Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bottling Shame: Why Perfume is My Dirty Secret

After all these years, I'm still ashamed about perfume. I am ashamed, I realize - I must be - even though I talk about it openly and wear it fairly indiscreetly, and argue for dispensing with the idea of some stratifying line between what's "Masculine" and "Feminine" in fragrance.

Last weekend, a friend who doesn't know much about perfume came over to interview me and to see what I have. People often want to come over and talk about perfume. They know I have a lot and many of those things are things they haven't smelled. I have a reputation for giving full bottles of perfume away. That tends to draw a crowd. This friend really didn't want any, for a change. She was, I think, genuinely interested in what this interest says about me. I still gave her some, of course.

All day I was anxious and nearly called it off, mainly because no one's ever really seen my stash. My stash, even more than my writing, tells you exactly how deep the obsession runs. You see my stash, I think, and you see that something I talk about on and off is, in fact, something I never stop thinking about. The stash is excessive no matter how you look at it.

I'm always guarded about the way I bring things out for people to smell. I seat visitors in the living room and ask them to please stay there and wait. They sometimes try to follow me into the room where I keep most of my stash, and I don't want them to see it, so I preempt them by stationing them out of the way. I even did this when Olfacta was in town from Georgia. Olfacta must be as obsessed as I am - she is, judging by our conversations over the last couple of years - and yet like everyone else she was cock-blocked.

Once or twice someone has been allowed to follow me in, but I make them avert their eyes and promise not to look. It sounds deranged but it's true. And they agree, although whether they sneak a look when my back is turned is something I think about. When someone tells you not to look you almost always feel you should.

Generally I seat people in the living room, disappear into the stash, make some selections, and bring them back out, loading up the coffee table with bottles and boxes. We sit there and smell and I get to watch their faces either shrink in displeasure or light up in epiphany, and this format is a lot more comfortable for me because their exposure to the depths of my stash has been controlled and contained and doesn't distract from their reactions to the perfumes themselves.

I don't want them to see me digging through a puzzle of precariously stacked boxes. I don't want them to see the overspill onto the nearby floor. I don't want to look like one of the subjects of HOARDERS who, when the camera follows her through her home, tries to pretend that stumbling over mounds of shifting what-nots is no different than Donna Reed navigating a vacuum across the carpet in heels.

But I showed this friend last weekend everything. I even took her down into the basement, where I keep maybe a third of my stuff in two laundry baskets. I let her take pictures, showing the cinder block walls in the background, pictures I imagine will look like some clandestine meeting in an underground bunker, where bottles of perfume are rationed out like cans of past due-date soup.

Having her there made me aware of things I haven't had to be. I do think about how I store my perfume, but not why I choose one way over another. I have thought about how I spend time with the stuff I own when no one else is around, but I've never verbalized it, which can make you look at something in a different way. "How weird I do that. I wonder why."

It was the first time I'd told anyone, for instance, that when I leave for work every morning I fill a small bag with anywhere from five to ten perfumes, the same bag everyday, and that, ever since I got a baseball cap at some event I'd been to, I keep the perfume covered with the cap when I enter and leave the building, as if to say, "Oh - hey there; I'm just coming in with my little bag of baseball cap. No girly things in here." I knew I was dong this, of course, but somehow it was just something I'd started doing because the hat once fell on top of the bag, and eventually I kept it there, as a sort of "cover".

This stash has been building for over four years now. I've had plenty of time to organize it differently. Some people organize in nice cabinets or have efficient storage systems - this shelf for this, that shelf for those. I have enough room in my house to devote an entire piece of furniture to what I own. I have the room to organize it all in one place, where I could get to anything I might want to find easily, in one stop. Yet I keep it scattered in little areas about the place: here in a cupboard, there in laundry baskets, and in various other stacks of varying heights and loosely organized categories.

It occurred to me there's something pleasurable in shame - some frisson or excitement I want to hold onto. Why else would I persist in storing my perfume as one stores hidden things in attics or hard to reach, out of the way areas? I remember being a child, sneaking up into my grandmothers' attics, where forgotten relics were shoved, then forgotten. I got to discover them in secret. They were secrets because no one wanted to remember them. I wasn't supposed to be up there, so I certainly wasn't free to talk about what I'd found. My family wanted to forget the things they were reminded by these objects, without being able to actually let them go. The loot lived up there in a half life.

