Thursday, November 23, 2017

How I Pick My Scent of the Day

I've gotten used to owning a wide range of fragrances, mostly in the form of samples or splits, and switching up my scent regularly. This is different from most of my friends: they own one or two perfumes that they wear daily like a signature. Unlike them, I have to make a conscious choice as to what I want to smell like that day. I've done this for so long that it's become sort of intuitive to me--I know what will and won't work for whatever I'm doing--but there is a method behind the madness.

Before we get too engrossed, let's break down a couple of definitions for those of you who are newer to fragrance.
  • Longevity refers to how long a fragrance lasts. Opinions vary as to what constitutes good longevity. Personally, I think anything that lasts for more than 8 hours is strong, less than 4 is weak, and everything in between is average.
  • Sillage (usually pronounced "see-ahj") or projection refers to how much a fragrance "pushes off" of the skin. If you can smell someone's perfume from across the room, they've either bathed in it, or they're wearing a couple of sprays of something with very strong projection. 
  • Notes are the individual scents that make up a perfume. Most fragrances contain three "levels" of notes: top or head notes are smelt immediately and usually fade quickly, middle or heart notes make up the majority of the fragrance, and base notes are the long-lasting, underlying smells that support the rest of the perfume and/or become apparent at the end of the perfume's lifespan.

(ETA: Huge thank you to Emi for pointing out that I'd borked up my definitions in the original draft. My apologies!)

I won't lie to you: this post is partially an excuse for me to post a bunch of charts. I love charts. So let's start with this first chart, which breaks my fragrance collection in to four broad categories. I've provided a few examples in each category for clarification.

Now, you must remember that this isn't an exact science. The four categories I created for this post are far from inclusive; there are fragrances that could be put in multiple slots, and each slot contains fragrances that smell very different. Commodity Book and Juliette Has a Gun Lady Vengeance are nothing alike in terms of notes, longevity, sillage, or overall feel. But I tend to wear them in very similar situations, which is why they're in the same group.

For clarity's sake, I'm going to briefly describe the types of scents in each category using broad terms. The first category in yellow features citrus and fresh/clean smells. These are the sorts of fragrances my mother loves. They tend to be "bright" and clean without smelling soapy; they're usually very light and inoffensive. Examples include Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine, which reminds me of orange juice; L'artisan Mure et Musc Extreme, a very classy mixture of tart berry and smooth musk; and Thierry Mugler Womanity, which is a salty, oceanic smell. The sillage and longevity in this group tends to be quite low.

Next are the white or light florals and "sheer" sweets. By sheer sweet, I mean that they are sugary and fresh versus syrupy. Examples include By Kilian Love, which smells of spun sugar and candied flowers; Dame Perfumery Desert Rose, a rose-water-in-a-bottle fragrance; Montale Intense Cafe, a sweet vanilla and rose with a hint of coffee for interest; and Tokyo Milk Tainted Love, which smells of sweetened tea. Note that none of the florals in this category are especially powdery; these types of smells are generally smooth and rarely have much texture.

The third category includes gourmands, rich scents, and fragrances with a lot of spice. Again, we're talking about some very different fragrance profiles, but because I tend to wear them in the same situations, I've grouped them together. On the rich side, we have Hermes Ambre Narguile, which wraps you in warmth and sweetness. On the spicy side, we have Commodity Book and Dame Perfumery Dark Horse; they both have a "dry spices cracking on the autumn wind" sort of vibe. I'd put Juliette Has a Gun Lady Vengeance in the middle: there's sweetness and richness from the vanilla and amber base, and the patchouli and rose add some texture.

The textured, thick, complex or unusual category encompasses my more "artisan" fragrances, the kind of stuff that people who aren't in to perfume tend to hate because it can be weird or strong or this-smells-like-nothing-in-nature-ish. Notes that tend to be very heavy, textured, or enveloping usually push a perfume in to this category. These notes include rich vanilla, which makes up the base of Thierry Mugler Alien Essence Absolue and Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille; leather, with a suede variety dominating Papillon Anubis and a more chemical sort blended in to House of Matriarch Black #1; tobacco, patchouli, myrrh, and oud are also common. I admit that these are the sorts of fragrances I'm inherently drawn toward. For the most part, fragrances in this category last for hours and have powerful projection.

The most important factor in what fragrance I'll wear that day is whether or not I'm leaving the house. I'll never forget when a fragrance reviewer's FAQ video included the statement, "I want my fragrance to fill up a room; I want everybody to smell me." It's the opposite of what I want. Not only do I dislike the idea of dominating a room, I also know that not everybody likes the same fragrances. Personally, I just don't want to force myself on anyone, and that includes my smell.

