Kathleen Rooney

A is for

alone, which is how you have to learn to understand perfume, eventually, even if someone gives you a copy of the indispensable Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez as my husband, Martin, did for me on my 30th birthday. As these authors note,


A, too, is for  

alphabet. As the title suggests, one can learn one's perfume ABCs, and probably should. But educated or not, only you can tell for sure that you know what something smells like, both to and on you, and only you can gain comfort in describing smells with confidence. Nobody else can say that you are right or that you've finally "gotten" it—in this regard, learning about perfume can be a bit like learning to read: a teacher can help, but only you can sense for certain that moment when art versus apt comes into clarity, or boy versus buoy, or cat versus cut, and so on through the letters.
     Alpha order, too, might be an okay way to organize your own growing perfume collection, but a better word for perfume acquisition might be "arbitrary" or even "androgynous." My own scent cabinet has been assembled in a scattershot fashion, although I am intrigued when people set themselves curatorial parameters, like my friend Eric did this past winter, hunting down one masculine perfume per decade starting in the 20s and working his way to the present. As he accumulated them, he let me sniff his conquests, and in the course of my doing so, I also found two that I now adore: Habit Rouge by Guerlain from 1965—said to be a favorite of both Keith Richards and Madonna—and Dunhill Edition from 1984, which work equally well on my female skin as they do on his.


And A is for  

aldehyde, one of many pieces of polysyllabic nomenclature you will learn if you let yourself start getting into perfume. The German chemist Justus von Liebig coined the portmanteau in the 1800s: a contraction of the Latin for "dehydrogenated alcohol." But it was Ernest Beaux in 1921 who used synthetic aldehydes in tandem with a floral structure to create Chanel No. 5, the first great modernist masterpiece of fragrance.
     I respect and admire Chanel No. 5, but I do not wear it, although my "signature scent," to the extent that I have one, Champagne de Bois, is not unlike it: fizzy and bright, mellow and golden. Aldehydes make scents seem to fly off your skin like bubbles erupting from a flute of champagne, molecules effervescing from flesh to nostril. Champagne de Bois is the perfume about which I receive the most questions: a botanist friend who came over for dinner and thought, at first, it must be an exotic plant blossoming somewhere in the apartment, a waiter in Indianapolis who asked where he could get some for himself, a cab driver in Portland who had me write down the name so he could buy it for his girlfriend.


B is for

Beth, my middle sister, three years younger and my very best friend. We used to share a room, and when we were small and traveling as a family we'd share a bed. I always felt reassured by having her near, specifically by smelling her. She would usually fall asleep first, and I would lean over to sniff her hair, her scalp. She remains one of the best-smelling people in the world to me.
     When Beth was expecting her first baby, Rose, before she and her husband had told anyone, I knew by her scent. She had me and Martin and her in-laws all over to our parents' house in the Chicago suburbs for dinner without telling us why, which wasn't unusual because we get together often. When I came upstairs into the kitchen to hug her, I could somehow smell that she was pregnant and knew that she was going to announce it. We made eye contact and she looked at me all, "Don't spoil the surprise." Of course I didn't, but it was astounding to know without being told in words. Now, not shockingly, I love the scent of my niece, who is 19 months old and smells quite a bit like Beth.


C is for

conscious consumption, something you're doing if you're consuming perfume. It's a luxury, yes, but it's also a community. You can buy it as a commodity, but you can also swap and share and gift it. Smells are like weather, around you all the time, but they are also a secret knowledge and you can, if you want, choose to get initiated.


D is for

dominance and D is for difference, two kinds of feminism I wish I'd learned the distinction between earlier. I identified as a feminist at a very young age—like, eight—but for years I believed that the optimal way for women to be "equal" was to try to be "the same" as men. This meant a rejection of all things "girly"—dresses and sensitivity and you'd better believe perfume. In junior high, when all of the girls on the first day of gym class received our welcome-to-seventh-grade-here's-the-kind-of-shopper-you-should-be-based-on-your-gender package, it came with, among other things, a sample of the ridiculous and powdery pink Love's Baby Soft perfume. I was torn, secretly, between wanting to throw it away immediately and wanting to hoard it forever.

