Monday, October 4, 2010

In Which We Discover That High WASPs Approach Perfume The Same Way They Approach Life. Intoxicated.

It turns out, oddly enough, that High WASPs take the same approach to perfume as they do to life. I know, I know, it sounds preposterous. Hear me out, if you would be so kind.

1. We mean well. Which sometimes drags on to the edge of politeness. But eventually we honor our commitments.

A reader of Privilege wrote me back in December of 2009, asking me about High WASPs and perfume. Today, October 4th, 2010, I honor my commitment. A more revealing test of 'better late than never' we cannot imagine. Jessica, if you're still out there, um, sorry. And here goes.

2. When we look back, we realize we have come far from our origins. We also see that American culture has wandered far from the world of dressing tables, signature scents, and Grandmama.

My grandmother, the Artsy Grande Dame that she was, had a signature scent. Diorissimo. Lilies of the valley. Very sweet. My mother wore Miss Dior. My Aunt Priscilla gave me Caleche, when I was in high school, and then Paco Rabanne's Calandre. I wore them constantly, until, one day, I just didn't. For the past 30 years I have assumed that I hated perfume, that I was allergic to it, that it made me feel ill. I have also watched, and wondered, why anyone would want to smell like Britney Spears.

3. We do research, relying on decades of retail experience. Which more often than not brings us to our spiritual home, also known as Saks Fifth Avenue.

When I finally, finally, organized my various and remaining competencies enough to get myself to address perfume, I thought I'd go to Barney's New York, in San Francisco. I drove up our unscenic Highway 101, and parked at Union Square. I stopped by Saks, "just to look."

3. High WASPs succumb to adventure.

I walked by the Saks perfume counter. And paused, a bit. The saleswoman began to talk to me immediately. I could barely hear her, so overwhelmed was I by all the shiny bottles and waiting scents.

High WASP inbreeding has left us unable to think and smell at the same time. A pity, really. Who knows what acts of irresponsibility have been committed in lavender fields and peat bogs?

Once the saleswoman began to dab me with perfume I was lost. Drowning. You might think I'm exaggerating. I wish that were true.

This was a newish perfume line called By Kilian. Kilian is apparently the heir of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy fortune whatsit. One can imagine that amidst all those Ls and Vs he needs to spell out his name like a 6-year old. This does not improve the brand for me but I was far beyond logos and marketing by this point.

She dabbed onto my unsuspecting skin (skin is always unsuspecting, that's part of its tragedy, don't you think?):
  • Prelude To Love
  • Beyond Love
  • Love and Tears
  • Liasons Dangereuses
  • Cruel Intentions
  • A Taste of Heaven
These names offered me no guidance whatsoever.

Did you know that to smell perfumes for purchase you should:
  1. Wave your wrists to dry them off after first spraying?
  2. Use each wrist, each elbow, the back of each arm, and a few fingers for different scents?
  3. Lie your face against your wrist sideways, to breath it in indirectly, not snort it right into your nostrils.
  4. Walk away and come back 20 minutes later for the final version of your scent? This is called the "dry down." But had I walked away I would never have returned, thus failing to honor my commitment. So the dry down had to wait.
One bottle smelled like the good part of bugspray, and gasoline. Mixed with rubber. And in the background, sweetness. A tired sweetness. The saleswoman said it was made of something called, "Oudh." And rose. Rose attar, maybe.

All I knew was that I liked it and I had to get out of there or fall down in public. High WASPs do not like to fall down in public.

5. Our senses call us to experiences we cannot predict.

$400 later I owned a large black bottle of scent. Named "Rose Oudh." Which appears to require its own lacquer box adorned by a gold-colored plate engraved with a fancy "K." Oh, and a key. I am still not sure why to lock a box that one can simply put into one's backpack if one is a robber, but I have told you before and I will tell you again, I am at heart too Sturdy for much high concept retail.

