Friday, 30 August 2013

Why I find vintage perfume too melancholy to bear

I have been obsessed with women for as long as I can remember. I can remember being intrigued by witches and evil step mothers as a child. I was just drawn to them, intrigued by their thoughts and their actions, the minute details, the purple eye shadow the long black hair.

 Looking back I sense that I was wanting to identify with the women in the stories who were agents of the narrative of their own lives, not objects of desire; such women are usually villains and witches. And I think even as young as four or five I thought that I was a witch and that I had magic powers, maybe if I'd been blonde, born without my witchy features, long fingers and thin wrists, an angular face and a bent nose I would have thought I was destined to marry a prince with my narrative culminating at my wedding and afterwards I would be symbolically annihilated.
I thought a woman's dressing table was a magical thing, trinkets and creams, jewels, ancient melted lipsticks and musty eye shadows. A place where a woman becomes. Of course we derive pleasure from these rituals even though they are burdens, perhaps radical feminists underestimated how much women would resist abandoning beauty. What all Disney antagonists knew is that beauty is a game of life or death and they refused to disappear silently like Disney princesses before they even turned twenty. All Disney baddies were at least over thirty and/or fat.

Maybe the only object that exists on a woman's dresser, for her pleasure alone is perfume. Perfume is truly worn for the pleasure of oneself. Society demands a minimum of odor that should be emitted from the body, the presence of floral, woody, spicy or herbal aroma's is just a nice bonus. As a feminist with a masochistic desire to know the horrible and profound truth of existence I have an encyclopedic knowledge of suffering. Perfume is like a holiday for me, pure pleasure with a hint of imagination and intrigue.
 I am still fascinated by women, the concept of women, their secrets, their lives, their pleasures. I love asking people what their favorite perfumes are, because you can watch their faces light up, you can see all the good memory associations fire up, its a beautiful thing to behold.
When I smell a perfume, I feel a psychic link in my soul with other women that I've never met, this historic link of me to all these women through time. I conjure these women before me, their faces, their secrets. Perfumes contain a psychic resonance, they conjure memories more abruptly and accurately than any other sense. I like to imagine that I can tap into some collective unconscious every time I smell a perfume, that I can divine their memories, like they're telling me a story about their last love affair before they got married, or the year they spent in Europe, or the memory of their mothers warm embrace. Every memory has a scent attached to it.
I am intrigued by vintage perfumes but I am also, and I'm aware of how melodramatic this sounds, profoundly depressed by them.
Every year the perfumes you know and love are changing. Certain ingredients become too costly due to the scarcity of natural resources and the ebb and flow of the global economy, some ingredients are outright banned. Animal ingredients such as musk and civet are almost totally synthesized, and have been for a very long time. The result being that the perfumes that you once knew are either vastly different to what you can purchase now or they're discontinued altogether. Nostalgics who refuse to leave the party are forced to hunt on ebay and the old beauties get rarer. Unlike the great works of art and literature, or even fashion, perfume is by its very nature ephemeral, and every minute of the day this juice is used up, expiring, and evaporating, never to leave a trace on this earth, aside from an empty bottle and some old yellowing magazine advertisements. Those molecules will never be arranged in that exact order again. Right now on ebay there is a 60ml vintage bottle of Bandit by Robert Piguet for $899 US dollars.

Every time I've worn a vintage perfume I've been racked with a sort of uneasiness like I've killed a bird just because I liked its feathers. Every moment I'm sniffing my wrist nervously thinking, 'Oh gosh, you're disappearing from this world, you're disappearing, one molecule at a time!' Which of course leads to me realize yet again and so am I! And so is EVERYTHING!
Its like a dead woman's perfume, I feel a certain dread about it like its the last essence of a person, like its all that remains them, like taping over the last voicemail ever left by a dead relative, so final.
Dear readers, I have never finished a bottle of perfume in my life, never. When I see a bottle is starting to get to half way I stop using it so I can keep it. I don't mind someone else having it and using it to the end, I just don't want to be the one to finish it.
I only have a very small vintage collection: a miniature bottle of Youth Dew bath oil, a miniature Emeraude by Coty, a box of perfume mini's called Parfums de France (half of them leaked on the way in transit), and one mystery called Soir de Parfum by Vogue in a little round bottle with a white Bakelite cap. I estimate its from the 1920's. My nose is very naive and I don't know notes very well at all. I detect aldehydes firstly, decaying citrus, followed by woody moss and some sort of white floral, lastly traces of civet, maybe the real thing. It doesn't last on the skin very long and then poof it disappears. I don't know for sure, maybe this is the last of this juice in whole world? Maybe. There's no information about it online, none at all that I can find. The sad thing is, I don't even like it, and I might be the last person in the world that owns a tiny bottle just like this and I don't like it. Sorry, little guy. You might perish on my skin drop by drop every time I get curious, and you will be met by my indifference. You will most likely languish in my box of miniatures with your comrades until maybe in another hundred years you evaporate of your own accord. You're not long for this earth and neither am I.

Perhaps the sadness comes not from conversing with ghosts, though of course I prefer the living. Its those sad little faded bottles on ebay, in opshop display cases, always seeming so forlorn to me, so lost, reminding me of when my grandmother died and all her possessions were divided, her wedding dress, her jewelry, her best clothes from the 1950's, only the peculiar detritus of death remained. Ancient tins of scented talcum powder, yellowed lace doileys and dried flowers that disintegrated to the touch.
 Its the finality, the knowledge of the death of all things, the knowledge that that link to the past is lost forever. There's no way out of that, no escaping it, you can only prolong the inevitable. All pleasures are a distraction from death.


  1. Great post.
    For the last year and a half I have been making a garden. As I clear and dig beds and finally start planting them I find myself deeply moved by the smells of soil, leaves and flowers. There is a melancholy in gardening too, but it's the gentle sadness of natural rythyms.
    Every garden smells different, and the same garden will have a distinct and unique smell every season as things bloom at different times and weather patterns affect conditions. So every season and every year has a signature fragrance, never to be repeated exactly. This year, so far, smells of bushfire smoke, wattle and dust with notes of sweetness from early flowering daphne and jasmine.
    It's funny the way our brains are wired to respond to smell.

  2. The link at the end is an excerpt from Proust that you'd probably enjoy,