignant comments on the sports pages or the photography forums that the money spent on prime tickets or fancy lenses could be better spent if donated to charity. On the other hand, they crop up time and again in the beauty sections of newspapers and blogs. The same people who admire my husband’s collection of wine bottles look perplexed when entering my office with its rows of perfumes.

Unlike makeup or fashion, perfume is still a relatively niche hobby and many perfume lovers find themselves guilty and alone in their love for scented things. Guilty pleasure, however, is not much of a joy, and I refuse to let guilt taint my enjoyments. Carving out time for ourselves is essential for maintaining  balance in our busy, stressful lives, and I can’t count the number of times when a waft of my perfume brightened up my day and made me smile when nothing else did.

I also want to reinforce the argument I often make on these pages–perfume is not a hobby reserved for those with unlimited personal wealth. Mine started when I was living on a meager student stipend.  Unlike many other hobbies, perfume can be easily tailored to the individual budget, without compromising in quality (see many ideas in How to Make Perfume Hobby Affordable). It goes without saying that we’re our own finance managers and know how to build a reasonable budget that accommodates all of the necessary expenses, but the bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with spending money on our favorite pursuits.

On my last visit to Ukraine, I was browsing at the tiny village museum devoted to the Second World War and the local heroes. In a display case featuring the favorite things of a young resistance fighter, there were two objects that I couldn’t miss. One was a powder box and another was a perfume bottle. I immediately recognized the crimson-orange packaging of Krasnaya Moskva, the most widely available fragrance in the Soviet Union, because I also saw it on my great-grandmother’s dressing table, sharing space with her beloved White Lilac and Bulgarian rose oil.

She recalled that during the war a small bottle of perfume was always in her handbag, along with a tube of red lipstick. Her husband was fighting on the front lines, while she remained behind with two small children. In photographs from the period, she barely smiles, but her lips are enhanced carefully with color, and I imagine that her lace collar is redolent of the powdery lilacs. On the bleakest days, her lipstick and perfume were a reminder of beauty, happy days, and peace. Simple pleasures are not indulgences, they are necessities.

What is your relationship with perfume? What does it mean to you?

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42 Comments

  • Alityke: Oh thank you so much Victoria! My husband’s friends don’t bat an eye at his collection of tools or the fact the garage & shed are full yo bursting with oily metal. Or that he spends hours “tidying” them up & tinkering. He spends money each month on more bits of metal & takes joy in them.
    My husband never complains at my perfume hobby, though he rarely comments on what I’m wearing. My friends though? Much more judgemental. The eye rolling, the “wasteful” comments from women who wear £300 jeans, drive BMWs, have a Choo shoe wardrobe to rival Carrie’s.
    Fragrance is becoming a male pursuit as well in the modern world. Different to how women collect though October 2, 2023 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s typical, unfortunately. I’ve learned to disregard this kind of attitude, but it’s tiresome to defend one’s interests.
      I also can’t emphasize enough what a difference small joys make, even during the most difficult times. Early in the invasion of Ukraine, when I was struggling just to make it through the day without a complete breakdown, I’ve learned to use my favorite things to boost my spirits–a favorite book, a nice scent, a walk in the park. October 2, 2023 at 9:12am Reply

      • Alityke: Thank you for sharing that. I agree wholeheartedly. Whilst my husband was having cancer treatment & my mum’s health was rapidly deteriorating I still chose a fragrance to wear everyday. I wore the contemplative Clarins Eau Extraordinaire & nothing else for months. I doubt I’ll wear it again but it was vital to have something just for me. October 2, 2023 at 10:50am Reply

      • Deborah Anne Oney: I agree totally. For me it is aging in a body that wants to quit. A favorite perfume is sometimes the only thing keeping me from despair. I miss being young and pain free, and find that a perfume knows no age, and happily lifts me to keep on keeping on. Silly perhaps, but it is a wonderful gift at any age, for many reasons. Long live Ukraine, and all freedom loving people! Thank you. October 2, 2023 at 4:00pm Reply

    • Nose Prose: The hypocrisy is what I don’t understand – that the judgment comes not from people who are frugal in every way but those who spend on other things in a similar way. Wholeheartedly agree that there should be zero guilt about having a hobby that stimulates the mind and psyche and most importantly, brings joy! October 2, 2023 at 2:59pm Reply

  • Rhinda: I’m in full agreement with article. As a grandmother of four, they expect me to smell like my favorite perfume. I believe my scent grounds them and makes the world alright. Each puts their nose in the crook of my neck and rests for a moment. If I change it up they let me know I don’t smell like I usually do. October 2, 2023 at 9:22am Reply

