The Transformative Power of Fragrance

"It gave one the ability to create glamour within their life, even if the opposite was true."

The Transformative Power of Fragrance
Photo: Olivia Malone / Trunk Archive

My maternal great-grandmother wore Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds. It was the last step in her routine. She would take her time and spritz her pulse points at her vanity before leaving for work or church or whatever event she had deemed worthy enough for the floral notes. Her scent lingered long after she left a room and conversation—about who the woman wearing the perfume was—arose amongst those left behind in her wake. My mother and her four sisters would watch, mesmerized. It wasn’t just the scent or the bottle design that was special. The person wearing it was, too. A scent streamlines information from the wearer to those around them and says, “This is who I am,” or, “This is who I want to be.” It gave one the ability to create glamour within their life even if the opposite was true.

When my great-grandmother was out of sight, my mother would run into the bathroom and spray White Diamonds on her neck and wrist, mimicking my great-grandmother’s delicate ritual. For the women in my family, there is no higher form of praise than, “You smell good.”

Smell is one of our first senses to develop. The olfactory epithelium, a tissue that sits at the top of our nasal cavity, is filled with neurons that contain odorant receptors. When we inhale, these receptors send signals to the brain and register as a smell. For other senses—hearing, seeing, touching, and tasting—scientists know the why and how behind our body’s responses. That isn’t the case for scent: we still don’t know what causes the receptors to light up and send signals to the brain. We don’t know why two people can smell the same scent and have opposite olfactory reactions. We do know, however, perception shapes scent and influences moods. The olfactory system is connected to the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories.

"My body couldn’t escape my small suburban Ohio town, but perfume was an escape hatch to a more glamorous me, even if it was only for a moment."

A love of fragrance is my birthright. As a child, I flipped through the pages of magazines and department store catalogs searching for scent strips. I’d bring my nose down to the page, close my eyes, and inhale deeply before rubbing the scent against my wrist, careful not to use too much. The flap of paper embedded with smells was a portal into a new world. Like my mother had done to her grandmother, I would sneak into her bathroom and spray my body with White Diamond.

To me, a woman was someone with a signature scent. My first one was Victoria’s Secret Bombshell. There was nothing more exciting than handing over money earned from my summer retail job in exchange for the tropical, fruity-floral scent that would transform me into the adult women I was hellbent on becoming. I sprayed the scent on every day for months and wondered if everyone around me could tell that something had changed.

My body couldn’t escape my small suburban Ohio town, but perfume was an escape hatch to a more glamorous me, even if it was only for a moment.

Photo: Simon Emmett / Trunk Archive

Every season has its own scent. E.M. Forster writes the following in A Room with a View:

“But, once in the open air, she paused. Some emotion—pity, terror, love, but the emotion was strong—seized her, and she was award of autumn. Summer was ending, and the evening brought her odors of decay, the more pathetic because they were reminiscent of spring.”

It is always the most intense at the beginning, before our noses grow blind to the season’s scents. Spring usually drifts in through my open bedroom window, along with music floating from cars driving past my apartment. If spring was a fragrance, the notes would include cut grass, rain showers, and fresh blossoms. If autumn brings “odors of decay,” then spring is the exact opposite. Change is in the air. I put down my heavy woods and deep musks in search of a lighter scent that evokes spring’s mood. I spritz scents that combine citrus and floral notes with fresh and earthy ones onto my pulse points. I inhale. The scents call to mind new beginnings. It’s an escape from the drudgery of the long, dark, cold winter. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Photo: Simon Emmett / Trunk Archive

The word perfume means “through smoke,” a reference to the incense burned in ancient Egyptian and Greek religious ceremonies. In an essay on Christianity and scent, religious scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey writes, “Through smell, human and divine could meet, not face-to-face as distinct realities, but intermingled in a communion of being.” Once sprayed, a fragrance will react to the pH of the skin it is sitting on. Only the interaction of the perfume—the divine—with the chemicals of the skin—the human—can determine the smell and trigger the transformation one is seeking. There is little scientific research about the mechanisms behind this interaction. That doesn’t make it any less real.

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