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Constance Alexander: A look at the psychology behind perfume, making sense of the scents

When my brother was in college, one of his girlfriends was a Chi Omega who’d been homecoming queen at Penn State. With a complexion smooth as rose petals and a Cindy Crawford beauty mark above the corner of her pouty lips, Judy was blond and gorgeous. Not only did she – quoting Lord Byron – “walk in beauty like the night,” she seemed to float along on a cloud of White Shoulders perfume.

At the time, I was about ten years old, still playing with dolls, jumping rope, and riding my bike. Perfume was the domain of big girls and grown ladies, like my mother. She favored Toujours Moi, a fragrance that had been introduced in 1921 by Corday, a French company apparently named for the assassin Charlotte Corday, who stabbed the radical Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bathtub.

Along with the fancy name that meant “always me,” Toujours Moi was described as luxurious and recommended for romantic wear. A 1924 advertisement claimed that the scent, “Manages to be intense and subtle at the same time, like the sounds of an entire orchestra roaring along in a music hall, the strains of which can be heard faintly by a lone passerby on the street.”

My official aroma history did not begin until ninth grade, because the only scent approved by the nuns was a combination of chalk dust, holy water, and despair. As a freshman in public high school, however, I opted for subtle splashes of White Shoulders for special occasions, and dabs of Evening in Paris during the week. I loved the cobalt blue bottle with distinctive silver lettering, and the fruity-floral compote of apricot, heliotrope, and peach, with a dab of vanilla.

Throughout my young adult years, advertisements for perfume promised glimmers of glamour and whispers of desire. Who could forget the print ads for Tabu? The so-called “Forbidden Fragrance” tagline accompanied an image of a male violinist and a female pianist in a passionate embrace. While her hands were still chastefully poised above the keys, one of his outstretched arms gripped the violin and bow, while the other one encircled her tiny waist.

And then there was Ma Griffe, which meant “My signature” or the less tame translation of “My claw.” “We bottled it,” one vintage ad declared, accompanied by an image of a man and woman kissing in a rustic, outdoor setting. The “My claw” riff on Ma Griffe was transformed into a photograph of a man’s muscular back being raked by a woman’s long fingernails, presumably marking her territory.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many scents, including Anais, Anais, Joy, Diorissimo, and the most well-known fragrance of all time, Chanel No. 5. In the late 1980s, I finally settled on Obsession, which is lauded as one of Calvin Klein’s “bold and iconic scents.”

“Who hasn’t felt passion beyond reason?” the ads ask. The aroma is destined to “envelop the senses with intoxicating flowers and exotic spice,” and the mood it suggests is provocative, “with a blend of heady, spicy, woody and floral notes on a sweet seductive base of oriental vanilla and amber,” according to Macy’s promos.

The secret ingredient of Obsession, I discovered the other day, is one that appears to have the power to capture man-eating tigers. “The perfume contains something called civet, which is an animal ingredient that the civet cat uses for marking territory,” asserted Mandy Aftel, a perfumer and author of “Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent.”

A recent story on National Public Radio reported on failed efforts to bring tiger attacks in India to an end with camera traps, horses and goats strapped to trees as bait, rangers keeping watch from treetops and armed police patrols in the forest. As a result, wildlife veterinarian Dr. H.S. Prayag believes one solution could be perfume with a hint of civet, with Obsession being a leading candidate.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to White Shoulders.

You can find the NPR story about Obsession online at www.npr.org. A history of perfumes and fragrances is available at www.fashion-era.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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