It's ridiculous to be ashamed at my age, though many people are, and for me it's even impractical. I'm way too open about what I do. I think it's because of that openness that I protect and store my stash the way I do. I want to preserve an air of sacred secrecy around it. I hide it from myself in little places I can return to in order to make my discoveries all over again, to relive that private joy repeatedly. I think shame might be a comforting feeling for me, rather than some artifact of immaturity I've never grown out of.

The perfume was moved into laundry baskets during the shoot for my last film. I needed to transport it to one of the locations we were using, and that was the handiest way. I don't remember where these bottles and boxes were stored beforehand. I never returned them there. Something about those laundry baskets rekindles the sensation of the profound hidden in the banal that I enjoyed during my childhood. The baseball cap is a way to keep my obsessional shame active, a way to carry it out into the open world with me without diminishing its powers. Not "Oh, there's Brian, with his bag of perfume again" but "What's with the bag and the cap?"

I guess shame has its uses.


Unknown said...

I loved this essay. thanks for sharing!

queen_cupcake said...

Brian, I am still digesting your post of Saturday, August 25. I've gone back a few times to re-read it, and am glad I didn't miss mals86's comment about re-visiting works of art. Now I have a lot to think about with this new one of yours... Shame is an old companion of mine. It is wonderful for us readers that you have been setting those thoughts and feelings down for us all to explore. Thanks, as always.

Brian said...

Thanks for reading, Krista!

Brian said...

Queen, here's hoping I don't give you INdigestion one of these fine days! As always, I'm glad you read. xxxB

Dionne said...

Great post, Brian, very thought-provoking. It'd be interesting to see the different ways we go about this particular obsession.

Here's mine: Although all my friends know about "the perfume thing," and I have people come over regularly to learn more, get sprayed and go home with decants, my parents and siblings have no clue, NO CLUE, about this, not the stash or the sampling or the online community, not even when I was invited to start blogging.

Why the silence? I love my family, but I've learned over the years we get along better when I don't open up, because they misunderstand. And then I'm told I'm "too sensitive." It's just easier this way.

Brian said...

Hey Dionne. Yeah, you know, my sister knows, and seems to...understand? She calls or texts when she hits the perfume counter at the department stores, and I was happy, visiting her recently, to see a very crowded perfume tray on her bureau.

But my parents, only vaguely. I hide the perfume I bring along when I visit my mom (and I bring a lot, and must stink up the house), and she only really knows I'm into perfume I think because my sister once visited with me there and we had a late night sniffing conversation in my room.

My mom's never said much about it, though she did give me a bottle of Oscar she's had since I was a kid, the last time I visited and finally asked for it, after wanting to for years. She was reluctant but only because she loves the bottle. When I left she told me to take good care of it, and I do.

My dad - um, never. The conversation would be very short and awkward.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. I remember that I was also terribly ashamed of my vice when I first started building my perfume library and I use this term in purpose: Can you imagine anyone being ashamed of their book or painting collection? Or even wine collection for that matter, perfume does not have to be compared only to art. In any case most of us have felt or are still feeling ashamed of this pastime.

I think I overcame this when I made a real-life friend through Basenotes. Turns out we were going to the same primary school at the same time, probably in adjacent rooms. Seeing my obsession mirrored in his made me realize that it is OK to be obsessive, we are cool guys!

Thanks for sharing this with us.

queen_cupcake said...

Oh, can I relate to what Dionne has written! There has always been some facet of my existence which has carried the "shame gene". I don't know where it comes from originally, but I guess I'm just compelled to keep a secret or two from my nearest and dearest. My husband may suspect that my perfume collection has grown to what he would consider a vast proportion, but we never discuss it. I love it that I can come here and discuss perfume with others who understand...

Brian said...

