Do You Smell Expensive?

Dressing like we’re rich is one thing but smelling like it is far more complex. Viola Levy explores...

By Viola Levy

15 December 2022

favourite quote of mine is by the late writer and filmmaker, Nora Ephron, who wrote about the scents of her childhood.

“Other children grow up loving the smell of fresh-cut grass and raked leaves; I grew up in Beverly Hills loving the smell of mink, the smell of the pavement after it rained and the smell of dollar bills.”

She captures the ilk of scents that emit expense and glamour, which I, too, love to wear.

I can trace it back to when I was at Brownies, when Judith, a posh, blonde girl from a more affluent background, asked me why my clothes “always smell of cigarettes”. As it happens, I was raised by two smokers in a council flat with no outdoor space. I wasn’t afforded the luxury of a garden to filter out scents that I involuntarily carried with me. While we all wore school uniforms to level the playing field between kids from different backgrounds, the sad but inescapable fact was that, even as children, we could always sniff out the blazers and shirts that hadn’t been washed in weeks.

Both now and historically, the way we smell can indicate social class more immediately than anything else. East London’s Shoreditch, for example, has a bouquet of artisan sourdough bread and beard oil mingled with Le Labo’s Santal 33. But amid 18th-century urban planning within the height of the Industrial Revolution, the east end of cities, be it London, New York or Paris, were impoverished due to the fact westerly winds carried fumes from the factories, which the upper classes didn’t want their clothes reeking of.

Smell clings to us. We wear it like a second skin that is enough to physically disgust people. Being deemed malodorous is the most humiliating form of social ostracism, which Will Storr, author of Science of Storytelling, captures perfectly.

“In our evolutionary pasts, the threat from competing groups wouldn’t come only from their potential for violence, they could also be carrying dangerous pathogens that our immune systems hadn’t previously encountered,” he writes. “This, perhaps, is why children still commonly hold their noses as a way of derogating members of out-groups.”

Smelling bad cuts deep to a self-hatred that goes beyond social class and lack of sanitation associated with the Great Unwashed, but race too, as Storr explains.

“Tribal propaganda exploits these processes by representing enemies as disease-carrying pests such as cockroaches, rats or lice. In Jew Süss, the Jewish people are portrayed as filthy and unhygienic and are shown teeming into the city as a plague.”

Hence for many of us, smelling good, expensive – seductive even – is our armour. A cultural hangover from our ancestors who were historically treated like stinking vermin or livestock. The smell instantly elevates our status and cements our place in the world on a primal, visceral level like no other.

Despite the perfume world’s obsession with “natural” smells that replicate the countryside, the irony – as perfume expert James Craven pointed out to me a few years ago – is that perfume is a product of city life.

“Perfume – being an artificial creation and an art form – is essentially urban,” he told me. “It was developed millennia ago as a religious object – a sacred accessory of the temple, the king, the court. Perfume has always been at the centre of things – at the heart of high society, a luxury of those in power; ergo, the town and city dwellers.”

‘While we all wore school uniforms to level the playing field between kids from different backgrounds, we could always sniff out the blazers and shirts that hadn’t been washed in weeks.’

And like most aspects of city life, perfume is about glamorous artifice, a heightened reality, and part of the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality many of us city-dwellers grow up with.

Sylvaine Delacourte, a former Guerlain Perfume Creative Director and ‘nose’, whose eponymous range is stocked at Les Senteurs, agrees. “A perfume’s purpose is to send a message to people who cross paths with you: ‘Attention, I’m here! My perfume smells expensive and is worn by only a few people!’”

And yet, smelling expensive doesn’t have to actually be expensive, as perfumer and founder of 4160Tuesdays Sarah McCartney elucidates.

“I always find it fascinating that in detective novels the phrase ‘cheap perfume’ was used to describe women of low moral standards when really I don't think that the writers would be able to tell the difference,” she says. They just assumed that wealthy people would wear expensive perfume and poor people would pong of cheap stuff. This rumour still exists.”

Indeed, as with fashion, the dawn of synthetic materials in perfumery resulted in an array of mysterious, magical – and expensive smelling – concoctions, which became more available to the masses. The mid-level-priced Chanel No 5 is probably the best example of this.

Launched in 1921, it was drenched in synthetic aldehydes (which give perfume its “sparkle”) and was worlds away from the tame florals young ladies would nervously dab behind their ears before their coming-out ball. It was a perfume independent and entrepreneurial women– probably with no money or family connections but who had clawed their way to the top regardless, such as Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel herself. Together with its intriguing name, this gave No.5 its universal commercial appeal that still persists today.

