Monday, February 18, 2008

Clean Fragrances

Something about last week's article in The New York Times, “The Sweet Smell of...Nothing,” got me thinking. One perfume trend I've never understood much is perfume that smells like...nothing. By “nothing,” I don't mean absence of scent in general, but instead, perfume that doesn't smell like perfume. Instead, it smells like laundry detergent or dryer sheets or little girls. Enter, Clean fragrances (I can't bring myself to call it perfume).

What I am about to say may invoke the wrath of many readers out there. Probably I am doing myself in from the get-go by immediately stereotyping the sort of woman I think might wear Clean fragrances, but I can't help but get a picture of this:

Woman in her thirties, pushing an SUV stroller through the mall. She has that Meg Ryan You've Got Mail haircut. She wears khaki capris, a denim shirt, and Keds. She wears lip gloss and the tiniest bit of mascara, perhaps a bit of blush if she's daring. One of her children is named Taylor. She goes to church every Sunday. She votes Republican. She's pushing the stroller and her children (most likely, there are three, all under age five) are all over the place, running and screaming and wreaking general havoc. She is talking on her cell phone and remains completely oblivious to both her children's behavior and the nasty stares she elicits from the other mall patrons.

If this sounds sort of like you, but you regularly go to the mall wearing Jicky or Lonestar Memories or even Poison and you keep a close eye on your well-behaved kids, just hear me out. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Here in Georgia, the description above fits a large portion of the female population. These women could just as easily be wearing something mass market that's prettier or more daring, Stella or Donna Karan Gold. But I would hazard a guess that if they're wearing perfume at all, they're either wearing a Clean fragrance or the ubiquitous philosophy Amazing Grace. But my question is, why?

Are these scents supposed to be a trend akin to the “no makeup makeup” thing? Let's consider this for a moment: To apply one's face in a manner that makes one seem one is wearing no makeup—that takes skill and well-made product. We all know that “no makeup makeup,” or le no makeup, looks far better than the natural thing. It's polished, refined. Even Coco Chanel herself could get on board with this sort of thing.

But soapy, girlish perfume? Coco must be spinning like a drill bit in her grave, and with good reason, for I think the great lady would agree: Such a trend seems to be the hallmark of something more disturbing, and that is women who no longer act like women, but girls. I've spent enough time cruising the blogs and MUA to know that most of us grew up with mothers who wore womanly perfumes: the Chanels, Private Collection, Chloe, just to name a very few. I aspired to wear sophisticated scents when I grew up, and I loved it when my mother would let me wear a little bit of her perfume. My mother is very much alive, but I can even now smell Clinique Aromatics or see a bottle of Norrell and be moved by it. To me, those scents are hers alone. I cannot imagine having any memory buttons pushed by something as generic as these Clean scents, but as I hadn't worn them myself, and so I would not be speaking out of turn, I decided to sample two, Baby Girl and Fresh Laundry.

The notes in Baby Girl are: in the top, lemon, cyclamen, orange and Egyptian geranium; in the heart, African violet, heliotrope, lavender, ylang-ylang, and cinnamon; and in the base, white musk and cedar. The list of notes isn't bad, and the scent itself is rather plain and inoffensive, and luckily, happily smells nothing like a baby girl. (Uh, the synthetic, commercial version. I'd like to go on record as saying I love the smell of babies—on babies, that is.) No baby powder here, nothing overpoweringly sweet. The violet and heliotrope are the most prominent notes to my nose, and overall the scent is rather soapy and, well, clean. And also, dull.

The notes in Fresh Laundry are Brazilian orange, Mexican lime, fresh mown grass, cyclamen, rose otto, night blooming white jasmine, petals, heliotrope, and musk. Folks, buy a bottle of Febreze, spray a little behind each ear, and be done with it, for this one smells just like what its name advertises: highly perfumed laundry detergent. While it smells very clean and fresh, again—what's the point? I suppose smelling like laundry might make a man love you for your housekeeping skills, or make your friends believe you possess some extra virtue (cleanliness next to godliness, and all that), but who on earth with any sense of self-worth wants to be loved for that? And if you simply want to smell more clean to yourself...well. I suggest therapy. And a bath.

Of course, in this day and age, women should wear what they like, but that doesn't have to stop me from continually wondering: What is the appeal of smelling like a tween or a basket full of laundry? Do their husbands really like this? Do their husbands' mistresses wear this sort of thing, or are the mistresses wearing Piguet Bandit? Is this how husbands tell them apart? (Kidding!) Of course, I say this, but in an age when people seem to be more and more intolerant of perfume (cheaply made and badly applied—I hazard a guess that few people would refer to any of the Guerlains as a “carnival,” as one man referred to his wife's Elizabeth Taylor-brand perfume in the NYT article), perhaps these are the only choices we'll have left.

Personally, I find this trend rather coy, and coyness irritates me, particularly in women over thirty. I once worked with a woman (single, over thirty) who practically bathed in Amazing Grace and Clean fragrances. She thought they were romantic and would help her find a husband. He would love her purity; he would find her precious. You know, that's perfectly fine. But me, I'd want to be a little more mysterious than that, if I were in guy-getting mode. Come to think of it, I'm married, and I still want to seem mysterious.

My take: These perfumes are expensive for what they offer consumers, which is the smell of soap and clean clothes. If you want to smell like soap, take a shower and don't wear perfume, and then wear clean clothes. Don't spend $40-$55 a pop to smell the way you already smell. These scents aren't “you, only better.” They are “you, only cleaner.” I have to say overall, it's the safety of these perfumes that bothers me, or the illusion of safety, of cleanliness and order, and the sheer lack of sexiness. Perhaps I lack the Puritan spirit to understand, or perhaps I lack the lie of modesty. I don't trust women who don't act like women, or who want to act like little girls or pious Madonnas. And besides, what sort of special memory will your grown daughters have, ladies, if all they remember about you is that you smelled like a basket of laundry?

There is a happy medium, you know. If you don't want to smell like a siren, there are better options. For a sexier, more adult clean scent, run down to the drugstore and pick up a bottle of Skin Musk for ten dollars. For powdery, go online and get Caron Farnesiana or Etro Heliotrope. For freshness, a soft white floral or a hint of green, like La Chasse aux Papillon or CB I Hate Perfume Wild Pansy. Or try a vanilla, like Lea Extreme, which is comforting and sexy in a soft way, or Hanae Mori Butterfly with its gourmand undertones.

Be a bit more daring, ladies!

*images from Sephora and