Have you ever felt like a person of the night?
At its most complex, it means feeling an optimal energy, productivity, sociability and wit past the hour of 11 p.m.; at its simplest, it implies insomnia. Both extremes encourage behaviour that swells – amplified emotions, gestures, cadence, sexuality. Being awake in the period from twilight to dawn – especially in summer, and especially a city – is living a saturated existence. We are quicker to err, more impulsive, more forgiving. Everything has a trim of surrealism.
The cultural distinction is clear, idiomatic, polarizing. What is one cannot belong in the other, lest you risk being inappropriate for both. Night people are not morning people, although there are always the ones who fall in the overlap, managing to sleep four hours and preserve their pep.
I’ve always been interested in this pairing, especially in the taxonomic division that it represents for perfumes. Night scents are, generally, recommended for fall/winter; day perfumes are light, airy, for sundresses and spring strolls. When the seasons change for the warmer, many ascribe an excess ‘heaviness’ to their fragrance, sensing the need to replace it with something more fitting. It feels intuitive, but it’s intriguing; after all, the weight of scent can only exist linguistically.
As such, a perfume’s chronological categorization is rather specific. Woody, animalistic, amber and oriental scents are almost always nocturnal – consider Tom Ford’s Black Orchid or Robert Piguet’s Bandit. Fruity, citrusy, and floral scents are primarily considered day perfumes – try Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue, or Dior Addict 2. Their bottles are often coloured respectively – light and clean for day, dark and opaque for night. It reminds me of film noirs, and the way that these dichotomies were coded: when a female character appeared onscreen and what she was wearing tells you everything. Femme fatales and antagonists – always brunettes – rarely wore light clothing and appeared mostly in shadowy scenes; innocent heroines and/or victims wore white or neutrals, had golden hair, and saw sunlight frequently.
Now, consider Armani Code for Women – one of my favorites. I wear it day and night, summer and fall, without much of an objection from anyone who detects it. It was launched as a sexy fragrance – one of the most frequently-used words in reviews on Code. Most people consider it a night and winter scent. But take a look at the notes! Oranges, jasmine, honey, vanilla. Does that suggest seductiveness?
I enjoy thinking about Code because I think it’s one of those fragrances that fall in the middle of the night/day dissociation. It has nocturnal elements – mainly, I think, in a blend between the jasmine and the ‘Precious Wood Complex’ that only Sephora seems to identify in its description – but it’s also lively. In certain mindsets, sexuality and excessive femininity (sexuality:night :: femininity:day) are still at odds, and I think this is still true in perfume vocabulary and marketing. On the bottle, a Sephora writer notes:
The clean, sleek silhouette of the glass bottle is decorated with an oriental-inspired motif and transparently embroidered with a shadowing effect. The color and lace represent the feminine spirit of Mr. Armani’s couture designs. Together, glamour and mystery combine to create this mesmerizing composition.
Together. Even the act of describing a union reveals one’s belief in the heterogenous parts. Strength and femininity are still not synonymous, finding themselves united when the conditions are right. It’s an oddly regressive thought, for an industry that is heavily driven and supported by women. I wonder what others find in Code. I often wonder why I like it myself.
My best friend in high school was the person who first introduced me to the fragrance industry. She came from Tampico, Mexico, where social clubs were abundant and crowded, belts had to match with handbags, and certain items of clothing could not leave the house twice. Everyone in her social circle was a miniature celebrity, each with a set of defining characteristics that they could not overstep. Couples who were together stayed together (very Luke and Marissa season 1 – although Newport Beach is nothing like The O.C., Tampico is.) When you were known for something, you made sure it stayed that way.
This is how she felt about Burberry Brit. Ironic, I know, given that it is probably one of the highest-selling perfumes out there – everyone I know has smelled it at one point or another. But at the time, it was new to me: my sole conception of scented bodies came from Calgon’s Take Me Away commercials (my preferred mist, shown here, was Hawaiian Ginger). Other girls grew up with their lotions from Bath & Body Works. Individuality was very much not at stake – everyone smelled like Warm Vanilla Sugar, and that was fine.
Not by her. When I manifested interest in her perfume collection, my best friend very cautiously handed me her bottle. “This is my favorite, but you can’t get it,” she said firmly. “It’s mine. We can’t smell the same.” Neither of us knew at the time, but this was the moment I inculcated the notion of signature things: scents, styles, vocabulary – all of which were to be grasped at in the decade that followed. The elusive sense of refined and defining taste. I would be lying if I said I’d found it.