“The most interesting moment in perfume history was when synthetics were invented, and suddenly poor people no longer had to smell bad,” McCartney notes. “In the 20th century, the most significant tools which helped break down the class system and released many working-class women from drudgery were synthetic silk and fragrances. It enabled poorer women to dress and smell like the middle classes and apply for jobs in offices and above rather than below stairs.”

Aldehydes aside, what other kinds of synthetic notes were the expensive-smelling ones?

“Synthetic violets – ionones – made a huge difference, as violet essence from flowers was tremendously expensive,” she explains. “People – men as well as women – would wear it as a secret symbol of wealth.”

Brooke Belldon, perfume historian and brand curator at perfume subscription service Hoohaa, elaborates further. “Up until 1893, if you really wanted to flex your wealth by way of the nose, you’d go for violets,” she tells me. “Before it was possible to synthesise ionones, it required 33,000 kg of violet flowers to produce a single kilogram of violet essential oil.

“Napoleon was so famous for dowsing himself in violets, he was nicknamed Corporal Violet. Sure, he may have liked how they smell, but he was really flaunting his finances. In Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana, once she hits the peak of her wealth, Nana scents her entire house with violets to demonstrate how much money she has now.”

Napoleon and Zola aside, what would be considered an expensive scent today? “The one I really love to wear is Estée Lauder’s Eau de Private Collection,” Belldon says. “It’s green, taloned and has what I like to call Lauder’s ‘rich divorcee’ accord, which requires a minimum of five wealthy husbands and robust alimony. It’s definitely got a vibe. The fun thing about perfume is that it allows you to indulge in smelling incredibly affluent (or any way you’d like to) in a very non-committal fashion.” Obviously, if you are going to splash out, you want a perfume that smells as luxurious as its price tag. If you have money to spend, consider a visit to the Ormonde Jayne boutique, whose “more is more” perfumes use a high concentration of rare, raw materials that smell like nothing else on the planet. For me, its Tiare scent evokes childhood memories of the posh hotels full of exotic flowers (the kind you would never get in the English countryside) that we would very occasionally frequent for family gatherings.

Linda Pilkington, its founder and perfumer, explains that the art of smelling expensive changes with the decades.

“I remember in the ’80s the perfumes which were considered expensive were fragrances like Charlie and Giorgio Beverly Hills. These scents were so tenacious and would swamp the room, drowning out everything else. It was the olfactory equivalent of taking a megaphone into a silent, but cramped, train carriage during rush hour. It got to the stage where restaurants would refuse entry to customers wearing Beverly Hills,” she recalls.

“Today, the zenith of fragrance is about a much more understated subtlety of using beautiful speciality ingredients, which are perhaps unidentifiable and unfamiliar, that make one curious,” Pilkington adds.

“Those are the fragrances that today are connected with ‘expensive’ as they tap into aspects of our psyche and create a new connection. Today, an overpowering perfume that enters the room before its wearer is no longer equated with exclusivity and being wealthy."

Having a penchant for expensive-smelling perfume isn’t always looked kindly upon. Certain perfumers who I approached for this piece saw the subject as somewhat “tacky”, implying that someone who wanted to smell expensive wouldn’t know a true “quality” perfume if they came across one.

‘Perfume is about glamorous artifice, a heightened reality, and part of the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality many of us city-dwellers grow up with.’

Such attitudes persist in the fragrance world thanks to a cultural bias, which assumes we all grew up roaming our grandparents’ châteaux in Normandy, surrounded by blissful scents of the countryside (just read any French perfumer’s biography). And, as with fashion, smell is culturally relative. In some places, “expensive” might mean a floral overkill and sparkling synthetics; in others, it could be intoxicating ouds mingled with a gentle hint of rose.

But not everyone is craving a return to nature. Take it from a perfume enthusiast who frankly couldn’t give a damn about the countryside. I love the smell of glamour. I want to smell like I’m rich as if money excretes from my every pore. Eau de Scrooge McDuck, if you will.

Shower me in tiare flowers; give me musky Ambroxan and rich leathery notes with a side of sparkling aldehydes conjuring up Liz Taylor with a glass of champagne in one hand and the world’s largest diamond on the other. If it’s a choice between the smell of freshly cut grass and dollar bills, I’m standing firmly with Nora Ephron on this one.

The Short Stack

In the past, you had to be wealthy to wear an expensive-smelling perfume. Fortunately, new subtle ingredients mean that’s no longer the case.

By Viola Levy

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