Is Fragrance Frivolous?

Fragrance seems so frivolous, doesn’t it?  That’s what I used to think when I started burrowing deep into scent, spending money like a drunken sailor on shore leave (no offense to sailors).  But is it that frivolous? Mention you write for a perfume blog to 100 people, and 99 of them will look at you like you just burned down the barn and are claiming self-defense. In other words, crazy.  Who the hell spends time writing about perfume, much less thinking about it beyond – mmm, he/she smells good?  We are not even gonna talk about the number of samples I have and do put on in a day testin’ things out.

There was a time when bathing frequency was not optimum for prolonged close contact or stoked ardor between potentially consenting adults. Unless you were lucky enough to fall in love with someone whose petal(s) bloomed from the smell of rancid sweat and unwashed privates, fragrance was a way to at least touch up the surface to get close enough to try and charm him/her into some naked mambo action.  See?  Not frivolous at all!  We would have died out as a species without it.  Maybe Clint Caveman grabbed some wild lavender and smeared it all over him after he found out that “club to the head” thing wasn’t always reliable.  I’ve wound up uncomfortably close to people not all that, um, fresh, and a little rankness is great if you were a participant in getting there, but it is decidedly not a smell most likely to bring me in closer.  Probably not the only reason for scent, but it’s a practical one.

Today?  We shower every day, we live in mostly spotless homes and mostly spotless neighborhoods with car fresheners emitting Pine-Lite©  on us as we drive to work.  The smell of clean is what we’ve been aiming for since the industrial revolution, at least in America, as a sign we are not poor.  My parents needed us to smell clean, it showed that even though we lived on a farm, we weren’t trashy or dirty.  I’m not sure that love ‘o clean is internationally the norm – pretty sure it is no.

Is fragrance frivolous, or does it serve some other purpose?  We don’t really need it to warn us of danger, unless a guy reeking of Axe approaching us on our 6 is a danger we should be warned of –  and I’d argue if you’re under the age of 25, it sure is.

Scent is, well, a sense. One of the five if you’re not inclined to add intuition, ESP, whatever else is out there beyond what we know, as the sixth.

Taste is easy and practical. When you say something tastes sour or sweet, everyone has a frame of reference. We need our taste to survive. Well, not really. I have a friend who has no sense of smell and hence no sense of taste (these things are tied together physically but not exactly in other ways!). You can’t taste anything if you can’t smell it. He would inhale jalapenos that had hot smoke rising from them and never break a sweat. Envy from me is all I could feel. Hot food tastes amazing, but with my pita Ayurvedic classification (heated blood, body, sense, all going in max overdrive most of the time, until I exhaust myself and spin down like a little top!), it makes me sick. I get physically ill in about a bite because my system rejects hot-spicy food.

Sight is such a rich sense, and it’s practical as well. We have a frame of reference. Say yellow to anyone over the age of 3, they have a picture in their head of yellow or some shade of it. Describe a shape you see by name? Easy. We can give directions. All framed by the common language of that sense.

Touch is soooo easy. The language of touch is pretty much nonnegotiable. Degrees may be involved, but if someone says it was soft, you swiftly form an opinion because you know what soft feels like immediately, as well as rough and hard, spongy, furry, prickly.

Hearing has a lot of latitude, but it is also primarily functional. We use it to communicate, and as our world gets busier, we have less time/inclination to sit outside and listen to the sounds of the wind, trees rustling at night, silence.  I think those are great, worthwhile endeavors, and some of my most profound happy moments have been spent doing nothing but listening to the world spin around me. Unfortunately, those sounds we hear have turned into backdrops to all that communicating.

What makes smell more frivolous, if it is? It’s not. Smell is the most serious of our senses because it is the filing system for our life. Stored under so much of what we know about ourselves are the associated smells of it. Think I’m wrong? What did your first love smell like? If you can’t recall it right this second, it doesn’t matter. As soon as you smell it, you will remember, and you’ll remember the feeling, the age, the giddiness and sadness and hope and the wonder that this person loved you and you loved them – the feelings and emotions that have been filed under that smell, the scent of that one person who at one time meant so much and was the object of all those new feelings.  Listen, for me, that’s the smell of pot and snow.  Don’t ask.