E is for

exhaust from the tailpipe of a truck, a huge blue pickup, my dad's enormous Chevy, death-starring its way over Nebraska dirt roads on the way to visit our rural relatives, German shorthaired pointers in the flatbed and rifles under the seat and me and my little sisters in the back, faces to the glass, spotting birds—pheasant, mostly, sometimes quail—in the roadside ditches so he could shoot them from the window, not wanting to abet in their feathery murder, but craving fatherly praise for having a keen eye, for being brave and not squeamish, for picking out the life in a dead-looking winter landscape. Maybe that is why, these days, one of my favorite perfumes is Balenciaga's Paris, a fragrance of ambivalence: violets and gasoline.


F is for

fruity and floral and feminine.


F is for

the fear and rejection thereof, learned in my family and learned from religion. 


And F is for

fuchsia, a color brought up during a conversation I had last month with my mother. It was my birthday phone call—I was turning 33. My mom had to excuse herself temporarily because someone had come to her suburban door. When she returned to the line, I asked who it was, and she told me it had been a political canvasser, the challenger candidate for mayor in my hometown of Woodridge, Illinois. The long-time mayor was resigning after almost a quarter century of service, and the guy who'd just rang was the opponent to the long-time mayor's hand-picked successor, a woman. Excited, I asked my mom who she thought she'd be voting for, figuring she'd say the woman, because the long-time mayor had done a decent job, so why not pick his candidate? But my mom is the kind of person who will say, as she did to me that day, that she might not vote for the hand-picked successor because her signs are "so girly." "They're fuchsia with lavender script—this handwriting font," she said, annoyed and disdainful. "They look more like they're for a high school student council than for anything serious." My mom and I disagree often, and I try to pick my battles, but I had to say "Mom, you would honestly not vote for her because her signs are feminine? But you would consider voting for her if she were behaving more like a man?" Here, she backpedaled, saying her reluctance was about professionalism, not masculinity. But that attitude is what I grew up with. A house of three female children, all encouraged—explicitly and implicitly—to avoid being too female. When I visited my parents later that month, on Saint Patrick's Day, they had signs for the guy candidate staked in the yard.


But F is also for

fuck that because I love perfume and I love being female, and now, at last, I can love them both openly. It took me 30 years, but I got here.


G is for

Guerlain, the French perfume house founded in 1828, one of the oldest in the world. They are the makers of one of my favorite perfumes: L'Heure Bleue, named after the blue hour, aka twilight. Created in 1912, L'Heure Bleue is a floral oriental fragrance that smells like almonds and orange blossoms and anise-seed pastries, if those smells could also be dusky and melancholic. The scent is dusty and rare, even slightly medicinal, and the description from the Guerlain website is not to be missed: "One summer evening, Jacques Guerlain was overcome by intense turmoil. It was the suspended hour, the hour when the sky has lost its sun but not yet found its stars. Everything in nature is clothed in a blue light." I've been told that this perfume is a difficult one to wear, but I love it on paper and I love it on me. If someone doesn't personally like this perfume, that's okay, I get it—it's "old" smelling. I have a bias toward the historic as opposed to the modern, and this perfume feels like space-time travel: one spritz and I'm in Paris before the Great War. But you'd have to have a heart of stone not to admire the story of its creation, or the craftsmanship involved in its formulation, which is exquisite. To dismiss L'Heure Bleue would be like dismissing Shakespeare or Mozart or even Monet.


H is for

head cold and how having a bad one makes me feel desperate and disoriented because I cannot smell—heavenly scents or hideous—and I fear each time that I will never get that sense back, though I always do.


