On the Scent: An Interview with Alyssa Harad
To the contrary, it’s a hobby that many perfume lovers feel compelled to secret away from their regular lives; they may keep their massive collections of bottles hidden behind doors, refusing to divulge, or even count, their number. But online, at least – as with other tiny but devoted subcultures, like poets and classical musicians – there is space for a thriving perfume-centric community. It’s on the turf of this network of online perfume lovers – in particular, a few early blogs and their overlapping sets of regular commenters – that Harad’s story begins.
Part of what drives the narrative of Coming to My Senses – a memoir described on the jacket as “a story of perfume, pleasure, and an unlikely bride” – is Harad’s initial discomfort with her own interest in (and later, passion for) perfume. This discomfort derived from the conflict between her identity as a feminist and an intellectual, and the popular idea of perfume as something frivolous – as Harad puts it in her book, “In the United States, perfume has traditionally been considered feminine frippery.”
There is a school of thought that insists a rigorous feminism must reject traditionally “girly” things like cupcakes and makeup and – perhaps – perfume, on the assumption that this world of objects is only interesting to the kind of women that the patriarchy wants us to be, to women who play up their femininity, who are “soft” or weak in some way. This has been called “dominance feminism,” the idea being that women are not as different from men as we think, but have merely been forced into submissive roles. There’s also “difference feminism,” the belief that men and women are fundamentally different, and those differences should be celebrated.
I fall somewhere in the middle – I think some of the supposedly inherent differences between men and women are based on assumption and bias, but then socially reinforced (e.g., “girls are bad at math”). But I also think there are real differences. The problem with admitting difference is that the things that make women different have so often been seen as inferior. For example, women have a different culture from men, and due to systemic sexism, women’s culture is undervalued. Things that are more associated with women than men (or more with gay men than heterosexual men) tend to be considered frivolous – see baking (as opposed to the career of a “serious” chef), fashion, and so on. And perfume falls squarely in this category – in fact, though “perfume“ refers to all fragrant liquids, its connotations are strongly gendered; you almost never hear a man say he’s wearing perfume. (The word “cologne” has been appropriated to mean a fragrance for men, but that’s not what it meant historically, and that’s not what it means to those who study perfume.)
I was eager to hear more from Alyssa Harad on perfume politics – as well as her thoughts on the difference between natural and synthetic materials, the rules of perfume buying and wearing, her personal favorites and more – and I had the privilege of speaking with her on these topics earlier this year. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Coming to her senses
So why did you never start a blog?
The short answer to that is that I did start a blog – but I was such a crazy recovering academic that I managed to write exactly two posts and then the book project started happening. I thought I was going to start a blog, maybe write a magazine article, and gradually learn how to do this thing. I had this three-year trajectory in mind! In fact, I started to create an anthology of all my favorite blog posts, because I was basically just an obsessed fan – I had this starry-eyed admiration for people like Marina Geigert [of Perfume Smellin’ Things] and Victoria Frolova [of Bois de Jasmin] and Robin Krug [of Now Smell This]. That’s how the book started. And I was able to get an agent much faster than I ever imagined. That project didn’t work out, but it led to the book that I did write, so I never had time to write a third post! My poor wordy blog died an untimely death.
Why didn’t the anthology work out? Was there some logistical roadblock or did you just lose interest in it?
Basically, I was a total chicken, and I had no idea anybody would be interested in what I had to say. So I thought, I’ll do this anthology thing, and maybe that will create some opportunities for me. But most of the people who had agreed to participate dropped out of the project at the last minute, and I had already set everything in motion. So I ended up going to meet the editor with my agent, and in between meetings I was going back to the apartment I was staying at in New York and writing a new proposal, because I had lost most of my manuscript! The editor saw a lot more of my writing than I had intended for him to see, because I ended up writing all these little personal essays to make up for the fact that I no longer had most of what I had intended to show him. Then I was able to go back to the drawing board and do a whole new proposal.
Why ever did you think no one would want to read what you wrote?