4. We call home for comfort and discover that the old High WASPs had some priorities very straight.

When I finally made it to my car I called my sisters. Only to discover that my sisters don't wear perfume at all. I called my mother.
Me: Mom, what's that perfume you always wore?
Mom: I don't know. I don't wear it any more. I hate it.
Me: Well what did you use to wear?
Mom: I don't know. I used to keep the bottles on my dressing table but I thought they looked trashy so I put them away.
Me: Well, Mom, could you do me a favor and go look and see what they are? I'm trying to write a blog post.
Mom: OK but I have to go back across the house to the bathroom.
Me: That's OK. I will wait.
Mom: Lisa?
Me: Yes Mom?
Mom: I found it. You tell your blog people I had to crawl back into my bathroom cupboard to to get it. (Note. The bathroom cupboard is under her sink.)
Me: OK Mom, I will. What's the perfume?
Mom: It's something called Hermies.
Me: Hermies? *laughter* Mom, it's not Hermies, it's Hermes!
Mom: Well I had to crawl into the bathroom cupboard to get it.
My mother doesn't care one bit for brands. Or labels. I doubt she would understand the phenomenon of young Mr. Kilian.

5. We keep anything that dizzies the senses far away from our reading glasses, our well-flossed teeth, and our pearls.

In the past few weeks I have discovered that I have to wear Rose Oudh behind my knees. Anything closer to my face is too much. Good thing too. Perfume oils are bad for pearls. Everyone knows that.

Everyone knows that perfume was invented to disguise the smells of human life pre-plumbing.

Everyone also knows that perfume is just perfume. But they're wrong. The Three Kings knew what they were doing. All that myrrh and frankincense was the original Trojan Horse.

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Anonymous Jan said...

Once again, you made my jaw drop at the price of something. Good heavens.

I have a very real problem with people who bathe in their scents - woman's restrooms and elevators are often torturous places for me. I only wear perfume (and for the life of me, I can't remember the name of the lone bottle sitting on our bathroom counter) on special occasions, and apply it very sparingly. I dab it on the insides of my elbows or, if it is in an atomizer, hold the bottle at waist chest level, spritz it in the air in front of me and walk into the vapor.

October 4, 2010 at 7:58 AM  
Blogger materfamilias said...

So many brilliant aperçus here, a lovely piece of writing. Skin's perpetual lack of suspicion IS absolutely part of its tragedy, yes! And some perfume will bring you to the floor. I'm so pleased you found yours and that you wrote about it for us.

October 4, 2010 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger metscan said...

So now you are wearing " By Kilian " behind your knees ; ) The bottle looks fine. Buying perfume is difficult in many ways. I´m always annoyed by the over-friendly saleswomen. I would like to do my snooping around without interruption, without the : May I help you´s. I hope you are satisfied with your scent : ).

October 4, 2010 at 8:05 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Great tips on buying perfume. I will have to try it sometime, though I might be more in your mother's camp for now.

Just have wonder about Norrell, which I believe was fashionable with WASPs in the 1970's, but has now gone downscale? Not sure. My mother didn't wear it, but my best friend's mother did. And she was glamorous!

October 4, 2010 at 8:59 AM  
Blogger SewingLibrarian said...

OK, I really did laugh out loud when I got to "Hermies!" That "Bringing Home the Birkin" guy would not have made any money off your mother!

October 4, 2010 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Golla said...

Love this post! You are a such a talented writer. The "...rage against the machine" always makes me smile in a very smug manner for some reason :-)

October 4, 2010 at 9:31 AM  
Blogger Charlotte said...

I also do behind my knees, and sometimes the small of my back. I just shuddered thinking about putting any directly on my wrists or [gasp] neck. Lovely post, Lisa.

October 4, 2010 at 10:12 AM  
Blogger hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I wish that blogs had a scent button so I could fully participate in your new fragrance...
Your words are articulate and as witty as ever.

The image of your mother crawling around to recover the bottle...well that's what mothers do for their children isn't it!

October 4, 2010 at 10:16 AM  
Anonymous Staircase Witch said...

It's so strange, the thoughts and memories that are evoked by a particular scent. A linguistics professor of mine when I was an undergraduate sprayed herself liberally with Eternity, and now, whenever I catch a whiff of it from somewhere, I find myself back in that classroom listening to her lecture about transformational grammar.

I think my ideal scent would be a combination of fresh-cut grass, gasoline, roses, and wet earth. I don't wear perfume, but I would keep a small bottle in my desk and inhale from it every so often to conjure up childhood summer evenings.

October 4, 2010 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

Perfume is such an *emotional* choice, isn't it? Some scents can conjure up an entire personality. I love how you've described this experience.

October 4, 2010 at 11:11 AM  
Blogger Marcela said...

