I remember that one of my favourite English Lit lectures at Uni was on the subject of ‘defamiliarisation’. For some reason, I was completely taken with the notion and walked around for days thinking about how revitalising it would be to challenge my knowledge of absolutely everything, erase it and then regain it in a different, unexpected way. It may also have been at this point that I began doing my best Yoda impression on student radio (“You must unlearn what you have learned.”) but perhaps that’s a story best left for another article…
‘Defamiliarisation’ was the word that leapt to my mind during Odette Toilette’s excellent presentation at London's Wellcome Collection on the 9th of June. Scheduled to coincide with their ongoing Dirt exhibition, it was ostensibly an invitation to smell and rate the cleanliness (or ‘dirtiness’) of five perfumes. However, for those members of the audience willing to delve deeper into proceedings, it turned out to be a great deal more.
Before taking to the podium, Odette came up to me and said she was grateful to my blog for introducing her to one of the perfumes she would be using. “Is it quite a dirty one?” I asked.
“It’s pretty dirty.”
“That’s the one.”
“It’ll be the final one. I thought I’d save it till the end.”
If, patient reader, you’re wondering why I’m relating this little exchange, please bear with me: all will be revealed towards the end.
The hall began to fill up. There was a tall, bearded, leather-clad chap who looked like a walking advertisement for Harley Davidson, a scattering of power-suited folk whose tired eyes suggested they’d spent the day in the City trying to pull us out of the financial crisis (or plunge us further into it, perhaps) and a handful of skinny-jeans-and-baggy-T-shirt, bookish types who’d decided that, yes, it would be worth tearing themselves away from Camus for the evening. In short: the usual, wide array of humanity that always seems to come along to perfume events.
Very wisely, Ms Toilette got the ball rolling by asking us all to approach the evening with an open mind and not allow ourselves to get fixated on identifying specific notes or ingredients. “It’s all about associations,” she said, “there are no right or wrong answers.”
When she asked the audience for their personal ideas of clean smells, the responses were fairly predictable: "Johnson’s baby powder"; "freshly changed sheets"; "a sea breeze"; "unscented water on warm skin". The call for dirty smells generated equally predictable – if arguably more evocative – ideas: "diesel"; "drains"; "urine"; "mildew"; "clothes left in a washing machine"; "stepping on dog poo and then transferring said poo onto the pedal of a car". But even at this early stage, the lines between people’s definitions of the wholesome and the repulsive began to blur. Several claimed that they love the stench of diesel. Many stated they can’t abide the scent of modern laundry detergents. Odette herself related the story of a woman for whom scatological smells always signify familiarity, comfort and protection because her father’s job involved going into sewers and he would always return home reeking of his working environment.
But the extent to which people’s perceptions of the same smell could differ didn’t start becoming fully apparent until Odette distributed blotters sprayed with the evening’s first perfume (Camélia Chinois from Maître Parfumeur Et Gantier). Responses to it ranged from “showers at a swimming pool” to “a polished wood floor”, “the gleaming surface of a skyscraper”, “crystal glasses” and “having your hair washed by your mother”. Granted, all these statements tended towards the unsullied end of the cleanliness spectrum, but they also spoke of contrasting settings and experiences.
The second fragrance provoked more impassioned observations. “A lemon that’s sweating.” “The mouthwash at the dentist’s.” “A urinal cake.” “Bubblegum.” “A bog.” My own thoughts were that it smelt like a harsh, overly synthetic jasmine, which is why I was taken aback to discover that it was Serge Lutens’ À La Nuit, a perfume I normally consider to be one of my favourite jasmine soliflores. A part of my brain immediately started to rationalise: it’s very different on skin; perhaps the blotters are contaminated; it’s probably the poor air circulation in the room making things smell funny… any excuse not to give in to the disconcerting pull of defamiliarisation.
The third scent – Annick Goutal’s Ninféo Mio, which isn't exactly short of devoted fans – was given short shrift: a few people shouted out “fly spray” and “anti-bacterial wipes”; crucially, nobody said “figs”. Odette introduced the fourth perfume with three images: old books, the leather interior of a car and a horse. When I smelt the corresponding blotter, I homed in on the final picture, amazed by the fact that although I’ve never ridden a quadruped, I was overwhelmed with a sense of all things equestrian. Whilst other people declared “shoe polish”, “Edgware Road”, “Morocco” and, bizarrely, “sex with a dentist”, I was sniffing away, curious to discover the identity of this warm, animalic concoction. “This one’s from a company called L’Artisan Parfumeur,” Odette informed us, “and it’s called Dzing.”
Oh dear, I thought. Of course it is. How could I not have recognised it? I only wore it about a month ago ago. More importantly, why have I never detected anything horsy in it? Feline-animalic, yes. Dry, woody, sawdusty, yes. But horsy? Never . Until this evening. But would I have found something horsy if the little picture on the bottle had shown a lady riding a pony rather than a tiger...?
“And now for the last perfume,” Odette said, “I want you to close your eyes, smell it and try to describe the sort of person who’d wear it.”
Okay, this shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought. I know Absolue Pour Le Soir pretty well. I’ve got a fairly strong grasp of the images it evokes in my head.
The blotter reached me and I brought it to my nose.
Oh… that’s a bit… different, I thought. That’s not quite how I remember the top notes in my own bottle of AplS, but actually, yes, hang on, here comes a bit of the cumin. And there’s that hint of cloves. And the sweetness is coming through. Again, it probably smells a bit unfamiliar because it’s on a blotter. And anyway, there are about fifty people here in a small space that’s filled with several competing fragrances… I’m bound to find certain smells hard to recognise.
Gradually, I persuaded myself that what I was smelling was, indeed, Monsieur Kurkdjian’s civet-fest.
Meanwhile, the audience was having a great time trying to pick possible wearers for the fragrance. “Someone untrustworthy.” “An airplane pilot.” “A young person trying to make an ironic statement about older perfumes.” “Nigella Lawson.” “Al Fayed.” “Berlusconi.” It was with a cheeky glint of satisfaction that Odette revealed the identity of the scent as… Putain Des Palaces from Etat Libre D’Orange.
But wait a second, I told myself. She said the last one would be Absolue Pour Le Soir!
I smelt the blotter again and sure enough, all my initial doubts returned. How could I have convinced myself that this was the Kurkdjian? Who knows? But the point is that somehow I had. True, I hadn’t been entirely certain and I’d had to resort to all sorts of qualifications, but I had been quite happy to accept that ELdO’s cheeky brothel was an altogether different creation.
So there you have it, folks. The power of suggestion. We may all know about it, but we’re not immune to it. Pictures, names, labels, people, places… they all influence us in ways we can’t fully grasp. As Odette said at the very beginning of her presentation, we need to keep an open mind. And keeping an open mind is a conscious effort of the will.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the Absolue Pour Le Soir, it did turn out to be final perfume of the evening, but only in the sense that samples of it were distributed to the guests as they left the venue. Ms Toilette hadn’t tried to pull the wool over my eyes; I’d simply misunderstood her. And thank goodness I had, because I left the Wellcome building with a renewed sense of excitement about the complex unknowability of the materials we so enjoy bringing to the attention of our noses and our brains.
Images: Wellcome Library, London
About the author
Persolaise is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer and amateur perfumer who has had a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over 25 years. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com.