I is for

interactive, which perfume decidedly is, as was The Art of Scent exhibit that my friend Abby and I went to see last December when we were in New York. Curated by Chandler Burr at the Museum of Arts and Design, this show was the first ever to explore the craft of perfume. According to Holly Hotchner, "At MAD, we are always looking to push boundaries and question the hierarchies in art by exploring the materials and processes behind groundbreaking work. There has not been the exploration or recognition of olfactory art as there has been of art that stimulates the other four senses." Abby and I proceeded around the spare white room, sticking our heads into sniffing stations embedded in the walls. Pneumatic machines exhaled the scents in intensely saturated streams of air, as opposed to commercial presentations that make use of alcohol. In this way, we could have what the show called "a more concentrated scent experience," smelling the displays without making ourselves smell.
     After we'd traveled from Guerlain's Jicky from 1889—one of the first fragrances to blend synthetic molecules with natural materials—to Daniela Andrier's Untitled from 2010, we wound up in a second space where museum-goers were encouraged to talk about the show, because the experience of perfume is itself a social one. An elegant French woman of a certain age was staffing the room. She shared with Abby and me that she had read a study recently suggesting that the Pill can dampen women's senses of smell and that that's why there are so many fertility problems and divorces these days—women can't sniff out the odor of their best true mates. She allowed that this article was inconclusive, but fascinating nevertheless.


J is for

jasmine, the loudest smell, to me, in Kim Kardashian by Kim Kardashian, an audacious white floral with tuberose and gardenia screaming almost as piercingly. I got to smell it in a class I was teaching on the figure of the fallen woman in English literature. One of my students, Kristen, knew that I liked perfume and mentioned, during her Powerpoint on models and celebrity, that she had just gotten a bottle. She offered a spritz to anyone who was interested, though there were surprisingly few takers. I mentioned how Virginia Woolf had written of her fellow author Katherine Mansfield that she "stank like a civet cat that has taken to street walking." Then I let Kristen spray me, figuring it was a smell aide instead of a visual one: a smisual aide, if you will. While Kim Kardashian is nothing I'd normally wear, it was fun to ride the train home that night feeling so uncharacteristically voluptuous—like I'd accidentally splashed myself with cheap and sexy apricot juice while frolicking in some psychotic boudoir.


K is for

Kant, Immanuel, the 18th century German philosopher who wrote, among other things, The Critique of Judgment. In it, he allows that while "beauty" and "sublimity" are subjective, if you decide that something is "beautiful" or "sublime," you will very much desire that other people agree. Per Kant, if you're able to cultivate good taste, then you become able to contemplate any object that is worthy of contemplation by way of something he called the free play of the imagination and the understanding. Naturally, you'll also want friends who possess a similar capacity. For me, my best perfume friend has been my writing partner and perfume genius Elisa Gabbert. When I was finally ready, at age 30, to start letting myself try perfume, she was right there with the invaluable recommendations.
     Discovering neutrality or indifference regarding perfume in another person is always a bit disappointing, though overall tolerable. But if someone is outright hostile to perfume—if they state an overt anti-fragrance prejudice—then they are a Kant-ian failure.
     On September 6, 2011, an acquaintance I never really connected with that much anyway caused me to like her even less by posting on Facebook: "I wish people would stop wearing perfume in public. Seriously, I am gagging here, and sucking on my inhaler for dear life."
     To declare a hatred of perfume is like saying "I hate music" or "I hate food" —a sad renunciation of an irreplaceable opportunity for play and imagination. Why categorically deny yourself so much sensory pleasure and contemplation? Why cut off a full 1/5 of your five human senses?
     I will admit that, like anything else, the wearing of perfume can be done well or poorly. Wearing too much scent is rude, like listening to music with your stereo speakers face down on the floor so the tunes hurtle through the ceiling of the apartment below you.  But most people do not listen to music—or wear perfume—in this fashion. Condemning fragrance out of hand because you've encountered a few individuals who abuse it would be like hearing one offensive joke and then declaring that comedy sucks.


L is for

Lynch, David, who says, "Detectives are the best characters because mysteries are the greatest thing." Perfume infuses everyday life with mystery—a secret passageway, a hidden staircase of smell, a cryptogram in need of deciphering—and casts you as the detective always with another new case to crack.

