A New Way of Reviewing Perfumes by Thinking About Beauty Categories {Scented Thoughts}


Gloria Vanderbilt by Horst

Yesterday, after spritzing on some Little Gloria by Vanderbilt, and trying to peg its character in the range of perfume impressions we get from fragrances that are not original per se but manage to create a definite effect, the best I could come up with was cute with a hint of prettiness...

"Cute" retains something of the childish in it, while "pretty" is more about a vivacious and delicate finesse of features.

I remember having a discussion about this while at Oxford university, with a roommate slamming down open a big tome onto a kitchen table and deciding after looking up etymologies and definitions of "pretty" and "beautiful" that it was better to encounter prettiness than beauty because the former is more lively, while there is something marmorean about someone being beautiful. Indeed, I could follow her there. I remembered how I once met a woman whom I thought for 5 minutes was beautiful, like you could not stop staring at her, yet after 5 minutes had elapsed also came across as dull as dishwater. She might have been doing it on purpose as a defense mechanism - charitable thinking here - but it really shows how beauty can be recognized yet remain a superficial impression when there isn't more to it. 


Evelyn Nesbit, one of the original Gibson Girls - her beauty led to both her fame and demise


But then, pretty is supposed to be more ordinary in some other dictionaries, while beautiful is more exceptional. It's really hard to pin down your preferences and definitions and we can all have different experiences with those categories. But sometimes, the best you can come up with a perfume is the words you would use for a woman or a man, whose main effect is that. In perfumedom, a perfume could be original without being beautiful, which I think is a very definite impression. I don't know if it was a sought out effect by Jean-Claude Elléna, but having sprayed on some Terre d'Hermès extrait de parfum and while walking down the Champs-Elysées, I could not stop the word from escaping my mouth "beautiful!". There was no other way to sum it up. It was just that, "beautiful", clear, serene, transparent, with a certain nobility to it that all made it "beautiful".  It made the heart sing and the world a better place to be in. I had forthwith to go back and get a bottle. 

I more dimly recall having had a similar aesthetic shock with Dans Tes Bras by Frédéric Malle.

Another Jean-Claude Elléna comes to mind, Osmanthe Yunnan by Hermès, in the beautiful category. 

I try to conjure up the memory of an achingly beautiful perfume, but I am not sure. I remember however Louve by Serge Lutens as being particularly moving. 

Pretty by Cartier is definitely "pretty" in a rich, full way, not in a condescending, cheapened way. But wait it is actually called So Pretty, no wonder. This is several notches above plain pretty. For a more democratic take on prettiness, there is Pretty by Elizabeth Arden.

So, it occurs to me that instead of being the slaves to ready-made appelations stuck on perfume bottles -- saying a scent is "Pretty" or a "Beauty", words that are regularly adffixed to fragrance labels trying to impress you with a smidgeon of aspirational or fantasy thinking, you could exercise your own aesthetic judgment and play with those categories yourself. 

This type of approach is not taken very seriously usually as one feels perfume evaluation and criticisim ought to be about smells and not any visual categorizations. Yet, we live in a very visual world and our aesthetic categories are driven by this heavily biased visualist upbringing. 

Of course, those aesthetic judgments are also moral ones. There must be an adequation of the surface sensation to the inner contents for the impression to endure. 


Bette Davis is an iconic jolie-laide (pretty-ugly), with a lot of temperament and spice

So, it is possible to define more rigorously what is meant by cute, lovely, pretty, very pretty, ravishing, beautiful, handsome, a beauty, etc. There are not too many of those on top of that. They could be used as gradients of the style of a perfume to determine how radiantly beautiful, or otherwise they are. If real beauty is rare, so is true ugliness. For the life of me, I cannot recall one single "ugly" perfume I could have smelled. Cheap, yes, vulgar, check, revolting, it's happened, but ugly? That would take quite some effort to reproduce. I have not met that odd entity in perfumery yet since the bias in that field is to aim for pretty. At most, what you will encounter are "jolie-laide" perfumes, perfumes that have something not quite harmonious about them but which retain your interest. They are not easy, and a bit off-putting in some of their aspects, but you can't dismiss them as they exercise their fascination on you. Perhaps Sables by Annick Goutal is a jolie-laide fragrance, but I am not sure.

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  1. I hate to self-promote, but it seems that you're a lover of words--on my blog I have a series that looks at the usage and etymology of words we use to describe (primarily female) beauty. Would love to know your thoughts about other words in relation to scent--lovely, or glamorous (certainly there are many of these), or even words we don't use much anymore, like fetching.



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