The wondrous whiff of sex, spice and civet
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
One cannot be well-dressed sans scent. You can try, but you will fail, and your life will be the smaller and the sorrier for it. The ancients knew this. From the moment we first have signs of civilisation we find the presence of perfume: in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley. If Cleopatra fragranced her barge sails, one can only imagine the aroma her flesh exuded.
Scent can transport us to another realm: a bodily experience accessing an out of body state, humankind’s most ancient form of virtual reality
How the mighty are fallen. For the Egyptians, perfume was the sweat of the gods; for 21st Century wage slaves it has been relegated to a mask for our own. Our forebears associated scent with sex, magic, religion, medicine, rites of passage and mind-altering states; connotations we have inherited, then rendered banal.
Hence fragrance is for Christmas (when 49 per cent of the year’s sales are made), birthdays, weddings, high days and holidays, dancing, date nights and sundry domestic dalliances. If Covid gave us anosmia, it merely confirmed our collective denial.
This is a tragedy because occasionally — just occasionally — scent can transport us to another realm: a bodily experience accessing an out-of-body state, humankind’s most ancient form of virtual reality.
Here be monsters — yes — but also flowers, fantasy and other notable f-words. For the ancient Egyptians, being immersed in “incense land” was a euphemism for climax. The Aeneid teaches us that adulterers were once punished by having their noses amputated, in doing so losing a vital sexual organ.
Tudor suitors cherished “love apples”, where the peeled fruit was worn in the armpit before being presented to one’s lover, ripe and redolent with its animal tang. The names bestowed upon modern fragrances pay tribute to such voodoo rising: Libertine, My Sin, Spanking, L’Interdit, Boudoir, Enslaved, Fucking Fabulous, and — most coruscatingly — Suivez-Moi Jeune Homme.
Really, though, scent represents sex with oneself, and with it the beginning of a lifelong romance. Chanel christened its woodsy, spiced amber of 1990 Égoïste. It is a name that could be attached to all perfumes: these mechanisms for delving into a purer, more extreme, more elemental self.
And when I say “self” I obviously mean “selves”: multiple personality disorder, spritzophrenia, one’s persona played out as an array of beguiling fictions. With the perfumer as author, perfume house as publisher, perfume genres facilitatingly fixed yet yielding, no nuance of personality, no kink will go uncatered for.
We can smell like a gardener’s pocket (Guerlain’s Vetiver), or duellist’s gauntlet (Goutal’s immortal Duel). One can wallow in ice (YSL’s Rive Gauche), or fire (Miller Harris’s La Fumée); opt for bridal bouquets (Lauder’s Beautiful), or great seas of semen (Cumming by Alan Cumming, and Sécrétions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange); breast milk (Clinique’s Simply), or decay (Laudamiel & Hornetz’s Human Existence).
Perfume can carry us to the surface of the moon or the surface of a virgin’s skin
Just as one can pick one’s battles: the smoke, sweat and oil of 1789 (Cire Trudon’s Révolution), or Trafalgar’s cannonballs, brandy, blood and salt spray (Beaufort’s epic Tonnerre).
You may be a starched shirt sort of chap (Richard James’s Savile Row), a rubber fetishist (Etro’s Gomma), or feral maniac reeking of roadkill (Etat Libre d’Orange’s Charogne); exude freshly-cut lawns (Demeter’s Grass), or horse-shit imbued hay (Jean Desprez’s Bal à Versailles).
Perfume can carry us to the surface of the moon (Cire Trudon’s Odeur de Lune), or the surface of a virgin’s skin (Virgin No 1, by Laudamiel & Hornetz, created via a five-hour molecular reading of a 15-year-old’s navel). While, for the olfactory pornographer, it can yield too many penises, anuses and vaginas to mention (among them, YSL’s Kouros, Tom Ford’s Black Orchid, Hermès’s Eau d’Hermès, Piguet’s Bandit, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan, and Vivienne Westwood’s Boudoir). All human life — and much that is beyond it — is here.
In my thirties, Knize’s Knize Ten was my calling card: a punishing, distinctly pelvic thrust of amber, cedar, jasmine, carnation, patchouli, castoreum (a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver), and civet (the faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat by poking it with a stick). Ten was a Weimar-era addiction sported by the last Kaiser, Marlene Dietrich, and James Dean, then revived in Seventies S&M clubs by moustachioed leather lovers. It did the trick Twenty years on, you will find me swathed in Derby, Jean-Paul Guerlain’s magisterial work of art from 1985. Celebrated as “the only male perfume”, it is an exquisitely composed leather chypre, redolent of carnation, spice, and exotic woods, drying down to a patchouli and birched leather base. Tender, intimate, discreetly extraordinary, it makes the ultimate second skin, and all lesser clothes redundant.
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