M is for

Mitsouko by Guerlain, a fruity chypre with a spicy base created in 1919, and named after the heroine of Claude Farrère's Russo-Japanese War novel La bataille, or The Battle. I discovered a vintage bottle of the discontinued Eau de Cologne version in an antique store in New Glarus, Wisconsin among all the cheap-o Avon dregs. I got it for five dollars—a total score—but I did not get merely the perfume and the bottle. I got, as with many passionately pursued hobbies, the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of the catch. And I have, because of this hobby, a constant sense of searching and purpose—you never know what wonders might be hiding on the grimy shelf of the next junk shop booth.
     Later, I sent a photograph of the bottle to the Guerlain sales associate at Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue because she and I had been chatting about my find, and she, fellow enthusiast, was as excited to see it as I was to show her.


N is for Nostalgia

and how a given smell can seem nostalgic even at its onset, so closely is the sense of smell linked with memory. This instant longing for the past even in the moment of initial encounter is typified for me in Traversée du Bosphore, a perfume I received for my most recent birthday.
     I recall where I was when I smelled it for the first time. It was a hot August day, one I'd spent with friends in New York City, taking the ferry to Governor's Island and back—sweat and the sea, waffle cone ice creams and coconut sunscreen. Before dinner, we stopped at the perfume shop Aedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. You have to buzz to be let in and once inside, you can go on a colossal smelling spree. We probably sniffed about two dozen fragrances, but Traversée du Bosphore was one that I actually tried on, and it haunted me non-stop for the rest of the evening. According to its maker, the fragrance is meant to evoke Istanbul, which is to say iris, leather, and Turkish Delight. To me, the smell was more like—and this is a compliment—putting your nose into a freshly poured glass of Dr. Pepper and breathing in the bubbles as you take the first sip: warm and plummy with a trace of saffron, almost marzipannish. I wanted to own Traversée du Bosphore badly, but did not buy it, adding it instead to my lengthy To Get Eventually list. Roughly one-and-a-half years later, Martin got me a bottle. As I sprayed it again, though it was deadest winter, I was taken simultaneously back to that summer day in New York City, and to being five years old in my aunt Miriam's kitchen in Nebraska so long ago: her letting me put Dr. Pepper lip gloss on my lips, her twisting my long hair into a bun—feeling so grown up.  


O is for

olfactory associations and how they often defy what might be called logic. How they can give body to what might be called intuition. Smells that I somewhat irrationally love are skunks, alfalfa fields on humid nights, and cool damp basements in the summertime, as well as birthday candles that have just been blown out, which I always associate with the smell of ghosts.


P is for poetry

and one of my favorite definitions thereof by Todd Swift: "Poetry is any use of language that somehow exceeds sense with strangeness and style." Smells are elusive, hard to locate even when you know what to look for, and also so complex that you cannot comprehend their entirety in one encounter—a whiff, a sniff, a huff, a puff. Like a poem, a scent has sense, makes sense, but also surpasses it.


Q is for

quiet camaraderie, which I often feel with my fellow perfume-wearers when I am able to recognize a stranger's fragrance as they pass me on the subway. In The A-Z Guide, Sanchez describes the fruity patchouli Angel by Thierry Mugler as "a joke" but a "perverse, brilliant" one "with the same relation to your average sweet floral as the ten-story-high demonic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters to your average fireside toasted sweet." It is a joke that I appreciate being in on whether I am wearing it and someone identifies it on me, or I do the same to someone else. I like the silent satisfaction of walking down the street and knowing that the guy who just passed is wearing Viktor and Rolf's Spicebomb, which comes in an absurd grenade-shaped bottle, because I happen to be wearing it too.


R is for

really not knowing what I smell like, but wishing that I could. But just as it's almost impossible to tickle yourself, so too is it almost impossible to smell yourself. Or at least it's almost impossible for me. Once, I asked Martin (who happens to be one of the most wonderful-smelling people on earth) what he thinks I smell like and he said, "dryland herbs being lightly crushed under the hooves of a juvenile bighorn sheep." Then he added, "To be clear, you smell like the herbs, not the sheep. I just added the sheep because the herbs needed to be crushed by something." I've had other people tell me I smell "clean" and like "cut grass" or "green plants," so he seems to be onto something. Also, typically, green scents don't work well on me, so maybe that's partly because I'm already "green." 