  • Peggy: In my adult years, I got so mad at C.S.Lewis,
    a favorite writer, for his condescending attitude towards clothing and fashion ( and perfume by extension). Now I realize how ignorant he was about it and all feminine pursuits, and can read his excellent writing in peace. To me, perfume is art and is as worthy of my attention as reading a great book. October 2, 2023 at 9:41am Reply

    • Charlie Boatner: Lewis’ attitudes also may vary depending on when he wrote them down. I believe that his marriage broadened him. October 7, 2023 at 11:52am Reply

  • Nina Gulka: Thank you so much Victoria for reminding us of how important fragrance and specifically perfume is and the impact it has had throughout history and our lives. One drop of a gorgeous fragrance can take you to another place in an instant. I am not complete without a spray of whatever fragrance I feel like to start the day. I agree with you…our perfumes are a necessity! October 2, 2023 at 10:01am Reply

  • Sarah Vincent-Hoag: Oh than you. This made me cry. Very true.❤️ October 2, 2023 at 10:20am Reply

  • Hamamelis: Thank you for this article! My relationship with perfume is a loving one. It adds beauty and happiness to my life, and reminds me of that which grants us beauty. Why would we have been given a nose if it isn’t meant to be part of the human sensory experience? The blind and deaf Helen Keller wrote about smell for some inexplicable reason having a lesser position than the other senses, a fallen angel.
    She wrote: I doubt if there is any sensation arising from sight more delightful than the odors which filter through sun-warmed, wind-tossed branches, or the tide of scents which swells, subsides, rises again wave on wave, filling the wide world with invisible sweetness.
    I totally am with her and feel perfume as living art. October 2, 2023 at 10:23am Reply

  • April Lari: For many years my go to fragrance was the original Fendi perfume. It still would be save for it having been discontinued. For several years, living in Israel I was friendly with a family who had a young daughter. In the chaos of being expats together, we were there support for the little girl and help out when needed. She is now a grown woman with 3 of her own children. After not having seen her for many years, we met and hugged and hugged. She caught a whiff of my Fendi and said ” that always smelled like comfort to me. Still does”. A testament to the ” power” of fragrance and one of the very nicest/memorable things ever said to me. October 2, 2023 at 10:24am Reply

  • Klaas: AMEN!!! To you Victoria and to Hellen Keller!!

    Enjoying fragrance (be it a spritz of Cuir d’Ange, simmering onions at the start of dinner preparations or a whiff of damp leaves as I bike through the park on my way to work) is such a wonderful thing!

    We all spend our money as we see fit. And we all derive pleasure from different things. So: YES! to greasy tool sheds, YES! to your husbands wine cellar, YES! to collecting rare stamps, YES! to an outrageously priced opera ticket and YES! YES! YES! to my next Trudon candle!

    That came from the bottom of my heart ;-))

    Love this post! October 2, 2023 at 10:38am Reply

    • Hamamelis: An YES to Cuir d’Ange…unfortunately discontinued it seems…so wearing Osmanthe Yunnan instead. Or is it maybe still available in the Amsterdam Hermes shop (too far from where I live -close to Zwolle- to have a look myself)? October 2, 2023 at 11:48am Reply

      • Klaas: I dont think it’s been discontinued…..I hope not at least!!! Such a perfect fragrance….. October 6, 2023 at 1:41pm Reply

    • katherine x: And YES to you Klaas 🙂 October 2, 2023 at 8:40pm Reply

      • Klaas: Hahahaha, thank you 💕 October 6, 2023 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Rickyrebarco: Great article. I have long ago ceased to worry about others’ negative comments about my perfumes. Fragrance and beautiful scents bring me joy much as a beautiful piece of music or art can bring joy. My perfumes have helped me remain positive during a trying 4 months of surgeries and complications after the surgeries. My beautiful fragrances remind me of the beauty of life and that things will get better. October 2, 2023 at 10:41am Reply

  • Filomena: My sons and some friends think
    I am crazy to have such a large selection of perfumes. Until this past year I bought a bottle of perfume on a monthly basis. Then I lost my job of 37 devoted years and my income is very limited. Thus, in order to pay my bills and repair the many problems with my condo, which is even older than I am, I am on a strict
    Budget and haven’t bought any new perfumes. However, I recently did find s treasure trove of Perfumes from the days that I bought back-up bottles still intact in their boxes, most of which have not turned and still smell beautiful.
    They don’t make them like they used to for the most part and I am enjoying them very much. October 2, 2023 at 11:34am Reply

