If you’re an extrovert, you know exactly why you wear perfume: to get the party started. In commercials, it often looks like this: Perfumed Woman is so sparkly that she has her own personal light source. Bored and ignored at a fancy cocktail party, she kicks off her heels and jumps in the fountain. Whatever could have inspired her? Lancôme La Vie Est Belle, of course, which might possibly contain extract of disco ball. Scintillatingly, pinkly perfect, it broadcasts simple messages: Look at me! Like me! Ask me out!
If you’re an introvert, though, you may be hard-pressed to explain why you’re wearing perfume at home with your cat.
Psychologist Carl Jung first popularized the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” to describe inner-directed people, as opposed to those of whom Barbra Streisand sang, “People who need people / Are the luckiest people in the world.” And they are. American life—that includes school, business, and even religion—prizes extroverts. Yet introverts too splash on fragrance. I know because I am one. I’ve also spent my entire adult life deep in perfume obsession, first as a collector, then as a blogger, then as an author translated and published around the world. I am in fact a world expert married to a world expert.
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During a break from organizing a dragon’s hoard of several thousand fragrances, amassed while my husband and I wrote our gargantuan tomes Perfumes: The A-Z Guide and, 10 years later, Perfumes: The Guide 2018, I was reading Susan Cain’s best-selling book on introversion, Quiet. My stepdaughter took notice and was particularly baffled. “But why would an introvert ever wear perfume?” she asked. For starters, in company, perfume can be that helpful friend who handles the chitchat when an introvert finds herself shy in a crowded room. Even introverts need interaction; we just feel that it’s hard work. Consider Marcel Proust: The quintessential inner-life type, he could never have achieved the social dissections of In Search of Lost Time while silently stuck to the wall. Chanel’s Le Lion de Chanel is the kind of alpha female, grand old dame, like Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, who might have introduced him to all the players. Its lemony-suede scent is a retro-glam revisit of Coty’s legendary, long-lost Emeraude from 1921, complete with Gatsby-era drama. Wearing Le Lion is like turning up with Bette Davis; even tongue-tied you’d meet everyone, and they’d remember you. Or an introvert might—horrors—be invited to an unmissable, hip after-party. Instead of begging off, she could go with the Zoo’s Club Design, a coolly androgynous soap-and-leather scent that gets her on the VIP list, making silence seem intimidating, not timid.
Perfume can be that helpful friend who handles the chitchat when an introvert finds herself shy in a crowded room.
Not merely withdrawn, many introverts tend to stick with what they know. So perfume can help an introvert break out of her shell and experience new scenery. Most fruity perfumes smell as delicious as floor cleaner. However, a truly good one, like Lush’s black-currant jam, Junk, can give an introvert the energy to sing along at an outdoor concert or just step out humming to herself.
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Perfume repels as well as attracts, of course. This bug became a feature early in 2020, when social distancing first began. I was in a country where the idea of personal space is tight; at the grocery store, I felt the next person in line might easily rest her chin on my shoulder. How could an introvert say, “Back off!” without having to speak? My solution was a dose of nauseatingly potent white floral fragrance, the kind that makes people hold their breath to the 20th floor in elevators. I’d scored my six-foot bubble.
I grew up in the big-hair ’80s, when perfume was expected to herald your arrival like trumpets and then hang around talking about you hours after you’d gone. It was Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, an impressionist dusk in a bottle, that showed me how a fragrance could also be a private shelter. If I may get nerdy, the Latin per fumus, “through smoke,” originally referred to incense, a meditative, devotional scent—a long way from fountain-jumping party girls. All the great introverted perfumes recall this meaning. Sometimes it’s literal, as in L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Passage d’Enfer, with its church atmosphere of lilies and frankincense. Other times the effect is allusive, as in Ormonde Jayne’s Xi’an, an austere, waxen odor like the inside of a cigar box, or Zoologist’s Nightingale, whose sugared plum blossoms and violets seem hidden in darkness, beyond a carved screen. There’s an unexplained affinity between nostalgic iris and violet notes and us shrinking violets. The first time I sprayed the woody iris Condottiere by Lubin, I assumed that a perfume named for sword-slashing Renaissance mercenaries had to be for extroverts. But as it drifted over, it became clear this was not a perfume for rough men of action. It was pure historical romance, which I have been reading in my pajamas ever since.
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US.
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