Last week I went to see the film, The Danish Girl. It’s based on the true story of the artist Einar Wegener who in 1920’s Denmark became Lili Elbe and had pioneering gender reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne gives a superb performance and has been nominated for an Oscar. I hope he wins.
There were many thought-provoking moments in this film and as with all good culture, it changed me. This particular human struggle is one about which I knew very little. Now I know a bit more. And in amongst all of the drama there was a touching scene that made an unexpected impression on me. Lili is working in the perfume department of a smart store in Copenhagen and gives some advice to a customer, clearly relishing that she can at last share in the feminine mysteries of cosmetics. She tells the customer that in Paris, women never apply perfume directly onto their skin. Instead they spray it into the air and walk through it. I’ve taken to doing this ever since and it feels luxurious. It may be a frippery but it’s also a reminder of Lili’s difficult life and of a raw, beautiful film.
I love perfume and don’t feel fully dressed without it. However, I’ve had a few ups and downs in my relationship with various brands. Many years ago when my eldest son, Will, was about six we were in a department store together. As we walked through the perfume section I stopped and casually picked up a tester bottle. It was plain black glass with the word Poison written clearly in gold across the middle. I was just about to have a quick spray when Will screamed and grabbed my arm. He was already a good reader and had devoured a number of dark fairy tales. ‘Mummy,’ he said bravely and urgently, ‘don’t touch that bottle – it’s got poison in it.’
The next perfume blip came a few years afterwards when I was given a bottle of Chanel Allure for Christmas. On Boxing Day I put it on for the first time and my then husband, said in his best flirtatious, husky voice, ‘Darling you smell alluring.’ Unfortunately my hearing is not so good on that lower register so what I heard was the far less flattering, ‘Darling you smell of urine’ but delivered in a perplexingly sexy manner.
Later, when the ‘then husband’ had left and I was on my own I would often wear perfume in bed or spray it on my pillow. Something just for sheer self-indulgence and which made me think of Marilyn who famously said that all she wore in bed was her Chanel No 5.
Perfume is powerful and transports us to other times and places, uncovering buried emotions and memories. For me, one of the sweetest examples is the smell of grape hyacinths which instantly takes me back to the Spring when I became a mother. I remember the flower arrangement that was sent to me in hospital and I tune in again to those primitive overwhelming feelings of confusion and wonder. A whiff of the clean, powdery sweetness of Johnson’s Baby Bath and once more I’m in a bathroom twenty years ago with black and white tiles, squealing slippery toddlers and damp-kneed jeans. Most people find that smell is better at conjuring up memories than the other senses and the reason for this seems to lie in the anatomy of the brain. Smells are picked up by the olfactory bulb which is inside the nose and extends along the lower part of the brain, connecting with the amygdala and hippocampus. These are involved in emotion and memory. The information from sight, sound and touch stimuli does not pass through these areas.
My fascination with smell led to me putting ‘Learn about perfume‘ on my treats list. In common with all the others I had no idea when or how this treat would come to life, but then I came across a rather fabulous young woman who calls herself Odette Toilette. She organises talks about the social history of perfume, and so I signed up for an afternoon of exploring 1930s scent in the basement of a smart perfume shop in Marylebone.
It turned out to be a lot of fun. When I arrived I was handed a glass of pink Prosecco and then in the company of twenty-three women and one man I spent several hours hearing about the aspirational perfumes of the 1930s. These accompanied the new age of cars and planes and were an antidote to the mass poverty of the 1920s. We had a chance to smell many of them too, as Odette buys up old bottles of perfume from house sales and auctions. Provided they’ve been kept in a cool, dark place they can survive well. Tiny tarts and miniature cakes were handed round at regular intervals. My favourite was a mouthful tartlet filled with passion fruit puree.
For several hours in this London basement the talk was of vanilla, jasmine, lavender, rose and orange blossom. These all sounded charming and innocent but in fact many of the perfumes of the era were marketed with decadence in mind. Some were said to give you strange surrealist dreams if you sprayed them on at bedtime. ‘Taboo’ and ‘Can Can’ were best-sellers and the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli produced ‘Shocking’. This was inspired by the Lady Gaga of the day; Mae West who drawled, ‘It’s not the men in your life that count. It’s the life in your men.’ And as we munched on our dainty tartlets and minicakes we were introduced to the animalic tones which are derived from ingredients like civet and musk. Odette said they are so naughty that cats and dogs will follow you down the street if you wear them.
Since then I’ve done a couple of Odette’s other Vintage Scent Sessions with friends. Debs Gone Bad was peppered with tales of the perfumes that various debutantes wore whilst shocking polite society and getting embroiled in scandal. The other was about 1960s perfumes including hippie patchouli and the scents favoured by influential men like JFK and Muhammed Ali. They’ve all been very enjoyable but I’ve been careful to avoid wearing Allure. It may or may not make me smell of urine but with all those cats and dogs waiting outside, I’m not taking any chances.