"I have also watched, and wondered, why anyone would want to smell like Britney Spears." I'm still laughing, you are so right!
I wear Cinéma by YSL and have been doing so for 5 years. I tried on so many before finding one I liked enough to wear that I am not planning to change it anytime soon. My mother wears Ivoire by Balmain since 1986 I guess. I generally buy it for her whenever I go to Paris, only the last time-In July- I couldn't find it anywhere. They told me they had discontinued it. I associate it so much with my mum that I was sad when they told me so!

October 4, 2010 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Blighty said...

interesting post, your new perfume sounds divine; love the description of your Mummy going off to look for her old perfume, bless her; Jo Malone make this big thing of having coffee beans for you to sniff to clear your nose so you can smell another perfume once your nose gets tired..I find buying perfume very fraught, so expensive and I often love a smell and then next time, hate it...

October 4, 2010 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

Jan - I live to astonish:).

Mater - Thank you very much. I just realized how long this post is. Eek.

Mette - I find I'm really loving it. Someone had to help me or I would have been hopeless...

Elizabeth - I remember the Norell bottle too. There was none in my house, but the image was everywhere.

Sewing - My mother was definitely the best part of the whole experience:).

Golla - Thank you so much. And I guess I need to rage against that machine a little harder.

October 4, 2010 at 3:47 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

Charlotte - Thank you. Gasp, neck, indeed.

Hostess - Thank you so much. And yes, it is what we do. My mom was adorable telling me this story.

Staircase - It is interesting that the things we most like smell are impossible to catch.

Deja - Yes. Of all these senses. Thank you.

Marcela - Interesting, I have never seen Cinema advertised. And yes, the discontinuance of these scents is very Proustian.

Blighty - Yes, I forgot in my haze, the coffee beans were there on the counter.

October 4, 2010 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Louise said...

I may have to try perfume again. My last scent was Opium, which I wore when I was 25. I think I fancied myself the Odalisque. And perhaps, at 25, I was. (Have you looked at her skin? Radiant. And probably perfumed.)

My mother hates all scent, and her opinion has swayed me a long time. At 47, I think it is time to be swayed no more. Your description of the intoxication is tempting...

October 4, 2010 at 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your family has good taste. Diorissimo and Miss Dior are delightful.

Hermes' florals are also superb. I would be hardpressed to name my favorite Hermes.

Dior's Eau Sauvage is perfection for men.

October 4, 2010 at 8:03 PM  
Blogger EntertainingMom said...

OMG LOL!!! Hermies it is. Love it! I adore adore adore Diorissimo. I am a Diorissimo girl and my mother Miss Dior.

Re your comments on the WASP window treatments. Honestly if my grandmother wasn't Jewish she would have been mistaken for a WASP.

Will post more on her tomorrow. Her neighbor and good friend, Nancy Lancaster, was responsible for making "English Country" as we know it and my grandmother mentions her name in one sentence and her loathing of all things frou-frou and chintzy and over the top!

October 4, 2010 at 8:03 PM  
Blogger Dylana Suarez said...

This was a very interesting post!

Hope you can enter the giveaway at my blog!

October 4, 2010 at 10:02 PM  
Blogger Faux Fuchsia said...

Hello LPC. I need a refresher in what a High WASP is again please.

Meanwhile cheap synthetic overpowering scent is the Devil's Work.

What are your views of the Annick Goutal fragrances?

October 4, 2010 at 10:29 PM  
Blogger Semi Expat said...

Thanks LPC, I loved this post having looked after my friend's Perfume Store in Melobourne in the past. THis is a brand I don't know though - sounds delicious and very exclusive - perfect. x

October 5, 2010 at 12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"unable to smell and think at the same time." Adore this post.

I feel a great deal better about my recent extravagant purchase of Penhaligon's Hammam Bouquet, after seing the price of Rose Oudh, I have to say. It is so heady I think it maybe gives me headaches when I wear it but it is so gorgeous I scarcely care. Will try it behind my knees and see if that helps.

My mother, by the way, was a hardened French scent wearer in the 50's and 60's (Mitsouko by Guerlain, Eau Arpege, etc) but also gave up. She now wears Lavandula (also from Penhaligons) which probabably would hit the spot with many high wasp ladies of a certain age.