Smell is intangible, but is the sense that has the most direct connection to our hearts, our souls, our memories and eventually the core of who we are.  It is all of those things – feelings, thoughts, memories – that make us up. It is our inspiration, the wellspring of hope, of feeling that tethers us to what it means to be human in the life we have lived.

Now describe a smell you love – no cheating by saying it smelled good, great, lovely, or some other meaningless description – describe it. Maybe it’s apple pie baking in the oven or the smell of Coppertone suntan lotion because that scent is just pure youthful happy memories of summertime at the beach with a family that loved you. Go ahead, I’ll wait here for you to finish.

Hey, you can’t take forever on this task. Five more minutes.  Here’s some research to read that isn’t quite so lyrical or interesting while you’re thinking and drawing a big, fat blank – limbic system, blah, blah, blah.

How did you do? There is no language of smell. To talk about smell, you have to talk about every other sense in some way or another AND throw in memories, feelings desire, yearning, fear, hope, love. When you draw on memory, you see your past, your soul, all the things that formed you into who you are. Some of that is deeply uncomfortable, some of that will make your heart break all over again, and some of it is joyous.

It is going through those emotions with smell that you will find the parts of you that were left behind, bound up in pain or rejection or disappointment or beliefs that you couldn’t do a thing or weren’t a certain kind of person. Embracing a journey through scent will expand your heart in ways that you cannot now imagine, unlocking pieces of you that you believed were gone.

Scent is the path to your soul.
Frivolous? Only as frivolous as breath is.

So what does writing about scent mean?  I’ve been pondering that question for a while and exploring it, without any conclusions, except that it has changed me in a profound way. I’m driven to find out exactly how.

The process of exploration requires me to give a shout-out to a couple of people/sites that have been a tremendous help in starting to figure that out.

First, The Merry Inksters.  This is a lovely, new group of people who write for millions of different reasons – writing a book, do copy editing, bloggers, write just to get things out. They do challenges and coaching and encouragement on a private Facebook group. Mostly it’s my daily nag to go and write something, to think about writing, what I want to say before the deadline to say it hits!  It has always been easy for me to just wait for a deadline and then write what I need to write – not always great writing, but I can say what I need to say.  I write for my regular job, I write for the blog, I write for my business.  What I haven’t been writing for is the joy of it.  Writing has always been a joy until, well, it wasn’t, it was something I did on a deadline, with a gun to my head as the timer tick-tocked.  This group has helped me move past that in a really safe, warm environment that is full of people that get it, led by a professional writer and professional editor, who are as warm and supportive as anyone could possibly desire.

The other tool is  They do a monthly challenge to write every day of the month.  If you don’t, nobody comes out and takes your puppy away, though you do wind up on the wall of shame, which really doesn’t matter if you’ve stopped writing every day. I thought about signing up as Hemingway on one account, just so he could be on the Wall of Shame every day.  I go there during the day, usually in the morning, and just pound out 750 words of the crap that’s in my head.  Some days it is complete and utter crap, just flotsam and jetsam that is running through my brain that means almost nothing or something, but if I write it down, even in fragments, I close the circuit, I can let it go and create White Space to live without that constant static.  750 words is free, The Merry Inksters are doing a June launch promo where it is free during June, but then it will cost some small amount per month.

So for you guys that comment here or write your own fragrance blogs or do reviews on Basenotes of MUA or other places, has trying to describe scent changed you? And how?  Then read Ari’s post that will be showing up later this week about Who Gets to Talk about Fragrance to make your blood boil.

  • Meg says:

    Marvelous essay. I daily declare my right to frivolity. To borrow a concept from Milan Kundera, I prefer the unbearable lightness of being to the heaviness of all eternity– and nothing is more fleeting, fickle, light, and free than perfume.

    • Patty says:

      Meg, that is so perfect!! I have to remember that the next time I think that I spend way too much of my free time on something so fleeting. it is the fleeting that is the most valuable.