Perfume was a much more commercial subject than anything I’d been interested in so far, and that’s why I had the nerve to try and find an agent – I thought, well this is more sellable than, say, historical trauma or surviving sexual abuse! I was used to dealing with this very heavy, political subject matter, and I knew that I was onto something more commercial. But I didn’t find myself very commercial, and I still don’t know if I am, because the book hasn’t come out yet!
I think so many people secretly love perfume – maybe they’re even keeping it a secret from themselves, and they just need some sort of permission to admit to themselves and everyone else that this is OK, because it can be intellectual. There’s this idea that wine tasting is intellectual, but nobody thinks that about perfume. And once you read something like your book, or Victoria’s blog, you realize there’s a whole intellectual practice to this – it’s a skill to be able to smell things!
And I think you learn that perfume is more than the perfume you run into in your life. For most people, they know maybe a scent that their mother or grandmother wore, and they know what they wore in junior high and maybe college, and then, if you’re like me, and you’re not a person who loves to shop, you just have no idea what’s out there. So that all by itself was a revelation. And then there was the revelation that you could talk about it! That you could describe a smell, that perfume had a shape and a history that you could explore, that it was telling a story, and that it had its own context. I mean, the first couple of months I didn’t even smell any of it, I was just reveling in these descriptions. I was very nerdy – the book’s called Coming to My Senses for a reason!
I thought it was interesting that you were following the blogs for a long time before you started ordering samples. When I received Perfumes: The Guide as a gift, I read the whole thing on a plane like it was Anna Karenina or something, cover to cover, and then immediately I wanted to go to the mall and start smelling stuff; it was this uncontrollable urge. So I’m impressed that you kept it in your head for so long.
I don’t think you should be impressed, I think you should be distressed – that I was so uptight and self-denying! I think it was partly that I just couldn’t admit to myself that I was reading perfume blogs. It was part of this drifting I was doing at the time. All these plans that I had made for myself for such a long time had just completely dissipated, and for the first time in my whole overachieving life, I just had no idea what I was doing.
It sounds like you felt like you were cheating on yourself.
I think that’s a good word for it. I felt that something very strange was happening to me, that I was wandering far off the path that I had originally set out for myself.
The economics of perfume
Let’s talk a little about politics. Did you feel that perfume brought out a consumerist side of you that you had successfully rejected or suppressed? Can you speak to the conflict between our very basic, human desire for beauty and the fact that beautiful things are frequently costly?
It is a political question for me, and it’s grounded in feminism but also goes beyond it to questions about class and production – I can say things like that, because this is an arts journal, right?
Bring it on!
The sort of hippy-dippy cheater’s answer to that would be that beautiful things only cost money if you want to own them. It actually doesn’t cost any money, or very much money, to go and look at beautiful things. It only costs money to actually take them home and have them become your property. That’s a really interesting thing when it comes to perfume, because you do have all those testers sitting out on the counter. I love when people tell me about being unable to afford perfume when they were young, and getting all dressed to go out for the night, then cruising by the perfume counters of these fancy stores where they couldn’t shop, reveling in the fact that these testers were out on the counter. Even though they would never be able to afford that bottle, they were going to go out for the night reeking of Chanel No. 5 or Poison. I love that story because it is about a kind of defiance. The unwritten rules for those testers is that no one should really be approaching that counter if they can’t afford to buy what’s on it, and because I am still a rule-follower and a person who thinks a lot about those kinds of hierarchies, I am really scared of those counters – though much less so now than when I first started out.
I also love that the perfume community takes something that is supposed to be about conspicuous consumption and turns it into a gift economy. So you have all these things that would be way too expensive to buy full bottles of, but these people are decanting them and making samples and mailing them to each other, so suddenly these things become affordable and accessible that would either be too expensive or just physically out of reach, if you live in a place where they’re unavailable. So that’s the cheater’s answer.
I don’t think that’s cheating, but if you have an even better answer, I want to hear it!