October 5, 2010 at 12:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the guilty part that had to ask this question because, while I don't descend from HIGH WASP genes, reading your blog made me realize how my family participates in WASP culture. When I read your "sturdy girl" description, I felt like I was reading my own biography. So, as you can imagine, neither my mother, sisters, nor I use perfume. Well, mother has something obscure that she pulls out on occasions when she's hostessing a public event, but I haven't smelled it on her in years. My grandmother, grand dame that she is, tries every year to convert me to something heady, but to no avail.

Thanks for taking the time to write this! -J

October 5, 2010 at 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, I have to ask, just in case someone on here happens to know. How expensive does the perfume have to be to stick around without having to overspray yourself?

Two sprays always seems too much to me, three way too much. But one spray is undetectable very quickly, even in an embrace. How long is perfume supposed to last?

For the record I used to wear Nina Riche which I thought was nice.


October 5, 2010 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

Louise - Oh at 25, or perhaps 19, we are all the Odalisque. Too bad we rarely know it.

Anon - Thank you for your assessment;).

EntertainingMom - Hermies:).

Dylana - I will go and take a look.

FF - And we cannot abide the Devil's Work. Really? Aren't you tired of all this High folderol?:)

October 5, 2010 at 7:45 PM  
Blogger LPC said...

Semi Expat - Well, what words of perfume wisdom can you share with us so nobody else has to go through my silliness?

J! Thank you so much for still being here. Sturdy Gals do have trouble with perfume. I'm finding the behind the knees trick works well. Sometimes the scent just catches me by surprise, which is about right. I appreciate so much that you asked the question.

Arachna - I only wish I knew...I use two sprays. This seems to last a long time, this Rose Oudh stuff.

October 5, 2010 at 7:48 PM  
Blogger North of 25A said...

My Mother believed you should only wear one signature scent, hers was Shalimar. To this day if I get a whiff of it I can only think of her.

October 6, 2010 at 6:21 PM  
Anonymous DuchessOmnium said...

I can confirm that the previous US Ambassador to the Court of St James had Chanel #19 in the ladies at his official residence.

I grew up being assured by my mother that the only acceptable perfume was Chanel #5. But hell, I thought, as I helped myself, what can you expect from a Republican?

October 7, 2010 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Worthington said...

Lets see...

I wear Chanel Coco Madmoiselle and Guerlain Verveine
My Mom wears Hermes Un Jardin Sur Le Nil
My Aunt wears Hermes Caleche
My Grandmere wears Guerlain Shalimar

Yeah. WASP city huh?

October 7, 2010 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Duchesse said...

Hermes make about two dozen scents, but given that your mother had to excavate, perhaps it was Caleche? One of my all time faves.

Oud is a particular, distinct, exotic note; like it but took getting used to.

The perfume bar woman should never spray six scents on you, too hard to judge through the cacaphony. Never assess a scent by spraying on paper.

October 7, 2010 at 4:29 PM  
Blogger Buckeroomama said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post, Lisa! You have me wondering if I will still love what I think is my favorite perfume(Ivoire by Balmain), after all these years of not wearing it.

October 8, 2010 at 7:34 AM  
Blogger LPC said...

North of 25 - Aw. That's lovely.

Duchess - In the ladies? How terribly civilized. Your last line is an absolute classic.

Worthy - WASP city indeed.

Duchesse - The perfume bar woman was relentless. And successful:).

Buckeroo - It was a very evocative experience, going back and trying on scents again.

October 8, 2010 at 3:50 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Hi LPC..I really enjoyed this post, in fact, I have enjoyed all the ones I have just read. This one had me laughing..I love your Mom and your Brother sounds equally as interesting :) What is life without family? My Mother-in-law just drove off after a two week visit. Family is very top of mind at the moment.

I went off perfume for a spell (20 years) as well...pregnancy and child rearing put me off all together. Shalimar was all I could manage.

Like you I am exploring again and their is definitely a science to choosing and preparing oneself for a new scent. I am a Jo Malone fan at the moment and blend to my hearts content.

Your new purchase sounds very intriguing...I especially like the notion of the Trojan Horse :)

Many thanks for your Anniversary wishes, you are very kind for stopping by.

Best wishes...and happy fragrancing!

Jeanne :)

October 12, 2010 at 1:40 AM  
Blogger Marguerita said...

As much as I enjoy Nuit de Noel and Cashmere Mist, Chantilly is the one that develops best and lasts. Go figure.

October 23, 2010 at 10:25 AM  

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