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In the decade after I left junior high school, I could catch a whiff of someone wearing Moon Drops and feel nothing but dread. (Thankfully, Revlon doesn’t make it anymore!) That fragrance always reminded me of a crabby substitute teacher who wore so much of it that we knew she was in the building before anyone laid eyes on her. As her perfume floated through the halls, we wondered which subject would get short shrift that day. (I always prayed it was math.)

This is the power of scent––its capacity to mingle with memory. No doubt, you have a library of your own fragrance-related memories. If so, you know what Marcel Proust was talking about when he called scent part of “the vast structure of recollection.”

My love/hate relationship with fragrance goes beyond all my happy, sad and bittersweet memories. I’ve discovered I’m not the only one who feels that way. Why are we so conflicted about scent? Because it’s complicated by five snafus that keep us from wearing it to good effect. Here are the culprits:

1)    Copycat fragrance. We discover that our best friends, mothers, or some other icon of femininity wears a certain fragrance. It becomes an object of desire. We buy it and wear it. What smells wonderful on someone else doesn’t work with our chemistry. What a disappointment!

2)    Allergic fragrance. After my mother’s chemotherapy treatments, she could never again tolerate scent. Fragrances make her deathly ill. If you’re like me, you have friends with allergies that get worse when they are exposed to fragrances. This knowledge changes the way we view scent. Who wants to think that their fragrance is repelling––not attracting?

3)    Gifted fragrance. The last good fragrance gift I received was my also my first–a gift from my aunt when I was a pre-teen. Arpege is still one of three most recognized scents in the world after Chanel No. 5 and Joy. It’s hard enough to select a fragrance for yourself. A well-liked fragrance that you didn’t have a hand in choosing is probably an oxymoron.

4)    Outmoded fragrance. You bought it and loved it––for about a week. People change, fragrances change. That’s why we find ourselves standing at our vanity tables before a tray of perfume that a) is way past its expiration date and b) no longer represents who we are. We think about the money we’ve spent. Do we throw them out? Of course not! We let them sit there and collect dust.

5)    Signature fragrance. I love the idea of a signature fragrance. Unfortunately, I get bored too easily. I’d like to meet the woman who thinks she is the same person day after day. Most women feel like a different person from one day to the next––even hour-by-hour for fickle people like me. I don’t want a signature fragrance to tie me down like a trendy set of eyebrows. I can hardly imagine wearing a perfume for so many years that it goes off the market the way Interlude and Moon Drops have. The Vermont Country Store has a whole section devoted to little known fragrances from the past. From vintage bedspreads and bathing suits, to perfumes and beauty products, I love shopping VCL for things you can’t find anywhere else.

6)    Heavy fragrance. Here, I refer you to the case study at the very top of the page and rest my case.

I’ve learned four things from all my fragrance mistakes:

1)    Never buy scent as a gift unless someone specifically asks for it.

2)    Take your time when selecting a new fragrance. Never buy impulsively.

3)    Choose the smallest quantity possible.

4)    Wear only what you love and do that lightly and judiciously to avoid hurting others.

I’ve been known to carry an idea too far. Consider the micro bottle––otherwise known as samples. Did you know that you can buy generous perfume samples on Amazon? After a very convincing sales woman made me feel that I could not live without a $135 bottle of Acqua Di Parma Iris Nobile Eau de Parfum, I found a more affordable alternative–a set of four sample sprays sold on Amazon for less than $20. By the time you’re tired of it, it’s gone and you can move on to another fragrance.

Fragrance tidbits

Coco Chanel had her staff spray the entrance to her atelier with Chanel No. 5, her signature fragrance. What would you expect from someone who equated a woman sans perfume to a woman without a future? Marilyn Monroe slept in Chanel No. 5–and nothing else.

Two books for readers captivated by the subject of scent

The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, by Luca Turin

The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent, by Denyse Beaulieu

How do you use perfume today, especially now that there are health implications linked to it? What’s you’re best tip for making fragrance a successful accessory?

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.