It’s a little bit cheating, because when I became interested in perfume, I was afraid of becoming a part of that consumer mindset that is implicit in your question. That had always been a point of pride for me – I grew up in a family that never shopped full retail, and then I was a graduate student for a long time so I knew a lot about skimping and bargains, and then I was a freelance writer so I just continued on in that lifestyle, and I never really got that itch to buy, that desire to have things – thank goodness, or I wouldn’t have been able to live my life the way that I did. And I actually think that falling in love with perfumes helped me understand other people who desire expensive things. That was a really important thing to learn, because most people struggle with wanting to buy things that are out of their range, and desiring things that are symbols of prestige or success or just plain indulgence and pleasure, and that struggle wasn’t something that had been a big part of my life. So I had this realization when I was really deep into my collecting phase – Oh, this is what those other people are doing when they go shopping all the time, this is how that feels!
Yes, they’re searching for the perfect jeans the way we search for the perfect iris. It’s a quest!
Exactly! And that’s really important to me, as a human being and a writer, to understand how that feels, rather than be contemptuous of it.
So what is your collection like now? How many bottles are we talking? Did you go through a big acquisition phase that you’ve grown out of, or have you always been very particular about what you decide to buy?
Oh I’m super-particular. It’s all relative, so my big acquisition phase was, you know, three bottles in a month on eBay! But I don’t count my bottles, I don’t keep a record of my samples…
You’ve never counted?!
I’m positive that I have way more than I think I have.
The first time I counted, I was blown away. It’s way more than you think.
I really hadn’t been collecting that long when I started writing the book, and once I had my book contract it was like part of my professional life to be buying perfume.
You had the perfect excuse!
Yes – an iron-clad excuse to keep on sampling and collecting.
Do you have a system of rules for yourself, like “I won’t spend more than this for a full bottle,” or “I have to go through X number of samples or decants before I buy a bottle” – anything like that?
I’m sure that I do but they’re not articulated like that. I feel like more than $150 is a lot of money to spend at one time; really more than $100 is a lot of money for me to spend all at one time. So I don’t buy very many full retail bottles. But every now and then I’ll think, that’s so stupid, because it means I end up with lots of decants or discount things that I don’t really want and somehow what’s missing from my collection is a full bottle that I totally adore.
I’m exactly the same way. I’ll buy ten $30 bottles instead of Carnal Flower.
Exactly. So it can get stupid really quickly. It is an interesting way to work out all of those issues that people have with money in general, like what is something really worth, and what’s it worth to me, and what am I doing with that in my life, and how do you define all those parameters for yourself. Because it’s so clearly not a necessity, like the electric bill or the groceries.
But neither are books or plays or movies, and when people spend money on those things, I think they feel less internal conflict about it, and perfume lasts a lot longer than a movie!
I agree, and what I often end up comparing it to is the money that people spend on drinks when they go out, because I’m not a big drinker, and they’re both alcohol-based forms of entertainment! I am astonished how easily my friends will drop $50-60 on a night’s worth of drinking and not even think twice about it.
So that’s always comforting to me. But I think that worry over participating too much in a luxury culture is basically a good worry, as long as it’s not turning you into a self-righteous, self-entitled reverse snob, which it can do, and has done for many people. As long as it’s not pushing you to extremes, I think it’s useful – because we’re all consuming too much all the time just by walking around on the planet and driving our cars. And I think we’re going to have to do some real adjustments around that kind of consumption. Texas had a horrendous drought last summer that we’re pretty miraculously recovering from, but for a few months there, I thought, You know, most of the state is on fire, and all the trees are dead outside, and cities are having to truck in water, and this is what it’s going to look like, this is why we have to start figuring out a different way of living on the planet. And I have those thoughts at the same time that I’m planning my trip to Bergdorf’s. And that’s just part of being human, to have those kinds of contradictions, you don’t want them to go away. I would never want to be a person who only thought about Bergdorf’s or only thought about drought.
Feminism & femininity
You write about how surprised you were to find yourself taken with perfume, and how you were shy, even embarrassed to discuss your new interest at first – afraid that friends and colleagues would find this endeavor frivolous, anti-intellectual, even anti-feminist. Why is perfume considered silly and superficial in the U.S.? Is it incompatible with feminism? If not, how do you explain your anxiety about it?