  • nozknoz says:

    Art is not frivolous! There is evidence of erotic art dating back 40,000 years – I’ll bet they had perfume, too! If prehistoric men and women found time for art while struggling to survive, it’s clearly not frivolous.

    I never really thought about writing and perfume. If you’d asked me why I comment on perfume blogs, I’d have said that it’s about perfume enjoyment and interacting with the delightful perfume community. But now that you’ve asked about it in another way, I realize that I spend most of the day writing boring work-related e-mails and memos. Perhaps part of the attraction of perfume blogs is writing about art. I guess it’s changed me by giving me a reason and a means to focus more deeply on art than at any time since I stopped taking art classes and drawing after high school and college.

    Oddly, I used to love to draw and still love seeing art, but I’m not at all interested in descriptions of visual art. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoy reading and writing about perfume, an art for which I have no talent at all. Go figure! 🙂

    • Patty says:

      yeah, I don’t ever read reviews of any kind of visual art. I just want to see it! I’ll read reviews of wine, perfume, books, but only brief reviews of books, enough for me to figure out if I want to read it myself.

      odd, but not really. I like to read about artists, how, why they create, motivation, and that’s it!

  • Kay says:

    Great article Patty!
    Has trying to describe a scent changed me? Yes, for the better. And thank you for the opportunity to do so! Putting the tangible on the near intangible does stretch the imagination and demands more of a person’s writing skills. I’ve written non-fiction and written for the government quite a bit for my jobs, but this is different and exciting because perfume gets me excited. I don’t wear it to impress anyone else, I wear it because it’s a beautiful sensory experience. Which reminds me of something funny. On the farm my mom and I would dab ourselves with either Chanel no. 5 or Coco or something else nice before we went out to roundup cattle. Not for anyone else but for ourselves. To brighten our days and make us feel good when we knew we were going to have a long, hot, hard day ahead of us. That what it does for me.

  • Patricia Hall Borow/Olfacta says:

    Perfume is only frivolous in the sense that all aesthetics are. We could all live without them, if you call that living.

  • Ann says:

    Great post, Patty, and I love reading all the thoughtful comments. I agree with so many of them: Fragrance is not necessary to our survival, but it does add something wonderful to our existence. Things that are beautiful and make us happy are definitely not frivolous in my book.

    • Patty says:

      I know. I love reading comments from people the most. I don’t think I’d write about fragrance at all without the replies back. I feel bad that I almost never have time to answer all the comments. I want to! But there’s 7,000 other things I have to do.

  • unseencenser says:

    I’m not sure how writing about fragrance has changed me, but I appreciate the question. I’m still trying to figure out *how* to write about fragrance, and I very seldom produce anything as good as I imagine. Certainly I’ve gotten better at the technical analysis of fragrance, and I’ve tried a lot more new fragrance (really more than I would try, I think, if I weren’t tasking myself to write about them). I already spent years doing writing that would cause crazy looks if it were discussed 🙂 so that’s not new. I’m still surprised, I guess, at how physical scent is, and how people react to that physicality. I never think art is frivolous (and neither do most of my friends) but art is *hard* and the physicality of experiencing scent is a challenge for a lot of American sensibilities, I think.

    • Patty says:

      Hey, it never gets better. I’m still grossly unhappy with about everything I write on fragrance. Words are so inadequate sometimes, and it’s easy to go too far into flowery, or pull back and sound lackluster.

      It’s misery most of the time, but it’s addictive, like pennance. 🙂

  • Persolaise says:

    Thanks for this post, and the links.

    Is fragrance frivolous? Only in the same way that an incredible church spire or a breathtaking dress are frivolous. Fragrance is about appreciating beauty… and thank God some of us are fortunate enough to still have some space in our lives for that. I, for one, can’t imagine my life without perfume.

    Writing about scent is a different matter, I find. I take it as seriously as I take any other writing. Has it changed me? I certainly hope so.

    • Patty says:

      Hey, thanks for stopping by! Maybe it’s just what adds the texture to life could be frivolous, but without all of that beauty, we’d all be eating milk and toast.

