Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Scent of the Day: The Smell on My Sweater Sleeves

Every morning, as I get ready for work--practically unconscious, mind you--I pull out a sweater and shove into it.  The wrists are powdered with the memories of who knows how many days of perfume, and I love the smell--but I never consider stopping there.  Instead, I move to the cabinet and pick something out for the day.  This morning, I was in a hurry, and left without grabbing anything.  Without a package on its way in the mail, I never might have been caught dead in public without a bottle of something on hand--it's like going out in  my underwear--but because I didn't immediately drench myself in the present I've been able to enjoy the past in an entirely different way these last several hours.

It got me thinking about how much I miss.  Thinking about perfume and things in general, I often clutter my thoughts up with options, stimuli, and opinions.  There's so much to choose from--not just in my cabinet but out in the world at large.  There's a constant conversation: not just on the blogs but on facebook, twitter, and youtube.  A simple Google search produces an afternoon's worth of tangential distractions.  We're all always talking about our memories, and how often they center around scent.  We talk about the fact that you can spray something on your wrist and smell your childhood there, pooled on your skin.  We look to the fresh spritz for the old vibe.  The fact is, you are manufacturing memories, not just capturing them, every moment you wear perfume.  Today's scent is tomorrow's déjà vu.

I do remember smelling things directly from the bottle as a child.  I also remember, more often, smelling fugitive things.  I remember being in a room or a car with someone's scent.  That's an important distinction to me, I realize, because smelling from the bottle or a fresh spray isn't typically how you attach scent to place and time.  It's the experience of the scent's sillage and its interaction with physical space you leave with.  Very often, fragrance is only a carrier oil for a much more complex set of scent memories.  I remember my grandmother's violet perfume vividly, but when I smell something that recalls it, I'm not just remembering that specific smell but everything which came with it.

My grandmother's violet perfume was stored in her medicine cabinet.  I always smelled it in the controlled environment of her bathroom, which is why, I believe, smelling anything that resembles it now brings back such a pure concentration of associations and feelings.  I remember the smell of the worn velvet on the chair at her vanity, the bath salts in an open container on the tub, the smell of the wood on the windowsill from the heat caused by the sun.  More than anything, I remember the smell of my grandmother's cosmetics.

My grandmother spent a lot of time getting ready.  She sold real estate in a small rural town and she operated out of her house.  She never knew who might drop by, or when, or how long they'd stay.  So she prepared everyday for the proposition of surprise--and she stayed ready for the duration.  She had a make-up mirror with settings for day, night, and otherwise.  The mirror pivoted: one side was magnified.  She took forever to paint her lips on, which meant that the smell of her open lipstick tube permeated the room.  She used Aqua Net, and lots of it, so there was often a haze of powder and hairspray mist in the air--as well as their aromas.  She had old fashioned wallpaper, a print of striped mustard flowers.  The carpet was a complex pattern in greens.  I stood by her at the sink while she put her face on.  It seemed so labor intensive.  I wasn't surprised to learn that the morning she suffered a stroke, she was found on the bathroom floor, next to the velvet chair.

Smelling my sweater this morning I thought about my dog, too.  When I went on a trip recently, and I was getting her things ready for the kennel, I grabbed a t-shirt from the laundry basket.  It smelled like me and home, and I knew to leave that with her because I know how wonderful that smell of someone familiar is to me.  It's like someone's personality wears off on their clothing.  You can smell what it is to have been around them, and even when they're gone you can feel their presence.  That's not about perfume, but perfume can help carry that, and plays into the mix.  It's not just nostalgia.  It's about the quality of place and time and the sense of company and of being surrounded by the sense of people who know you and understand who you are.  It's the smell of home in a larger sense, if by home you think expansively to include the pockets of feeling and memory and presence in your life.  Smelling my sweater sleeves this morning I feel like I've slowed down a little and paused to take in the breadth of the recent past.

17 comments:

Angela Cox said...

I have a lot of clothes and silk scarves that have built up fragrance . I also keep lots of samples in my handbag just in case I sould go out "naked".

kjanicki said...

You're right. All those childhood memories that we discuss, they wouldn't have happened if I had been wearing perfume, because the smell of me would have gotten in the way. Maybe I am missing out on making new memories by always wearing/testing perfumes. Maybe it would be good to take a break and appreciate the smells of the things and people around me again.