It's funny, Memory, but months ago I was having lunch with a couple I've known for a while, and they started talking about wine. They belong to four or five wine clubs, travel to wine country once a year, and get this, have something like over five hundred wines. Boxes full of it arrive weekly. I sat there fascinated but never mentioned that I'm the same way with perfume, because I thought, while most people can understand a wine collection without much comment, a perfume stash of comparable size requires quite a lot of explaining.

Brian said...

Queen, my partner knows I have a LOT, but he's never really...counted. However, when I sit in front of the cabinet trying to find something and he walks by, he invariably says, "Taking inventory?" Which I always like.

Sometimes, late at night this happens. I can't sleep and I get out of bed, and go to the cabinet. And sit on the floor in front of it, rearranging, smelling, digging in back for things I don't grab every day, and noticing I'm gone he wakes and appears in the doorway, groggy. "Taking inventory?" He says it with a little bit of humor but also I think some kind of understanding.

queen_cupcake said...

Brian, I do this too, sometimes. It soothes me like listening to music. And here's another thing: so many new perfumes are just garbage compared to vintage ones, IMHO. I don't have the heart to explain this to the casual observer. I guard the full scope of my collection from other potential rival collectors, only revealing what I have to special friends and acquaintances. I know that seems paranoid and sorta twisted...

Brian said...

Are you scared they'll want some, Cupcake? Is that it?

I don't sap as much as I'd like. I have a few friends who send me things every once in a while - like you, and Olfacta - and I love to send off things myself (though I'm abysmally disorganized about it). I guess if I were more active on the boards/forums that would be different? I don't know.

I don't know why I end up at the perfume cabinet late at night. I agree, it's like listening to music. It usually helps me wind down and feel tired.

Brian said...

Oh dear. Swap, not sap. I guess I must sap some people, too, but I'll save it for some other post.

Bryan said...

I must say I find you fascinating. It's odd. I can't explain it. I think we're so similar and yet so different (which is the most trite thing I could write, but there it is.)
I am obsessed with many full bottles; how many decants...aren't the decants more precious than the bottles if they're many of those....etc, etc. I can't bring myself to tell anyone the numbers...but why? I have friends with up to 400 bottles who would totally understand my "number". And even though I realize it's an art and it has taken me years to reach these numbers, still I'm, well, a little bit ashamed. It seems silly to be ashamed, but yes, I am taking inventory while I sit and ponder....and I'm always pondering the missing bottles! What is it I'm longing for? What have I forgotten to amass? Why didn't I buy ten full bottles of Apres L'ondee pure perfume back in the 80's??
My husband Aaron tries to understand and his tone has improved. 12 years of this and he has at least given up trying to grasp the constant obsession. And I've given up trying to get him to abandon Acqua di Gio...though he has definitely adopted a few old guerlains which is something.
Reading about other perfume obsessives is comforting. Very comforting. Thank you. And I've used an old baseball cap too! I take three or four bottles in my "manbag (which is sooooo just a purse and who am I kidding, but...) every day.
They're my security blanket (which I actually still have also.....gad I'm a mess.

Kathryn said...

This is a pretty amazing piece of writing, Brian.
I think it's all of a piece with Evelyn Avenue, which also just blows me away. Looking at some of your video clips there, I was really struck by Mackie saying, "I want to be myself, just like you. I should be able to without people making a big deal of it." What a perfectly reasonable wish for something that's pretty much impossible for just about everybody. For a start, how does anyone become self aware enough to figure out who "myself" is, anyway? And then, whatever you're putting out there to the world seldom, if ever, meets with full acceptance, no matter who you are. We all need some protective covering to keep us safe, whether it's ruffles, chiffon, slightly stinky cologne, or baseball caps. Still, there is the possibility of sharing or swapping what's really meaningful to us. Thanks for doing that here.

Brian said...

Yes, Bryan: ALWAYS while taking inventory. It's gotten better here, too. Progress has been made. When I first started collecting, my partner got headaches and would leave the room, pleading for mercy. No complaints now. And thankfully there was never any moral judgment, not even a subtle eye roll or a "drink your juice, Shelby" moment indicating obsessive irrationality.

Brian said...