      I think I love that it has changed me and is changing me, sometimes that feels like a LOT more tortured, though! 🙂

  • FragrantWitch says:

    What a wonderful post, Patty. I think perfume is frivolous in that we don’t need it to survive, yet I wouldn’t feel really alive without it. It teaches me about myself, my past and my evolution. It touches my soul in joyful and despairing ways and I wouldn’t ever wish it otherwise. I am not a writer but I find that I am approaching scents or experiences in different ways knowing that they may become fodder for a post. Writing, even this little bit, is forcing me to try to articulate the ephemeral and I am welcoming the mental workout. Thank you for this, Patty!I have largely shied away from reviews this far as I am uncertain of my ability to do so without sounding all Freshman Lit. So, when my StC order arrives, I shall gird my loins and write a review. 🙂

    • Patty says:

      Oh, thanks!

      It’s that stretching that does something to the brain. My work writing is so technical and instructive – do this, then that, make sure to pay attention to this, and blah, blah,blah. Nothing interesting about it at all!!

      You’ll be fine! You are a writer, you just don’t think of yourself that way yet. 🙂

  • Poodle says:

    I post on perfume blogs but I don’t really write about perfume. While I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging as an outlet for me, I’d never really consider blogging about perfume exclusively because there are so many of you who do it far better than I ever could. Writing about scent is hard because smell is so subjective and intangible at times. When I do write about it I feel like I never can find the right words or describe perfumes as wonderfully as others do. I don’t find an interest in perfume frivolous. Aren’t most hobbies frivolous? Does anyone really need toy trains? Stamps? Almost any item that’s collectible is hardly necessary. Most people collect things to just plop them on a shelf and look at them. At least with a fragrance collection I can not only enjoy the beauty of the bottles but I can also wear the juice and experience the thoughts and memories connected with each one. My husband collects watches. At least they have a function but I always joke with him that regardless of the price 5am on a cheap timex is the same as 5am on a Rolex whereas a cheap rose scent is usually not the same as a quality one. He gets mad when I say a clock is a clock but a rose could be a hundred different things.
    Great post by the way.

    • Patty says:

      Comments seems to hate me today!! This is my third and final attempt to reply, I swear!

      I’m not good at linear descriptions of perfumes, how it develops. A lot of other people are, but when I try it, it sounds about as interesting as a bag of hammers. 🙂

      Rolexes may be a better thing to collect, not consumable!

  • sonomavelvet says:

    Speaking of writing. I must say this seems a particularly well written piece. It scans like you had fun putting it together. NIce flow.

    • Patty White says:

      On, thanks! Normally my blog posting goes like –

      Monday morning – reminder buzzes me that I have a post due tomorrow. I start thinking about what scent(s) or topics I want to write about, decide. Put on scent, make mental notes, get busy, put reminder on delay for 4 hours, which keeps going off rest of day until 8 p.m. that night, when I am now on a tight deadline and must get it written.

      This I did as a part of my 750 words daily exercise without a deadline. It’s also been an interesting experiment. I used to write all the time just for the joy of it on whatever topic came to me, but way too much work writing over the last 15 years re-orients your head and leaves you with so many fragments running around that need to get put out. some days, my 750 words are just those fragments, but I’m getting them out of my head.

  • Eldarwen22 says:

    I”ve never really thought about what made me so perfume obsessed. I think one reason is that 4-5 years ago, I got really bored with wearing EL Pleasures and Clinque’s Happy and I had been wearing those since high school. I was probably frusterated with my book habit at the time. My local library would not have a certian book that I wanted to read at the moment and none of the other libraries in the county wouldn’t have it. Even the surrounding counties wouldn’t have it. Then came the either ordering from Amazon or haunting Borders. I was usually disapointed with the much wanted book after reading it. Then came the e-mail from Chanel about Cuir de Russie (back when they just had the ginormous 6.8 oz bottle) and then I really fell down the rabbit hole. But I don’t know why I started blogging about perfume though.

    • Patty White says:

      I’m trying to remember why I did too! I think when I was blogging, everyone was blogging about world events, politics, etc., and I tried that, and it just never really fit me. Not that I don’t care, but I just don’t have any enmity for everyone of any political stripe that doesn’t agree with me that’s so prevalent for the last 15-20 years.

