I’ve been thinking about perfumes and how evocative both can be, since I read that Joanne Harris wears a different scent for every book she writes and uses it to get into the zone. I have sometimes done the same. And this reminded me of something I wrote years ago about perfumes and their names. Here it is, updated:
A while ago, with time to spare before a Eurotunnel crossing, my daughter and I wandered into the perfume section of the duty-free shop. And what a stroll down memory lane it turned out to be. The story of my life was there. The first perfume that I associate with my mother is Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew which I remember her wearing when I was a teenager. It remained a favourite and was a great standby if I couldn’t think what to give her for her birthday or Christmas.
My own favourite perfume as a young woman was Rive Gauche. I loved its smart blue, silver and black packaging and the intellectual connotations of the name: perhaps Simone de Beauvoir wore it, hanging out with Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Deux Magots! I still like it. Of course the naming of a scent is a powerful piece of marketing – but even knowing that, what magic there is in those names. A present of Miss Dior on my nineteenth birthday seemed so elegant and sophisicated. Later I loved the minimalist chic of Chanel No 5 and Chanel No 19.
There used to be a shop in York that sold discount perfume and my mother and I used to see what they had got when we met in York for the day. Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps brings back memories of those days – and shopping for my wedding dress in Droopy and Brown just up the street. After my mother died I kept her unfinished bottles of scent and they reminded her of her when I used them. They are long finished, alas, but still when I wear one of the scents that she liked, I think of her.
Back to the Eurotunnel duty-free: ‘This was Grandma’s favourite perfume,’ I told my daughter, spraying on some Youth Dew from the tester. We sniffed it. ‘I remember,’ she said and so did I. For a moment I was back in my mother’s flat in Scarborough, sun streaming in through the windows.
But perhaps the most magical perfume-related moment came on a birthday after my husband died. I opened a present from my daughter. It was a bottle of Mitsouko. Peter had given me that scent for a previous birthday. My daughter had noticed that it was almost finished and, as he wasn’t there to replace it, she had decided to do it for him.