Scents and Sensibility
A history of perfume doubles as a how-to.
The Secret Life of Scent
by Mandy Aftel
$27.95 List Price
I came of age during the perfume-averse ’90s, when the world was still reeling from an overdose of Poison the decade before and had therefore decided that it was better not to smell like anything, or to smell very slightly lemony. CK One, the unisex fragrance with that memorable tagline, offered men and women alike the pleasing anonymity of air-conditioned air pumped into a nice hotel. It was also maybe OK to smell like nature, or some slightly candied replica thereof, but if someone had complimented teen me on my Bath & Body Works Flowering Herbs body spray by saying “I like your perfume,” I would have said, with an eye roll, “I don’t wear perfume.” Admitting you wanted to give an olfactory impression of something other than Yourself, whatever that was supposed to smell like (Teen Spirit, probably literally), was so not cool.
And yet somehow, during the past decade and a half, I became a person who not only wears perfume but is also, in a way that the Internet has recently made possible, a perfume nerd. The community I find myself belonging to is basically a dorky subculture like any other: It has its own lexicon (surely you know what an SOTD is, or an SOTE) and its own rituals (but do you know what it is to “saif” or “plunge”?). It turns strangers into intimates who know each other’s mailing addresses—people who meet via message boards and secret Facebook groups, and who trade tiny testers, samples, and decants. As anyone who knows anything about perfume knows, you have to test-drive a fragrance in different weather conditions and moods before you know whether you’ll love