One spring night in 2008, I was in bed reading a New Yorker article by John Lanchester called Scents and Sensibilities. It was a meditation on the difficulty of conveying what he called "taste experiences" into language, as well as reviews of a couple books that did a splendid job of doing just that. One was a book about wine, and one — you guys know where I'm going with this — was a book about perfume by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, the magnificent Perfumes: The Guide.
I was transfixed by the elegant and funny writing Lanchester excerpted and tantalized by the possibility of smelling these perfumes Turin and Sanchez so evocatively described. I'd loved perfume as a child and tween, but my love had lain dormant for a couple decades despite my continued (desultory) purchasing and wearing of perfume. After reading The Guide, my Limbic System, like an awakened Rip Van Winkle, went on a zombie-like quest for braaaaains!!!!PERFUUUUUUME!!!!, and here I am, four years later, still obsessed by it.
As I continued to read about perfume in books (Chandler Burr's two awesome books The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent) and blogs (Perfume Shrine, The Scented Salamander, 1000 Perfumes, Basenotes, Fragrantica, Grain de Musc, I Smell Therefore I Am, Bois de Jasmin, Olfactarama, The Non-Blonde, Katie Puckrik Smells etc., etc. look to your right for the others!), my perfume tastes focused on what could be described as Temporal Niche: vintage perfume.
Don't get me wrong, as I was collecting vintage, I was still sniffin' the new. There was my obsession with Serge Lutens' Muscs Koublai Khan, and particularly with this wonderful category I'd never heard of called "animalic." (Read this classic Basenotes thread to see why!) Etat Libre d'Orange's Sécrétions Magnifique blew me away with its skirting the "bleeding edge," so to speak, of what a perfume could smell like. And Christopher Brosius at CB I Hate Perfume seemed to have a restless, New Millennium urge to reset the barometer on smell to Year One, with his representational scents of Roast Beef, Old Fur Coat, and Burning Leaves. There were many, many others. Trust.
But there was, I felt, time to learn about the new. Turin and Sanchez made a compelling case against bad reformulations of classics, and waxed poetic about certain perfumes that, in their original form, were sublime. Vintage perfumes were disappearing, and I needed to smell as many as I could before I could never experience them again. Thanks to eBay, estate sales, Ye Olde Junque Shoppes, The Perfumed Court, and friends like Leslie Ann at the Miniature Perfume Shoppe and this blog's readers — some of these originals soon became mine.
I had so many a-ha, falling-down-the-perfume-rabbit-hole moments with vintage. A night of sniffing vintage Chanel No. 19 was revelatory for me, in that I realized that a well-made perfume is a Mute Invisible Cinema, with its own mise-en-scene, characters, atmosphere and narrative. Diorella was kaleidescopic in its strangeness and complexity. Narcisse Noir, Bandit and so many others showed me just how erotic and subversive perfume could be, their perfume notes and combinations a language full of stories. As well as being beautiful, these creatures held secrets about the women they were meant for and the culture they were made in, and I wanted to find out what I could. All this led me on my slightly insane quest to smell as much of 20th century perfume as I could, and to discuss how each decade's style reflected the culture it emerged from.
There have been times, including now, when the hierarchy of needs up there in the Madame Rochas ad have placed Perfume squarely before Food, Clothing, and Shelter. But here I am. Two cities (SF to NOLA), one agent (the patient and wonderful Gordon Warnock of Andrea Hurst Literary Agency who believed in this project), and one publisher (Lyons Press/Globe Pequot Press) later, and these years of perfume obsession are culminating in a book that will be published in 2013.
I'm excited about Scent and Subversion: A Century of Provocative Perfume. It will include descriptions and histories of over 300 vintage perfumes, decade by decade, from Jicky to Demeter's Laundromat (2000). It will cover drugstore perfumes as well as haute perfumes. It will have over 100 gorgeous and interesting vintage perfume ads I've been collecting over the years. There will be some history about perfume houses, noses, basic perfume appreciation glossaries, and essays about the history, sociology, and even philosophy of perfume. There may even be interviews with perfumers.
In many ways, Scent and Subversion is a feminist project as much as it is an aesthetic one, because I'm also interested in how women have experienced this art that has been (predominantly) dedicated to them. What does it mean to them? Why do they love it? That's why the comments on this blog, the conversations I've struck up with readers, and the friendships that I've formed around perfume have been invaluable to me. I've learned so much from every one of my perfume friends.
Scent and Subversion is a work in progress. I'm still collecting some vintage perfumes, and I'm still doing some research. I'll still occasionally blog, but I'm furiously working on the book now, so the posts will be less frequent. I may post a question I want to tackle in the book, and your feedback could help me formulate an answer. If any of you have suggestions — books you want to make sure I've read, vintage perfume you want to ensure gets covered (or that you want to send), ideas for the book, anything! — please drop me a line either in the comments section, or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks to everyone who's chatted with me about perfume over these years. Y'all will definitely be getting acknowledged in the book!