In many ways – and of course this will never be the blurb on the back of the book – this story is about re-examining my feminism. I think for a lot of us, if we have a political awakening, very often it happens in your early 20s. There’s a kind of typical person, of which I am one, this middle-class person who grows up one way and then goes away to school and gets exposed to a bunch of new books and ideas and people, and then they rethink the world. My feminism came to me when I was 22 and 23. I absorbed a lot of ideas that came from literary writers like Adrienne Rich, and I was reading a lot of literary theory. Then I ended up working in a psych hospital and collaborating with therapists working with women who were survivors of sexual trauma, so I had a long history of thinking about sexual violence in conjunction with feminism. And I never really revisited the initial rebellion; I was only 22 so I didn’t have a very sophisticated view of all these things.
My ideas about feminism and femininity got more complicated later on mostly by reading queer theory. I was reading about drag queens and people for whom femininity, for whatever reason, was deeply important – you know, lipstick and high heels and wigs and glitter and feathers – all these things that I had truly, secretly, always loved. These things were deeply important to them and they weren’t supposed to have them. But it never occurred to me that I might be reading about myself! I was just reading it in this kind of groovy, dim-witted way that you do when you’re in grad school and not necessarily super self-reflective. And as a straight woman, I felt like there was this big gap between how I dressed – or how I didn’t dress – and how I was supposed to. Now I look back and think, the fact that I knew there was a gap was evidence that I valued those things and they had emotional freight for me. But I had an unexamined relationship to it. I was behaving in a way that was appropriate for my peer group and the people around me. In the early ‘90s Austin was still a hippie granola town, and my friends and I are still like that! I’m wearing Birkenstocks right now!
That’s a long way of saying that I had made a lot of unconscious assumptions about the beauty counter. It’s not so much that I thought I would be betraying my feminism if suddenly I started blow-drying my hair and wearing lipstick. It was more that I so firmly felt myself outside of groups of women who did those things, and I assumed that perfume was part of that world, that high femme world. And I was not completely wrong! I was only wrong about all the ways in which I could make it my own. So I would hope that I’m just as feminist as ever, I just have a more compassionate and complex understanding of how women negotiate these things. There are still times when I want a piece of that feminine world that has been commodified and I get swamped by the kind of misogyny that is implicit in that commodification – I think it’s a really hard thing to negotiate. In writing Coming to My Senses, I wanted to have as many different portraits of the women in my life as I could, because a big part of the book for me is that breadth and that complexity and the way that everyone’s sort of finding their way. For me femininity was a big part of creativity – understanding that it was OK to love beautiful, useless things gave me permission to write.
Synthetics vs. naturals
What are your feelings on the difference between synthetic materials and natural materials? Are synthetics dangerous in some way – either physically or culturally? What are we gaining by using synthetics more and more, and what are we losing?
I like to say that I’m in favor of art, rather than favoring synthetics or naturals. I want people to be able to have access to the palette that they are attracted to. So if that’s someone like Mandy Aftel who finds inspiration in limiting her palette to naturals, that’s fabulous. And if it’s someone who has to make their formula for pennies on the pound and can only do that with synthetics and still manages to create something fantastic, then I applaud that too. I’m just a greedy agnostic, I want as much good art as possible.
I think when you talk about loss or gain, you have to talk about are the regulations that are going on right now. One of the fears that I have, and it’s unresearched so it might be unfounded, is that when we start to regulate and restrict naturals like jasmine, you shrink a market for those flowers, and they’re often grown in places where that’s a real blow. If you’re growing jasmine in Africa or Central America, you’re probably not growing it in a big metropolitan area that has a lot of infrastructure for income; it’s an agrarian system. When suddenly you have no one to sell those flowers to, you have to do something else. You shut down the fields. Maybe you start growing opium poppies. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, which used to be a huge flower market and a huge supplier for perfume; then when the war came and it became impossible, there was no infrastructure for that kind of trade, so there was a big market for the drug trade. But right now I’m talking out of my hat. I would love for someone to pay me to go research this. This is one of the fascinating places where the perfume industry touches some really big global stuff.
I also find it really interesting to think about the relationship between real world smells and perfume. Something you run into in food and fake flavoring is that people forget what something really tastes like. People start to prefer fake strawberry flavor to real strawberries.
