When perfumes get dirty

8 June 2011

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Perfume by Butter Sponge, on Flickr

This Thursday evening, intrepid noses who head to the Wellcome Collection’s Kicking Up A Stink night will have the chance to challenge the mind as well as the nostrils by experiencing some seriously dirty perfumes – fragrances that are worn to impart the wearer with wonderful aromas but that sometimes hover on that line between the respectable and the rude. Event organiser Odette Toilette tells us more…

As someone who brings people together to experience, enjoy and discuss perfumes creatively, I have conducted my fair share of olfactory experiments. There have been nights exploring how music affects our interpretation of scents. Events where the audience goes on a virtual journey to far flung climes such as old Kyoto or Cold War Moscow, using fragrance as the tool for an armchair traveller. Or occasions where everyone pens a quickfire haiku in response to a perfume.

But the event I am about to host at the Wellcome Collection is set to be very unusual indeed….

We are all used to all covering up the smell of dirt in its myriad guises, whether hiding the remnants of last night’s party with a quick squirt of Febreze, disguising earthy coffee breath with a strip of chewing gum, or dousing ourselves with body spray halfway through a scorching afternoon. From the years when opportunities to maintain personal hygiene were rare, up to the present day, cleanliness is alluring, and there is no shortage of perfumes which provide the simulation of just washed laundry (the scent of fabric conditioner, in itself, being of course a simulation as to what cleanliness should be).

We also wear scent to smell a bit dirty. To remind ourselves and those around us of the body, and to enable perfume to perform its role as a tool of seduction. After all, we don’t want to smell like a bar of soap all the time. That would be boring.

Some of the most celebrated fragrances in existence are successful precisely because there is something slightly off about them. We need only to think of Guerlain’s Jicky, considered to be the first recognisably ‘modern’ perfume upon its release in 1889, which was so stuffed with civet underneath that lavender opening (and lavender itself can be slightly urinous), it resembles the end of a VERY saucy weekend. Naturally it caused a scandal upon its release. Good good. Fast forward and perfumery has become rather more explicit.  In 2006 the niche fragrance house Etat Libre d’Orange released Secretions Magnifique, a situationist scent convening adrenaline, milk, the ozonic molecule azurone and blood accord. A recent attendee of a previous Scratch+Sniff event (the night I run in London) tweeted afterwards saying: ‘you will be tickled to know I’m wearing “the one” (can’t remember name, but has unmentionables in it!).’

But when it comes to smell, which is so intensely personal and where there are no right or wrong answers, what DOES dirty smell like? And why is it so appealing?

This Thursday, we will be set to find out. Ready yourself for an immersive olfactory voyage, in which you will:

  • Sniff glorious fragrances created by niche perfumers, each of which present a difference facet of dirtiness (and delight).
  • Enter a multisensory world in which smell gets jumbled up with sight and sound;
  • Discover whether dirt is about the scent itself or the context;
  • Develop your critical powers of all things olfactory, leaving with new ways of enjoying and discussing fragrance.
  • Decide definitively – what is the dirtiest smell around?

So, breathe in plenty of fresh air beforehand, prepare your nostrils, and get ready for the ride.

Kicking Up A Stink this Thursday includes Odette Toilette’s Deliciously Dirty Perfumes. Odette Toilette is the founder of Scratch+Sniff, which curates all manner of olfactory experiences including a monthly event at The Book Club in London.