Recently, a friend sheepishly asked if I would give her a fragrance consultation. (She had no idea how thrilled I was to do it, or how many unsolicited rantings and musings she was about to get.) Although she ended up settling on a bottle of Le Labo’s Oud 27 (which Luca Turin rightly describes as “properly pornographic”), she initially described her ideal scent as “clean and fresh.” I had to check myself before diving into a nerd/snob eyeroll. In most cases, clean and fresh simply means safe and dull.
One of my greatest pleasures is crawling into clean sheets after a shower. But this fetishism of a very specific kind of clean smell seems almost moralistic, like it’s posed in opposition to funkier, more bodily “foreign” smells. The idea of “clean” is unsurprisingly culturally constructed. And it changes not only between cultures but across time, too. The smell of carbolic soap, which you can smell today in Neutrogena’s T-Gel shampoo, used to be the olfactory gold standard of clean before it was supplanted by crisp citrus smells in the 1960s. These days, all our soaps, laundry detergents, and fabric softeners are infused with potent dose of buzzy white musks. Why? Probably, depressingly, simply because it’s cheap.
I once read a snippet of something arguing that leathery fragrances gained popularity in the 1920s when more and more women started smoking. The smell of rectified birch tar, then widely used to mimic the smell of tanning chemicals in leather perfumes, blends nicely with cigarette smoke. Moreover, there was a time when perfume was meant to blend with bodily smells. So many of those pre-50s classics (Bandit, Joy, and Shalimar, to name just three) have a strong dose of funk. They don’t beg to be worn on unwashed flesh, but they do mingle nicely with the actual smell of a human body.
Not all “clean” perfumes are a cheap joke. Sophia Grojsman‘s classic White Linen (1978) makes clean feel properly salubrious and invigorating. Frederic Malle’s Outrageous (also by the inimitable Grojsman) takes the smell of laundry musk and turns it into a proper fragrance. The great Jean Claude Ellena has composed some top-notched well-scrubbed fragrances, including Osmanthe Yunnan and L’eau d’Iver. And it’s hard to go wrong with Chanel No. 18. More daring readers can try Mark Buxton’s Comme des Garcons 3 or Odeur 71, both of which play cleverly with the idea of cleanliness.
Those looking for good sweaty fun are in luck. Recent years have seen the niche market flooded with extreme animalics, inspired possibly by Serge Lutens’s loved and feared Muscs Koublai Khan. For a while there it seemed like everyone was out to win the funky arms race, piling on the (synthetic) civet, castoreum and oud. These smells certainly evoke old-world glamour (like the tremendous Maai by Bogue and the aforementioned classic bombshells), but they also create a cozy intimacy. And it’s not just a matter of smelling like you’ve just been riding horseback all day: Lutens and so many others have found a way to make stinky smell beautiful. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. But, tell the truth, aren’t you just a little curious?