  • Madaris: I have another hobby that is belittled even more: I collect vinyl dolls — those by Gotz and many from the 1950s and 60s. Luckily I belong to doll groups on Facebook with supportive people who understand this indulgence. And of course my perfume collection is not understood by any of my local friends though they sometimes compliment my scent. October 2, 2023 at 11:47am Reply

  • Deanna: I was lucky to find a bottle of Guerlain Aqua Allegra Rosa Magnifica on Vinted, ( in UK)
    The seller said it was from her mothers perfume collection, her mother had recently died.
    What was sad was that the bottle was still wrapped and sealed.
    Presumably she was “saving” it.
    Moral. Don’t feel guilty, just enjoy it, Now! October 2, 2023 at 12:40pm Reply

    • Aurora: Hi Deanna, Rosa Magnifica is so wonderful, I have a bottle too, Matilde Laurent speaks about it in one of her books, she created it as an homage to Nahema, a Nahema ‘light’ if you will, Persolaise bought a bottle too when I shared this with him😀 October 2, 2023 at 12:59pm Reply

      • Deanna: Hi Aurora, well you started a bit of a chain reaction then as I heard about it on the Persolaise podcast! Obviously I have you to thank for it then.
        As I love Nahema I had to have it, I haven’t received the perfume yet so can’t tell you my reaction, but I’m sure I’ll love it.
        Deanna October 2, 2023 at 1:27pm Reply

        • Aurora: Thank you so much for sharing, I’m delighted to have been the origin of your interest in RM, I was thrilled with Persolaise’s review. I hope you will be happy with your purchase, the scent seems to have remained intact for us to enjoy. October 2, 2023 at 2:42pm Reply

      • Deanna: What books? October 2, 2023 at 1:28pm Reply

        • Aurora: It’s called Sentir le Sens, not sure it has been translated (I’m half-French). October 2, 2023 at 2:37pm Reply

          • Deanna: Thank you for the book title Aurora, I Will investigate if it’s been translated!
            It must be a fascinating book for perfume lovers. October 3, 2023 at 3:14am Reply

          • Deanna: The book has been translated into English, and I’ve bought it from Amazon!
            It’s called The Sense of Scent by Mathilde Laurent, – for anyone else who’s interested. October 3, 2023 at 3:31am Reply

            • Aurora: Splendid, I didn’t know whether it had been translated. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did, she has less exposure than JC Ellena but she is an amazing perfumer in her own right and does such a stellar job to keep the Cartier catalogue in production. October 3, 2023 at 5:28am Reply

          • Notturno7: Thanks for sharing, dear Aurora!
            That’s wonderful. October 5, 2023 at 4:21am Reply

    • Aurora: *Mathilde sorry for the typo. October 2, 2023 at 1:11pm Reply

    • Notturno7: Hi Deanna,
      How sad about that lady. But it’s a good reminder to seize the day and enjoy the life, fully.
      I don’t feel guilty about perfumes but there are few that I don’t use as much because I guess, in the back of my mind there is the thought they are so vintage and precious. It’s very late now and I’m getting up and putting a dab of that Nahema vintage extrait right now for angelic, happy dreams. Mmmm. Thanks for sharing about Rosa Magnifica. Hope to try it sometime. October 5, 2023 at 4:32am Reply

      • Deanna: Hope you slept well after that sniff!
        Funny because the other night I sprayed some Vol de Nuit eau de toilette on my wrist, then I couldn’t sleep, as if smelt beautiful beyond belief.
        ( Previously had spurned it as being too weak and bland)
        Obviously needs to be appreciated in bed! October 5, 2023 at 5:29am Reply

  • Emily: When COVID first arrived in NYC my husband & I were living an active art-filled lifestyle, multiple music shows every night, readings, museum & gallery visits, lots of dancing in crowded nightclubs. We were so lucky in so many ways, were already set up to work from our apartment & didn’t have kids to wrangle & educate & entertain. But sandwiched between the two hardest hit neighborhoods in a city where 30,000 died in a matter of months, we simply didn’t leave the apartment much for nearly a year. Perfume became my art experience.

    I was already hooked but that’s when I dove deep into the fragrance addiction, utilizing this site as a resource along with Kafkaesque & others. Allotted myself $30 a month in samples & smelled as much as I could. Perfume gave me a way to travel without leaving my desk. Gave me a way to shift my mood when everything was bleak. Gave me new experiences to look forward to & ponder.

