Getting sniffy

15 June 2011

 Kicking up a stink at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Kicking up a stink at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Our interest in Dirt isn’t just in the stuff you can see: filth can offend the nose as well as the eye.  Last Friday we kicked up a stink, with all sorts of specialists in smells. Joanna Walsh (whose Ars Moriendi appeared at Wellcome Collection in March) found herself sniffing around…

I’ve recently developed an interest in bad smells. It started when I picked up a perfume called Baudelaire at high-end department store, Le Bon Marché in Paris.

Without smelling it, I furtively asked for a sample in the full knowledge that the dirty poet might quite likely have been thrown out of the gleaming white and gold perfumery.  Not only was Baudelaire known for the daring sensuality of his filthy writing but, if you look at photos of him, you begin to wonder how often he got his suit cleaned.

The scent, I thought, must channel his famous ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ paradise (Les plus rares fleurs/Mêlant leurs odeurs/Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre), and it certainly doesn’t smell unpleasant, but it contains a suggestion not only of the gorgeous but also of the dark, the dirty, even the sweaty: a hint of cat’s pee on not-entirely clean tweed. Within days I was addicted.

I confess Baudelaire isn’t the only dirty perfume I love. There’s also Al Oudh by l’Artisan Parfumeur which smells of armpits in Istanbul, and Sables by Annick Goutal whose tarry, sandy, salty tang is a bit like a well-worn sailing sweater cast aside in the summer heat. I admit it: I like perfumes that smell like sweat.

Why do we love dirty smells? I went along to “Odette Toilette’s”session at the Wellcome Collection feeling like an olfactory veteran: experienced and unshockable. Wearing something just a little like a black silk nurses’ uniform, with added scarlet lipstick and Heidi braids, Odette already looked like someone ready to test the limits.

She started off relatively gently: what smells dirty, what smells clean? It’s all about memory and association and is more complicated than you’d think. Some ‘clean’ fragrances imply dirtiness as they are commonly used to mask unclean smells: some dirty fragrances – like dirt itself – can smell clean, like the earth after a shower.

Then we got onto the scents: on each listener’s chair was a ratings card with a scale of 1 for clean to 7 for dirty – no right and no wrong answers.  At first we didn’t know that all the smells passed round on tester cards, which we variously identified as ‘washing up liquid’ and ‘flyspray’, were swanky perfumes. It seemed that as the scents got ‘dirtier’, they became more complex – I couldn’t believe anyone would pay top dollar for perfume #1 when they could spritz themselves with good ol’ Fairy Liquid – or maybe we became more sensitive to combinations of fragrance notes as the evening progressed and our noses became more experienced.

After scents that smelt like cedar wood – or was it otter spraint? (look it up) – and expensive leather – or was it burning rubber? – we got onto the dirtiest scent of all. It was…

…a disappointment. Or so it seemed at first: a powdery violet that smelt overpoweringly of the bottom of old lady’s handbag. Maybe its intensity indicated an ironic take designed to be worn with a kitsch vintage tea dress – but it didn’t smell dirty… until you waited… and caught a whiff of an undertone that was distinctly less cut-and-dried. This one turned out to be anti-perfumer Etat Libre d’Orange’s Putain des Palaces – and hints as the real reason we love to smell dirty. It smelt like a woman wearing a floral scent to – perhaps – mask her, erm, recent activities: the ultimate clean/dirty perfume.

Or so I thought.

Finally Odette passed round phials of an optional extra mystery fragrance which had a scent so elusive I could hardly smell it. Some scents only reveal themselves on the skin. No longer sure what smelt truly dirty, I splashed it all over to find that… it smelt like semen. Yes, it really did.  Secretions Magnifiques, again from Etat Libre d’Orange, is powdery, sour-sweet and what’s more it really lingers.

Even I have a limit – Secretions Magnifiques may be it. And sometimes it’s interesting to discover what you think is truly dirty.

Joanna Walsh blogs at Badaude. Her ‘London Walks‘ is out now from Tate Publishing.