I love perfumes, and more specifically, the act and idea of wearing perfumes. But I have small nostrils. This leads me to often forget to breathe through my nose, leaves me panting like a dog, and gives me a terrible sense of smell. So my perfume has to be a good strong stinky perfume: one that is rough and tough enough to penetrate my tight little smell-holes. This is why even though I want to tell you about the experience of wearing perfume, I can’t tell you about it in the standard lingo of scent fetishists—I couldn’t tell you the difference between a “top note” and a “bottom note.” (There must be a “bottom note”?) The best way I could find of describing my attraction to bottled stink is to invoke one of my favorite art pieces, Mike Kelley’s series, Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology, in which Kelley placed found rag dolls in black boxes and placed over each a human-sized, two-dimensional rendering of the doll:
And here I am replicating Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology with the black box packaging for a perfume I wear, Nasomatto Absinth:
Kelley has said that the combination of the opaque black box and rendering makes the actual doll physically inaccessible—an inaccessibility which then enhances the viewer’s ability to empathize with the inanimate object. I’m very drawn to this play between tangibility and emotionality: specifically, how the lack of body actually enables a strong emotional reaction. When I wear perfume, I imagine that I am a flat drawing of a doll trapped in a black box: the doll longs to live in the human world—to desire, elicit desire—but cannot because it is an object. I am the human medium that allows the inanimate object of the perfume to live its life. I am its fleshly conduit, and the immaterial physicality contained in glass bottles takes possession of my brain and limbs. The perfume doesn’t represent me; I represent the perfume, its indescribable viscerality.
Materially speaking, a smell is a bit of moisture made into air. It’s not just a thing, it’s nothing; it’s not just nothing, it’s nothing made into an object; it’s nothingness. I love it when I’m looking at a fashion magazine editorial, and at the bottom of the intricate price-and-textile description of the outfit that the model is wearing, it says in brazen incongruity: “Fragrance: Yves Saint Laurent Opium.” We can see the dress, okay, but to give credit to a scent in a two-dimensional photograph? What this reveals is that the concept of wearing a scent is really about wearing an idea. The perfume binds concept to the essential quality of scent. And usually, what is worn when one wears a scent is a concept of gender.
Like most things that pertain to bodies, perfume is gendered: man-spray is not called “perfume” but “cologne.” Moreover, in the bottled scent world, certain smells are considered “feminine” and others “masculine.” But the categorization of floral scents as “feminine” and musky scents as “masculine” is not based on any biological facts of sexuality. Perfumes are not imitation of glandular secretions. I mean, how many women do you know whose tampons smell like rose-petals? Or men whose cum rags smell like leather musk? “Floral” and “musk” are cultural biases about gender that are essentialized (literally) into bottles of liquids.
And yet, I love perfumes for this very essentializing quality. A good perfume is the perfect foundation for genderfucking. For in the public sphere, a man wearing stilettos puts himself in danger, but he can dump on as much Chanel No. 5 as he wants and who’s going to lynch him for his feminine stink? Perfume’s rigidly gendered taxonomy is what actually allows a gender fluidity. When I am wearing a perfume rather than a cologne, and when a woman wears Davidoff Cool Water rather than Chanel No. 5, we are simultaneously paying respect and lip-service to the existent gender meaning—or dare I say, essence—of stink. Our bodies are transformed by the narrative of the scent, but the narrative of the scent is also transformed by our wearing. Perfume may come in rigidly gendered packaging and ad copy, but it must by design be liberated into the ether of the world and become completely formless. This is why, aside from ck one, there are so few truly unisex fragrances: because perfumes have always been hermaphroditic.
Perfumes are genetically metaphorical; they can only function by association. The identity of stink must be wedded to a certain bottle shape, a certain designer, a certain model in the advertising campaign, and finally, a certain person who wears it who has an impact on you in your own life. My first fragrance was Issey Miyake L’Eau D’Issey: strong sharp orange. In 1995, my sister bought it in San Francisco during her first semester of undergrad at Berkeley and gave it to me as a Christmas present. After that, in the late 90s, I wore colognes as a link to certain masculinities I wanted: Boss Hugo Boss because that was the cologne of the boy I was in love with; Gucci Envy for Men because I was trying to be an open-shirted gigolo type fag. The sole exception during those years was the ubiquitous Thierry Mugler Angel, which I wore because its unmistakable chocolate smell expanded my olfactory nerves like a mega-dildo.
For most of the new millennium, I’ve been scentless. Instead of a scent I had a husband. I guess the proxy smell of natural man-stink was enough for me. But since 2006, post-divorce, I’ve been faithful to Tom Ford Black Orchid. And this is the first time that I’d really been attracted to the stink itself, rather than an external association. Black Orchid is sweet, but it is also musky and dank. And it is strong. To me, it is undoubtedly feminine, but it doesn’t at all smell “light,” the way most women’s perfumes smell. I rotate Black Orchid with two other perfumes that are her gangbanger sisters: Nana DeBary Bronze and Nasomatto Absinth, both perfumes that smell sweet but stinkingly so.
My friend Marisa says she feels naked without perfume; I am the same way. If I rush out of the house in the morning without three spritzes of perfume I feel pantless for the rest of the day. Recently, while I was replenishing my Black Orchid at Bloomingdale’s, the well-intending salesgirl suggested I try the new Prada, which was light and perfect for “day,” since my Black Orchid, with its smelly heft, was more of an “evening” scent. I refused to try the Prada with politeness, but what I really wanted to say was, “I will never wear a ‘light’ scent. I will always wear a scent matched for nights because I’m a gal who loves to dress in homeless gear as if it were an evening gown, and having my 30-year old threadbare t-shirts stink like dark evening perfume is like accessorizing with a major jewel or fur. Such a stink is invisible, but makes me feel indelibly feminine.”