    & now I have an extraordinary little art collection that brings me daily joy.

    Given the degree to which scent is tied to memory, I can also now time travel whenever I like. October 2, 2023 at 12:52pm Reply

  • Aurora: My relation to perfume is inspired by something you said Victoria 😀that you have more books than perfumes, it’s my case too and as long as it is so I don’t feel guilt or shame and allow myself to add to my collection, although I have slowed down significantly in acquiring, choose small or partial bottles. October 2, 2023 at 1:09pm Reply

  • ClareObscure: Hello Victoria & friends. I love this topic and your beautiful introduction to it, Victoria. I just love reading the experiences of people who are perfume devotees despite a tide of judgement pointing 👉 fingers.
    Alyssa Harad’s book, Coming to My Senses was really validating for me. I love Victoria’s point about every person needing to budget for their pleasures. There is no hierarchy of hobbies & interests. In an interview with Persolaise, Rodrigo Flores – Roux, Nose of repute, said he once admitted to his dad that he wondered if he felt his son did less good in the world as a perfumer. The father’s answer was touching & spoke of the creation of beauty as a wholly valuable gift to humanity as we stave off our inevitable decline. Maybe I loved that so much because I’m aged but mostly because fragrance means so very much to me.
    Victoria, thanks for being a constant inspiration. October 2, 2023 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Julia: This is such a nice article. I agree, and luckily my family doesn’t find my collecting strange, maybe a little over the top as to the amount of bottles, but I’ve been collecting also for 40 some years! Things got a bit crazy with the corona shutdown and watching you-tubers who review perfumes and then buying more, but I’m getting back on track now. We are passionate about our perfumes and they bring joy; enough said! Julia October 2, 2023 at 2:33pm Reply

  • joan ramirez: Victoria:
    Perfume is the Joie de vivre.
    It is a soothing beginning to a new day after the old one ended with my having to resolve a plot glitch in my novel.
    It the excitement of seeing one of my books get added promotion.
    It is the sun spreading its rays over my apartment building.
    When I add a touch of scent it inspires me to write. Merci for your article. October 2, 2023 at 4:06pm Reply

  • Annemieke: Thank you for this beautiful article! In my circle of friends and family too, there is little understanding for my fascination with perfume and fragrance and my collecting them.
    I would go as far as saying that perfume is liquid art and would agree to not cut spending on it with Winston Churchill, although he never said that famous line attributed to him. October 3, 2023 at 12:43pm Reply

  • Ewan: In the nose are small microscopic hairs called ‘cilia’. Apparently they catch viruses and throw them to the stomach where they are destroyed by the acids there. Knowing that Bulgarian Rose Oil ihas anti-microbial qualities I wonder if , when breathing in that lovely oil, molecules of it attach themselves to the cilia to add extra protection.
    There is research ongoing into Helichrysum Italicum’s properties in fighting Stephlococcus Aureus, the bain of hospitals [ MRSA ].
    I made an anti-microbial perfume from H. Italicum, B.Rose Oil and Roman Chamomile – a bit pokey at first but the dry-down is soft and deep.
    The B.rose oil solidifies between 15 and 20 C so I hold the phial in my hand until it liquifies. I imagine the oil creating a protective aura around the body, it’s frequency dissuading unwanted diseases from approaching.
    I feel sorry for the modern, electronically influenced generation who seem to have divorced themselves from their sense of smell to stare, head bowed, at their little odourless screens, forever scrolling. October 4, 2023 at 5:06am Reply

  • Natalie: Wear your perfume and burn your candles. I’ve known others that have had the same one bottle of perfume for years and only wore it on ‘special’ occasions or had a candle and only burned it when company was over. Life is too short for that. We are all worthy of perfume or cologne and candles daily if we so chose. Have them, use them, and enjoy the simple pleasures that fragrance brings into our lives. October 4, 2023 at 5:29pm Reply

  • Notturno7: Dear Victoria, what a great topic! Thank you. Talking about ‘luxurious necessities’ 😊in life, perfume, amazing and inspiring women in the past times, I have to mention how much I was intrigued by this remarkable and brave American woman who worked with MI5 as a spy in France during WW2 to weaken German forces. In the book A Woman of no Importance, I read that even as she was on Gestapo Wanted list and had to keep hiding in little tiny villages, changing places every few days, sleeping on simple wooden planks without mattress , she carried a little bottle of perfume for comfort!! Maybe En Avion? Or Vol de Nuit?? I wish I knew which one. What a remarkable woman. October 5, 2023 at 4:54am Reply

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