Undina said...

It's a very beautiful and touchy article, thank you for finding those right words and sharing your memories and your thoughts.

brian said...

Angela, I never really notice my sweater smells for long because I'm immediately moving to the perfume cabinet to put something on. It was like wearing something already today, you know? It was like a rich Guerlainade...

brian said...

Well put, Kjanicki--but good luck laying off! I don't really want to for too long. But it made me realize how much more complicated scent and memory are--or at least how they work and interact. The truth is, I find those scents and memories from the past can be stored or inventoried across a pretty diverse array of fragrances. I mean, my grandmother's bathroom is alive in everything from Moulin Rouge to Lipstick Rose and beyond. Isn't that wild?

brian said...

Thanks, Undina!

Elisa Gabbert said...

I *love* the smell of traces of perfume on worn clothes. It's somehow more noticeable, and more wonderful, after you've taken the clothes off, I often think -- it's like an out-of-body experience, suddenly knowing what you might smell like to someone else.

Michael said...

This is a lovely post. Very evocative of a time and place, which while very personal to you, has helped me recall some of my fragrance memories too. Thanks.

brian said...

Thanks for letting me know, Michael. Great to hear from you. I bet your shirt smelled very interesting after the time you took BTVictorious Complex out for a spin! I broke a little vial of that in my bag once and could smell it for weeks.

brian said...

Yes, Elisa! You know, part of the reason I went with it this morning was because I remembered a comment you made weeks back, where you said every time you where a certain fragrance you can smell it on your clothes forever. I forget what it was. Oh! Yeah, it was Sonoma Scent Studio! And when you said that I thought, wouldn't it be nice to--gasp--forswear perfume for just one morning even, to enjoy the nuance of that? You're so right, it's an out of body thing. "So this is what I smell like to other people when I've lost the sense of smell for my fragrance," I kept thinking.

Elisa Gabbert said...

Yes! It was Vintage Rose. Lasts forever and ever and ever.

Vintage Lady said...

I really love in the morning when I put on my wooll brown poncho with the long neck that I have to roll on and then it is when many scents condensated come up to my nose. It is the real feeling of wearing a perfume I would say. There is no special named scent. It is something very ethereal, I just put it on and at times this is the only scent I wear, just to enjoy it myself. And feel protected in some way. I don't take too much time in picking a scent for the day, but it is never the same.

Olfacta said...

Our bedroom is beginning to smell (but in a good way!) I keep all the perfume in there, in cabinets and containers -- you know, one always needs more -- and I guess that enough molecules have escaped over the last couple of years that they've begin to scent the air, a nondescript, but very pleasant, "perfume" scent. Just walking into the room lifts my mood.

olfactoriastravels.com said...

Sometimes I long for the time to just enjoy and indulge in ONE perfume at a time, not to be driven to discover new ones. But on the other hand I love the hunt and the thrill of discovery. The Perfumista's dilemma...Lovely post, Brian.

Dain said...

I absolutely agree. Smell is a mnemonic sense... I can't quite explain it in the space of a blog comment, so I hope you'll forgive my bad manners in linking to my own blog, but it's expressed in better exposition there, though my opinions have shifted somewhat since then.

Ms. Rachael said...

Ooo, I love this post. "Today's scent is tomorrow's déjà vu." How very true.

Zanne said...

Poignant, Brian! Oh Yes, I think you've celebrated one of the most precious features of scent, the words it Only speaks through fabric ~

I know each of us has a natural "scent" & it's frustrating to me that I can't smell what others say is so Clear, ever invested in my clothes even after they've been washed. How many times in life have I buried my face in a t-shirt or jacket or sheets and exclaim-wondered "Yes, THAT'S how 'he' or 'she' smells!", realizing I haven't consciously perceived it in person.

I'm thinking each person's own scent either struggles or tangos with perfume, and whatever the alchemy, it lingers in its Entirety ONLY on fabric. That's where we catch, like Elisa said, curious glimpses of how others smell us.

And, maybe, our own scent Only greets us after blending with perfume and catchin' some threads. Hmmm.....

:)