As the old saying goes, sex sells. And, arguably, nobody knows this better than the perfume industry. YSL's Opium, for example, may be named after the drug, but the heavily made-up, scantily clad muses in its advertisements suggest a different kind of temptation. In a television spot for Parisienne, another YSL fragrance, Kate Moss writhes around in the backseat of a car while suggestively rubbing a rose all over her body. For Tom Ford's latest scent, Cara Delevingne is naked in a pool of orchids. (Believe it or not, that's one of the designer's tamer campaigns.) And, in the mass market, who could forget those sexually objectifying Axe ads?
Fragrance has a long history with sex and seduction. "The height of that was Cleopatra filling her ship with rose petals, wading knee-deep through them to go and meet Mark Antony, creating the indelible image and smell of a bouquet of roses," says perfumer Mandy Aftel, the author of Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. "Seductiveness is embedded in the history of perfume — that's why it's lasted across the globe and across the millennia."
Cleopatra's aim — to seduce by intoxicating the senses — still resonates today. I used to sell perfume on the Upper East Side of New York City, and women frequently requested what was "sexy," purchasing a scent only if their husbands responded immediately to its charms. I myself have been wearing the same vanilla-clove-musk concoction on every single date for the past three years.
However, I felt conflicted recently when I heard a man say, "Fragrance is not successful unless it seduces." I was at a launch event for two new perfumes by Oribe — yes, the hairdresser — and we had just been taken through the inspiration behind the juices. One was, naturally, a recently opened Birkin bag: the smell of lipstick, expensive leather, and cigarettes. I thought about fragrance — where we apply it, who we wear it for, and how it makes us feel. And, then I thought, Is all of this really just for a guy?
"It's intimate for sure — sexual for some people," admits Frédéric Malle, the perfumer behind Carnal Flower, a tuberose scent that's the date-night go-to for just about every woman in-the-know. "It's all about increasing our magnetism." But, he points out, it’s not all about sex, baby: "Some people use perfume for their own, self-centered pleasure that has nothing to do with pleasing others," he says.
The journalist and olfactory curator Chandler Burr posits that we buy perfume for the same reason we buy clothes: "To look good for other people, and equally, to feel that [you] look good to [yourself]. Your clothes can say you're stylish. They can, better, say you're smart... Your scent, chosen with care, says not only that you're smart, but that you think."
But, unlike (most) clothes, fragrance dabbles in the abstract. We can, say, wear our best man-repelling, printed Marni skirt with a pair of Birkenstocks, signifying that we're quite intentionally not dressing in a sexualized manner. Perfume, however, isn't so simple. It's more of a glimpse into who we are and how we see ourselves — or, even better, who we want to be and how we'd like to see ourselves. For that reason, it feels inherently more intimate and much harder to define than a styling choice.
"Fragrance is intended to create an atmosphere of beauty and the memory that it is transporting," Aftel says. "The main 'seduction' is to entice the wearer into an experience of beauty." And, one does the same for the observers left in its sillage.
"Seduction is an entire approach to life," Aftel adds. "It's an integral part of almost every successful human relationship. We seduce one another in so many ways." A job interview, for example, is just as much an art of enticement as a first date. (Although, we hope you're not picking the same perfume for both of those occasions.)
We spritz on scent for many different reasons — sex being just one of them. "Some choose to wear floral perfume that reminds them of their childhood in the country," Malle points out. "In that case, sex seems quite far away."
In any case, it's interesting to consider this the next time you select a perfume, especially now that the holiday season is upon us, and everybody from mothers to significant others will be asking what you wear. If you're careful, thoughtful, and considerate about how you approach fragrance, you may find that you have the ability to surprise — or even seduce — someone special.
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