This is especially important when you consider my jobs. I teach and I work at a doctor's office; in both instances, I'm working closely with a lot of different people. Their tastes will vary, yes, but more importantly, they're stuck in a situation where they cannot get away from me. So if a student hated my perfume or had severe allergies, but I decided to "fill up the room," they'd be shit out of luck.

Lastly, I used to deal with chronic migraines. While perfume wasn't a trigger, smelling a really strong, nose-piercing smell absolutely made the pain worse. I'll never forget the time I had a migraine in a clothing store: a woman wearing boat loads of Thierry Mugler Angel (one of the strongest designer perfumes I've ever encountered) walked past me, and the smell was so strong, it felt like I was being stabbed in the face. Fighting weekly migraines has made me more cognizant of things within my control that might trigger problems for others.

The above flow chart breaks down my basic thought progress. If I'm not going anywhere, I'll wear whatever I want. If I'm going to work, I only use fragrances from the yellow and orange categories, since they usually have less projection and shorter lifespans. And if I'm going somewhere else, like to the store or to the bar, I let the weather guide my choices.

This is where things get interesting. As I mentioned earlier, I'm drawn to rich, thick, spicy smells. Perfumes with leather and vanilla are my krytonite. But when it's 98 degrees outside and the humidity is past 80%, wearing something as heavy and enveloping as Mugler Alien Essence Absolue is a bad move. Not only will it feel weird to wear something so "warm" on an already hot day, but the hot weather makes the fragrance project even more. And while being hugged by a vat of vanilla and amber is awesome on a cold day, nobody wants that in the middle of a Pennsylvania summer.

The weather is the final deciding factor in my fragrance choices. As the above chart shows, I don't wear those light, citrus-y fragrances all that often. This is partially because they're Not Usually My Thing; I just find them too thin and fleeting. But in the summer, that's exactly what I want. Perfumes like Atelier Cologne are sort of refreshing on a hot day. And as gross as it sounds, I've long said that Mugler Womanity smells like "sexy sweat," so if you're going to sweat like crazy anyway...

Spring and autumn are the most flexible times of year, since the temperature in Pennsylvania tends to stay in the "temperate" category with occasional shifts to slightly cold or slightly hot. For example: this past October, I wore Dame Perfumery Desert Rose on a shopping trip, then switched to House of Matriarch Black #1 when I went to a drag show later that note. It was relatively temperate that day, so I had no qualms about jumping from something as light and feminine as Desert Rose to the very complex and weird Black #1.

Winter is my favorite time for fragrance because I can use my perfumes to add a feeling of "warmth." Scents like Papillon Anubis are especially lovely sprayed on your favorite sweater. I never wear those lighter citrus smells in the winter, even if I'm going to work, because it just doesn't feel right. If I want a perfume to wear to work on a snowy day in December, I'll reach for something like Tokyo Milk Tainted Love Instead. It's too chilly to smell like oranges.

At the end of the day, you should wear what you want when you want, though I always recommend taking those around you in to consideration. Fragrance is just so incredibly personal. But there's a thought process behind what I choose, and perhaps it will be helpful to those of you struggling to pick the perfect bottle for your day ahead.


  1. What a fascinating post and cool chart!

    I really really adore my essence absolue. It's tropical hot and humid year round here but i absolutely wear it daily 😅 my colleagues always say there's a waft of vanilla when i walk past.

    Your description of Lady Vengeance really sold me on it, time to procure a bottle...

    1. See if you can get a sample! Sephora tosses them out like candy.

  2. I can't believe I reached the age of 30 without realizing that "sillage" is a French word with French pronunciation. That's...really embarrassing. I'm glad I never had occasion to say it out loud!

    Like you, I choose lighter fragrances in smaller quantities (and often no fragrance at all) when I'm teaching. I know how awful it is to be held hostage to a perfume I can't stand, and I live in fear of inflicting that experience on anyone else.

    1. There's a woman who sometimes gets on the bus REEKING of shrieky white floral some mornings, and it just makes me want to throw myself out of the emergency exit door.

  3. I definitely did not realize that sillage was French either or know how it was pronounced! I think you may have the definition wrong though. I had always assumed it meant what you are calling projection, and after googling around to confirm it I think that my assumption is correct - apparently it’s the French word for “wake,” as in your wake or trail of perfume (but as distinguished from longevity).

    1. You're right and I'm a dip--the one category should say "Longevity," the other one should say "Sillage or Projection." How did I miss that in editing?! Thank you so much.