(image by Arlene Gottfried)
Fresh, effervescent perfumes offer relief from the heat, a respite from the sultriness of the summer season. Eaux de Cologne, aquatics, light fruity fragrances, leafy/grassy green perfumes, airy mixed-florals. These usual suspects accessorize the fleshy displays of the season. They contribute to the cleanliness/godliness illusion of skin.
My skin puts the lie to this fiction. I sweat. On my dripping body eau de cologne is as ineffective as an ice-cube in a sauna. Sweat amplifies the scent of a body and I have no choice but to give in to it. Others have written about summer being a great opportunity for heavier perfumes. Heat can open up denser fragrances like heavy fougères and resinous orientals. They radiate and pulsate in ways that they don’t in cooler weather. Indolic florals become more libidinous and smoky perfumes take fire. My take on this strategy is to embrace skanky perfume, the overtly funky perfumes that ride the line between ripe and turned. I don’t cover up the tang of perspiration. I build on it.
I associate Les Nereides Fleur Poudrée de Musc with the feeling of close quarters and winter rooms. Sealed rooms create their own environments and FPdM reminds me of bodies under layers of clothing in these unventilated micro-climates. Summer sweat exaggerates the situation and lays bare my body’s inevitability. I sweat like a motherfucker. Perfumed attempts to suppress my own flesh seem both ludicrous and futile–sisyphean, really–but wearing FPdM is my gesture of defiance, my rooting for the underdog, my own body.
Les Nereides Musc Samarkand has two faces to it. Two ends of the spectrum without a middle ground: laundry detergent and skin. Both are well-known aspects of musk odorants, but here they create a specific scent memory for me. It takes me me back to my teen-aged 1970s and slow-dancing with girls wearing Love’s Baby Soft at winter dances held in the school gymnasium.
Serge Lutens Muscs Koubläi Khän becomes more of a pussycat than a tiger in the heat. It’s rosy and waxy. Lush and sweet. Less of a costus-scalp scent and more ambery and boozy.
Parfums d’Empire Musc Tonkin (edp) goes straight to the pungent scent of the end of a sweaty day. It captures perfectly the metallic, spicy quality of a body with layer upon layer of dried sweat. It balances the sweetness of skin with the almost gingered tang of a man’s exertions.
The wonderfully counterintuitive Room 237 by Bruno Fazzolari plays with musk differently than other ‘musk’ perfumes. Rather than casting musk in the role of the villain, it ties a clean musk with an eau-de-cologne-like citrus to create a fresh backdrop against which the more sinister elements of the perfume can make your hair stand on end. The unsettling facets are at the corner of your attention, not quite subliminal. Against the hygienic curtain of cologne, they generate an unnerving yet eciting frisson, like the cinematic scene from which it derives its name.
I recently came across a vintage bottle Dana Tabu produced and sold in Mexico, likely from the 1950s-1960s. It is the “colonia” concentration though it is thunderously strong, with both abundant sillage through the heartnotes and phenomenal endurance. It is a forceful, dry, exceedingly animalic oriental that makes the current iteration of Shalimar seem like Prada Candy. It flies off skin like radiant heat and without the classic oriental dessert-sweetness it feels unadulterated and aggressive. It reads as less strictly corporeal than the sweaty musks and more overtly seductive. It suggests the body in that it suggests fucking. When it was released, Tabu relied on its characteristic redolence to justify its epithet “un parfum de puta” (The brief perfumer Jean Carles was allegedly given to create Tabu.)
Next to Tabu, Badgley Mischka by Badgley Mischka might seem a bit tame. After all, it’s a fruity-floral, but it’s a tempting one, suggesting everything from succulence to moral rot. Badgely Mischka is the fruity floral for adults and in the midst of a G-rated category it garners an R-rating. Fermenting fruit is the perfume’s great appeal, but in the heat and sweat its indolic floral qualities come forward as well. It bursts at the seems with curves and sensuality and uses a boozy, gourmand quality to imply sexual appetite.
The Parfum de Toilette concentration of Guerlain Shalimar (vintage) works nicely in the heat less for its overt animalism than for its smokey amber quality. Shalimar and Jicky share a purring quality that results from the animalic hand in the sweet amber/vanillic glove. They are inextricable, but in Shalimar’s PdT the smokiness pops. Less overtly animalic than Tabu and the above-mentioned musks, Shalimar PdT keeps its sensuality on a lower boil behind vanillic smoke and implies the worthwhile payoff to postponing indulgence.
Miller Harris l’Air de Rien and Etat Libre d’Orange Putain des Palaces don’t smell alike but works similarly on a perspiring body. Each one has a day-after feel, as if perfume or cosmetics had been applied yesterday and are a bit past their shelf-lives. l’Air’s incense and Putain’s powdered florals fail to cover the growing staleness of today’s as-yet-unbathed body. Both perfumes put a veneer of propriety over a growing tide of unwashed humanity and wear like the momentum of decline. They are a concession, a tacit admission of defeat and deserve the name Chamade more than the Guerlain classic does. As you wear l’Air and Putain, the surrender to the inevitable body becomes a mantra and a source of calm acceptance that a smidge of denial over a the inertia of the flesh over time is a precarious but beautiful balance.
Summer reminds me of the myth of Persephone, who was compelled to spend the winter months in Hades. I summon my inner Queen of the Underworld during the Los Angeles summer, my personal hell on earth. My reading of the myth doesn’t focus on the victimization but the opportunity. Persephone is the only god other than Hades himself and Hermes the messenger who can make the trip back and forth. The underworld is her annual retreat from the annoyances of daily life up top. My summer isn’t quite a retreat, but with the right perfumes I can make it to the other side.