Cherries I think are the most pronounced – they’re nothing like what you think they would taste like based on Kool-Aid or whatever.
Right. But I think it’s a false analogy to bring that argument over to perfume, because the way that natural absolutes and oils smell is very different from the way things smell in a blossom out in the world. In fact, something kind of weird and wonderful happens with perfumery, where it becomes an archive of these smells that we may not have a lot of access to anymore. I didn’t really know what bergamot smelled like until I started smelling perfume. I knew Earl Grey tea, but that was the extent of my relationship to that.
I also find the line between natural and synthetic to be very confusing. I’m not sure why extracting molecules in a lab is more unnatural than boiling the hell out of something and reducing it down to an oil, you know? I know the arguments about the nuances of the number of molecules involved and so on – I don’t mean to be flip about those arguments. But I do think it’s much more confusing than people would like it to be.
I think there’s a misconception, because if you look up the ten most allergenic perfume materials, for example, they sound like synthetic compounds – like cinnamic aldehyde – and you can synthesize that, or you can extract it, but the problem is that it occurs in so many things naturally. So when people think, I’m allergic to this because it’s synthetic, it’s the opposite of the truth.
In my experience when people say something smells chemical, what they’re really saying is, “I’m overwhelmed by that smell, I don’t like that smell, it all smells the same to me” or “it’s a bad copy of something that I like in real life.” It should smell like a lilac bush but instead it smells like cheap air freshener and detergent. So “chemical” is really just an adjective people are using to capture that dissonance rather than to name any particular problem.
Also in a way they’re just comparing it to itself; they’re saying “This smells like perfume.” Well, it is perfume, of course it smells like perfume. It doesn’t smell like the air … or fruit.
You asked me earlier if I was a “niche snob” – for me, niche perfume was an absolutely crucial gateway into perfume, because so many of them are more legible in terms of notes than commercial perfumes or grand haute couture perfumes. In particular, it was CB I Hate Perfume, which is a name that tells you all you need to know, and also L’Artisan fragrances, and looking back I realize that part of why they were such a revelation to me is that I could put them on my skin and read the reviews, and I could identify everything people were talking about.
So they taught you how to smell, how to connect the smells to language.
Right. It was a huge part of my being able to make those links that woke me up to my ability to decipher perfume. It made it transparent to me.
Tania Sanchez wrote about how generally when you get into perfume you go through a stage where you like really legible, clear scents, like, This is vetiver, or vetiver and vanilla, and then at some point you kind of move past that and you’re interested in completely abstract stuff like Chanel No. 5, where it’s not particularly legible.
Well I’m a both/and person, so I hardly ever move past things, I just add on more stuff! I still love all those legible perfumes and I especially love sharing them with other people because they’re such great educational tools. When people say, “It smells like perfume,” what they mean is, “I can’t connect the smells I know and love in my life to this product. It only smells like perfume to me.” And being able to make those connections between things in your life is revelatory for people, the idea that perfume can be an archive of scents from their lives. It’s very emotional.
I find it interesting that some people can never get past that initial suspicion, like if you say “This smells like jasmine and rose,” they say, “I don’t believe you’re really smelling that.” But some people just get it, they’ll smell something and say, Oh, that smells really green. I think it’s somewhere between a knack and just being open-minded – to realize we’re not all lying!
I was showing a friend of mine Paestum Rose, and I started going through the whole story with her, saying, OK, this opens on a very clear, bracing resinous note, and then in 20 minutes it quiets down and gets smoky and then this beautiful dark rose opens up in the middle of it. This particular friend has a very good nose, probably better than mine, and she is overwhelmed by most commercial perfume. So she smells it at the beginning and says, “Oh, yeah, it’s like going for a walk in the woods, it’s really great.” Then we talked for a while and she smelled it again and she said, “Oh my gosh – it really does change! I thought you were making that part up!”
Ha! See? The skeptics! It’s the same thing with wine tasting, you just don’t believe it if you’ve never paid that much attention. Like, no way, no way wine can taste like cedar and hot dogs, I just don’t believe it.