S is for

smell as sentiment, but not sentimentality, and S is for Shalimar and Shoulders, White, my mother's scents, which smell beautiful on her, but incorrect on me.


T is for

Toucan Sam, cartoon mascot of Kellogg's Froot Loops, forever suggesting that you "Follow your nose! It always knows," which is excellent advice, except when your nose doesn't know, and then everything is terrible. Recently, I came down with a vicious rhinovirus and it caused me to have zero sense of smell for approximately 48 hours, which threw me into a listless drift of despair. I had had colds before where I could barely smell anything, but this was unparalleled: like, stick your head in the trash and smell nothing. Stick your nose over a bottle of acetone and nothing. Chop an onion and nothing. It was horrible and uncanny.
     I went to a party and just as I arrived, the hosts had opened and thrown out a terrifically rancid veggie tray. Everyone was cringing and grimacing in reaction to the stink, holding their noses, spraying air freshener and lighting candles. I could detect neither the offending odor, nor the efforts to mask it. "Consider yourself lucky!" one of the party-goers said when I explained my imperviousness. But I did not feel lucky, not remotely, because even bad smells make me feel human and alive. In those two days, I realized that without ambient smells bouncing around me all the time, and without my trying, intentionally and instinctively, to identify these smells, I feel flat, made of paper, totally two-dimensional, a partial person. Without my sense of smell, I'm pretty sure I'd become depressed, a sexually disinterested under-eater, maybe even a sociopath. I need my nose to know.


U is for

used to—I used to think that gray hair smelled like smoke—and U is for unisex, which a lot of good perfumes are. Martin and I got each other a shared bottle of Vetiver Fatale this most recent Valentine's Day and it works on both of us.


V is for

vegetarian, which I have been for 18 years, but I still like meat smells: backyard barbecues, chicken soup at my grandparents' house, or pork roast at my parents, hotdog stands and hamburger grills and the smoky sweet-and-savoriness of summer BLTs.


W is for

weirdo, and stealthily acting like one, walking around after a smelling spree where I divided my arms into three sections each and visited Saks and Nieman's and even Barney's, which means sniffing my own skin every few minutes to see how things are faring, which ones I like and which must be washed off post-haste.


X is for

extra-specialized vocabulary which I love to cultivate: EdP, EdT, and EdC; top, middle, and base notes; olfactive families like Oriental, Fougère, Bright Floral, Green, Gourmand and on and on. To love perfume is to be a cataloguer of the esoteric, and to read reviews in which smells get described as blown-out speakers, metallic honey, neo-brutalist, a still life of scents, a Barbie doll wearing a tiny leather vest, or this sensation of being in a very old building, reading poetry written on musty vellum.


Y is for

you and that's who perfume is for, ultimately: yourself. Perfume is a way to liven up the commonplace and add texture to the banal. It provides a new means of experiencing your body, your environment, your brain, your life: the incense in the church, the woodsmoke in the air on a crisp winter night, the whiskey in your grandfather's glass of iced tea, the reverberation in the ozone after the thunder.


Z is for

Zephyrus, a puff-cheeked drawing of the Western Wind in a book of stories my parents used to read to my sisters and me.
     Said to be gentlest of the winds, Zephyrus was believed by the ancient Greeks to be the messenger of spring. Breathing a benevolent breeze across an illustrated land, his image suggested the smells of sunshine on flowers and the ripening of fruit. From the lines of his lips, the promise of the future and the memories of the past tracked together like the teeth of a zipper to fuse the present into a single airborne current. 


I dedicate this piece to my collaborative poetry writing partner Elisa Gabbert without whom I'd never have gotten into perfume, and whose perfume reviews are brilliant, as you can see [here] and [here]