Thanks, Kathryn. That's really sweet. You know, I think in those films I'm constantly trying to deal with shame and the struggle to be comfortably yourself/myself. For that character, Mackie, I decided the only way it was worth doing was if I allowed him to be everything I'm not comfortable being but sometimes wish I was. Watching him or any of those characters sometimes feels like reading my diary in public. I'm relieved you can relate. I love what you wrote.

Olfacta said...

Hi Brian -- Late to the party, but....yeah, mine are in a cabinet I bought for the purpose.There's a tray of opaque bottles on the top, as those are the only ones that can take the light. As a rule I don't give tours of my bedroom, but if anybody gets in there I assume they'll think that's my perfume collection.

I have this weird thing about privacy in general. I wouldn't dream of asking anybody to look at their collection of anything! If they offer, ok, but (especially in the case of a huge wine collection) I know I might be in for some pretentious behavior.

I said in a post that I think people feel more shame about a perfume collection than, say, a book collection because the fashion business has marketed fragrance as a seduction tool for so long. I still think that. The other thing is the expense, people think you're a compulsive spender and for God's sake people are starving, etc. I'm always careful to let them know I never pay retail, but still.

Anonymous said...

The shame frisson! A case of the sweats when someone might look in perfume stash areas, furtively avoiding the glance of the UPS guy, pretending to wear the same scent over and over when asked. This has all the pleasure of copping and scoring but it's not all that illegal.

And you've gone and let someone in the inner sanctum? That's like a cognitive behavioral therapy exposure. Who would have thought how full of highs, crushing lows, and lessons a random and out of control preoccupation with (mostly designer) fragrances could be, but it's here and it's queer.

Brian and Abigail, you are among a handful of people whose take on perfume I've been able to relate to in all of internet perfume land.

It's not about acting like this is some esoteric discipline or being game for press releases, though the stories and design histories excite. It's the perfumer's choices, the smell itself, and the joy and pain of getting to be the consumer, then the owner, then owned by the scents and more more more. A hobby that celebrates maximalism!

Having to listen to stuffy people talk about Guerlain vs. Caron or niche niche niche is akin to learning about Proust all from the mouth of some yawny college don but never cracking the book for yourself. Then you finally try to read it and realize he talks about asparagus making his pee smell and things like that.

You two, though, are people. Not soylent green. Thank you for having and sharing lives and stories and loving and respecting women and people in general, because that's what perfume is. I'm over the communities that suggest otherwise.

And this is the best kind of post for a relative newcomer to ponder; I started liking perfumes about three months ago but already have overflowing shelves. Looking forward to years of tasty shame ahead. Reading your archives now, and they're so full of oakmoss.

Brian said...

Welcome, Anomie. You're on that pink cloud. I miss that pink cloud sometimes, then find it again. I usually find it again by staying close to the things I love about perfume, which rarely have to do with the alleged status factor, whatever the particular lens says that is.

I love your movie choices. I just watched 3 Women again the other day. I keep going back to that one like an old friend. Have you seen Images? That one's good too. And Bad Timing! What's Up Doc! The 70's was probably my favorite era for film.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the welcome. It's such a treat to read ISTIA (a nice anagram for this blog "Is-cha"). Pink cloud is right. I'll miss this beginner's rush but am glad it can't last forever because the obsessiveness meets enthusiasm is exhausting. Obsession and jadedness I could handle maybe. And your baseball cap smuggling: I consolidate new perfumes into emptied food boxes before coming back from the store sometimes so as to not draw attention to the new acquisition. The thrill of the smuggle escalates every new scent to a forbidden lover.

Still haven't seen Images but will ASAP. Upon first viewing, 3 Women was just the most *about women* movie. Maybe all because it's so dream-logic and airs unconscious repressions through the improv work of three undervalued actresses. 70s movies are the best: that color and grain, the general acceptance of intellectual dialogue and non-sequitur scenes. I wasn't alive for those times, but any good 70s movie produces these overpowering waves of nostalgia, unease, and comfort, this includes up to the early 80s. Perfumes from that time evoke matching feelings. I see you're a Gloria fan. "You're a nice girl, Gloria, but you're not for me," is a catch phrase among my friends. The Ungaro in that movie!