I think those kinds of descriptions are very easy to parody because they sound really over the top, which is also why I’m in love with them. I love the over-the-top, drag-queen quality of these long, poetic, recitations of unlikely things that somehow all fit together in these perfumes, but I think that there are a lot of people for whom that kind of language is just inherently suspicious. Either they think that the scents are going to be lacking in some way because they’re missing something, or that you’re just really pretentious. But people who think you’re being pretentious are mostly just worried about being made fun of or not understanding something. And frankly, in any area where there’s connoisseurship happening, where people are obsessed with something and they have their own vocabulary for it and they’re lavishing attention on this object that other people may or may not care about it, there’s a huge opportunity for being pretentious.
It makes me think of really esoteric indie music journalism with those subcategories and genres like shoegazing and dubstep, and nobody outside of that world knows what those things mean.
Now that you’re saying that I realize that my love of obscure language goes outside of perfume and wine and food. I used to spend a lot of time looking through my dad’s jazz LP collection, because they have these amazing liner notes, like someone had just toked up and gone to their typewriter after being at the clubs till 2 am. It was very clear that something incredibly passionate was happening even if I couldn’t understand a single word of it.
Some disciplines just have really good jargon, and I think that’s why a lot of my writer friends – poets and fiction writers – like reading my writing about perfume, because they just fetishize the language.
Obviously that’s what was happening with me, when I was reading these blogs without bothering to go and smell stuff for such a long time. I just have a really high tolerance for –
For bullshit? [laughing]
For reading things that sound beautiful that I don’t necessarily have to understand. That’s why I read poetry and I love literary theory. I just like being baffled I guess.
You were a sample hoarder for a long time. If I’m reading the chronology correctly, you didn’t own any full bottles until your wedding shower (which sounds like it was magical!). Are you able to resist the urge to hoard your perfumes?
Early on, I wrote a blog post for Perfume Smellin’ Things – called “Perfume Cool and The Rules” – and all my rules had to do with preventing myself from hoarding or being regretful about using things. Like, Don’t save things for special occasions – if you want to wear that really expensive rare perfume while you’re sitting around in your pajamas, just do it. And the other internal rules that I had for myself were all about trying to avoid as many “shoulds” as I could. I just had so much of that in the rest of my life, that I felt like perfume – um –
Perfume shouldn’t have rules!
Yes, perfume should be this thing where I felt free to get stuck on one thing and wear it over and over again without worrying that I was missing out on something, or if I tried a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t work out, I could just give up. I just wanted to give myself the kind of permission that I didn’t give myself with other things.
And do you feel that you’ve adhered to those rules?
It’s a fine line sometimes. For a long time I only had ½ ml of Jar Bolt of Lightning, and it seemed really unlikely that I’d ever have any more of it, since a bottle is like $800, so I did think to myself, I don’t want to put this on if I’m not going to be paying attention to it, I really want to wear it on a day when I’m going to be present for this particular performance. But I didn’t wait for a special occasion; I just wanted to wait for a moment when I knew I would enjoy it the most. The part of hoarding that I was trying to avoid was feeling like you have to earn your pleasure, like you have to do a certain amount of work or behave in a certain way to be deserving.
Another one of my rules is that I shouldn’t lie to myself about liking something. Which is kind of hard.
Have you caught yourself doing that?
Oh yeah. That’s why I have to have these rules, because I’m really susceptible to these things. I would try something that had been really hyped up or that I knew was supposed to be a big deal, and have to convince myself that I really did love it because I knew I would have bad taste if I didn’t.
I went through a period when I was 19 or 20 where I drank straight espresso with no milk or sugar because that was the cool thing to do, to like your coffee really black like that, and that fit this image I had of myself, sitting in a café – and I really wish I had allowed myself to have some milk all those years! That self-denial wasn’t helping anybody. I think there are lots of times when pleasure can be genuinely dangerous or distract you from real things you should be thinking about, but often we’re just playing these little games with ourselves.
So what have you been wearing lately? Name-drop something you’ve been loving.
Today I am wearing a very rare full-bottle purchase of Parfum d’Empire Azemour les Orangers, which I bought on the strength of Robin’s review on New Smell This.
Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.
Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.