      My kids were more grown, so no mommy blog. I like cosmetics and fashion, but not enough to write about them. The only thing that I loved, loved, loved that I was even inclined to write about – technical writing is a big chunk of my day job or was then – was perfume, and it was frothy enough to be a complete contrast to the writing I had to do on a regular basis.

      Sitting down the first time and writing about a perfume was, um, problematic. I still struggle with it, but the struggle has made me grow.

  • Sam says:

    Wow, Patty, thanks for this really thought-provoking post. In terms of writing about fragrance, it’s a hard thing for me. I write for a living, and I’m perfume obsessed, so you’d think I’d have been writing posts on perfume for the last decade, right? But I do find it hard to express, on the page (or screen), the feelings, the visceral experiences, I get from wearing (or simply smelling) perfume. I was afraid to write for Perfume Posse, in fact; afraid I wouldn’t be able to review a perfume in a way that translates to others. And maybe I can’t! But the effort, the experience, has proven extremely engrossing and challenging. That means a lot to me–because, as you pointed out, when one writes for a living, writing can lose its luster. It becomes The Job. Don’t get me wrong–I’m really grateful writing is my work. But to be challenged in a new way, which writing about perfume does for me, is powerful. Makes me feel alive and engaged. So–thank you!

    • Patty White says:

      Sam, I’m so sorry! This post was suipposed to post this morning, and it stepped on your review! By the time I noticed it, it had comments, so I couldn’t go fix it.

      It IS hard! I know sometimes I really like a fragrance, and I’d write about it, but I can’t find any corollaries or bridges to something else to write about it, so I’m just left with “I like it, but don’t know why?????”

      I think everyone that can write, like you can, can write about perfume. But it’s not normal writing – you have to stretch. I think that’s good, though.

      Blogging is weird writing, especially when it’s in a community like this. You get to know people over time, even though the people that comment are a teeny fraction of the daily readers, and you feel like you’re writing for 20 people, not a few thousand. 🙂

  • Ari says:

    Scent isn’t frivolous, of course. I do think perfume is frivolous, BUT it’s absolutely no more frivolous than anyone else’s stupid hobby, and I refuse to be made to feel bad for it. No one ever calls watching football frivolous, and my boyfriend wastes just as much time on his favorite team’s message boards as I do on the perfume blogs! Hell, every newspaper in the country has a sports section! I hate to sound like a broken record, but I suspect that one of the reasons that perfume is so often dismissed as superficial is because of how closely it’s currently associated with us wimminz.

    • Elisa says:

      I totally agree that perfume is considered frivolous, in the US at least, because it’s associated with women (or “girls”) and maybe gay men — and the culture at large thinks women and gay men are silly, not important, etc., or at least not as important as straight men. Misogyny and homophobia. Certainly sports, but even “intellectual” hobbies like wine tasting could be called frivolous, they’re just usually not.

      I’m publishing an interview with Alyssa Harad next month and we talk about some of these issues.

      Great post Patty!

      • Patty White says:

        Based on our experience, there’s a lot of straight guys into scent as well, it’s just not a public perception.

        Alyssa explores these themes a lot and way better! 🙂
        Can’t wait to read the interview!

        • Elisa says:

          Oh, definitely! It’s just assumptions made by people who can’t be bothered. So many people I know have gotten interested in perfume after being exposed to it in a more thorough, intellectual way. My boyfriend has his own collection and doesn’t go a day without a spritz or two!

    • Patty White says:

      Can you imagine if there were a Perfume Super Bowl, complete with a showdown between JCE and Francis Kurrkdjian?

      I’d pay to see that.

      • Sam says:

        oh my god–me too!!!

        • Patty says:

          Though I think the match-up I’d rather see is Roucel v. Oh, who? Christopher Brosius.

          Can we do this, pretty please?

          Not perfumers technical, but artistic direction – Carlos Huber and Kilian Hennessey.

  • pyramus says:

    Is happiness frivolous? Is pleasure?

    All animals are wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and fragrance is pleasure. Someone asked me once what would happen if I lost my sense of smell, and I said, truthfully, “I could never be really happy again.”