After I purchased Ralph by Ralph Lauren at a duty-free shop, I forgot about perfumes for a few years, mostly impaired by an adolescent budget. Then, the year I moved to Montreal, the obsession struck. I was possessed by the idea of owning something that would come to associate itself with my image; it, that existential sense of self, was something I was still crafting with difficulty. I had just dropped out from architecture school, and my mind was reeling with guesses as to what that meant about my character. It’s bittersweet, the ways in which we try to substitute our own lack.
I ardently researched online and spent hours in department stores, trying this and that. I learned to sniff coffee beans to dispel olfactory ghosts. Chanel #5, I was disappointed to learn, was not for me (I don’t think it’ll ever be). Finally, Brit was presented to me on a perfume strip, and something about it was comforting, yet attractive, both characteristics I didn’t mind embracing. My friend came to mind, but my selfish desire for that sense of identity pushed the thought aside: she was hours away, and our friendship was fading. Perfect.
Burberry Brit is a oriental, fruity, slightly nutty scent. Its main notes, to my nose at least, are lime, vanilla, peony, tonka bean, almonds. Many reviewers mention the presence of icy pear, but I won’t even pretend to have ever met an icy pear. According to Sephora, it is “Impulsive. Sexy. Unique.” But as we all know, projected expectations are rarely reality. This much-lauded perfume is, in fact, none of these things. Not to me, anyway, and I’ve been wearing it (occasionally, but consistently!) for a long time.
It is, at its core, very un-English. The austerity, the wry wit, the cold rain – it doesn’t reflect any of that. The astringency of the lime fades almost immediately upon spraying, and what we’re left with is a very sweet, inviting, and warm scent, like that of an intimate (but platonic) embrace. If Brit were a television character, it’d be Gilmore Girls‘ Sookie: pretty, loyal, always making delicious things.
And to that point, I’ll add (though I hate acknowledging it) that boyfriends have described it as dessert-like. This is not an idea I want to associate with perfume or me, by proxy. Dessert-like! It did not align itself with the aloof, mysterious persona that I coveted at the time, and it’s still a few steps removed from my personality today. Yet I wear it, at least several times a month, for those exact reasons – to be comforted by this genial energy surrounding me, this added presence: the reminder of Warm Vanilla Sugar and firm, maternal hugs.
It seems fitting to inaugurate a perfume blog by discussing my earliest love, the perfume that spawned my (expensive and probably indulgent) interest in fragrances. It is by no means a unique first-perfume (I had painfully dull taste at the time), but to its credit, it has significantly marked the collective adolescent memories of thousands of women, which is no small feat for a fragrance housed in a truncated water bottle.
Ralph, by Ralph Lauren. (If you stare at the letters for too long, the oddity of its consonants becomes troubling.) Its central accords* are fruity (apple, mandarin) and floral (freesia, magnolia, iris)**. As a movie, it would open on a beach with a breeze. The sun would immediately impart a headache.
As a teenage scent, it’s undeniably youthful, fresh. However, and almost immediately, Ralph turns saccharine, borderline sickening — the way that innocence and naïveté can fast become a source of irritation. Fortunately, the target audience is young. The Internet seems to bracket them at 15-25, but I would say 12-18. When you’ve seen body hair and you’re old enough to vote, the idyllic promise of Ralph should start to fade.
Launched in 2000, this perfume’s arrival was timed perfectly with the reign of …Baby One More Time era Britney Spears: fresh-faced and sweet, with an undercurrent of emergent sexuality. Not a girl, not yet a woman: this would have been a perfect tagline for the perfume. The early 2000s seemed to be a period in which postadolescent girls rushed to discover, or uncover, their own bodily depths. Expectedly, as the initial target matured, the line expanded to fit their profiles. Ralph Cool, Hot, Rocks and Wild appeared in the decade that followed – perfumes as mentors.
Another perfume that falls within this profile is DKNY’s Be Delicious, which was launched in 2009, although I could have sworn it was much earlier than that. To a twenty-something, it seems dated, like Ralph — yet its legacy is far less extensive. Playing with the cultural familiarity of Ralph‘s sweet accords (Be Delicious is also floral – magnolia, lily of the valley – and fruity, like its bottle suggests), the perfume spoke to the newer generation of women at the cusp of their sexuality. It makes sense: an apple, after all, is where innocence was first lost.
* Per Wikipedia, “Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three sets of notes, making the harmonious scent accord. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the base notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.”
** For full descriptions of a perfume’s note pyramid, check out Basenotes.