There’s a Cigarettes After Sex song that goes “[you] said you wear a new perfume for each city that you visit so you can always remember how it felt to be there.” Since high school, I’ve thought about this line, but it wasn’t until I started traveling that I really understood it.
Perfume is just a smell is how I used to think. I never wore it for two reasons, first, because my mother was sensitive to strong scents, and second because I didn’t see the point. These days, however, I almost never leave the house without dousing myself in what has become my signature scent—Eau de Parfum by Chloé.
The concept of the “signature scent” has been around for a while; in Ancient Persia, kings often had their own signature scents that others were forbidden to use. In the Renaissance, Catherine de’ Medici was also known for wearing a personalized perfume made from orange blossom and bergamot. And of course, in contemporary culture, the notion lives on by way of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, who famously declared she slept naked, clothed only in Chanel No. 5.
However, while fragrances function as a means of self-definition and image-making, they also draw their significance from the associations we have with them.
Scents have a unique relationship with our memories. Indeed, science confirms that “smell and memory are so closely linked because the anatomy of the brain allows olfactory signals to get to the limbic system very quickly.” This is why certain smells often trigger intense memories.
In my case, I began wearing essential oils in university, and the smell of patchouli reminds my roommates and me of our second-year apartment, where I would diffuse a generous amount of it through the air and slather it onto myself before leaving for class. When I traveled to Dubai a few years ago, I thought of the lines from that Cigarettes After Sex song and impulsively bought a pack of three cheap perfumes from the Dubai Mall.
Although I now have a signature scent, I like to change it up depending on what I want to be reminded of. When I want to remember Montreal in the fall, I spray on Chance by Chanel. When I want to feel the warmth of summer, the visits to theme parks, and the pool parties, I wear a cheap spray from Bath and Body Works. And when I want to be taken back to the streets of Old Dubai, the lush shade of palm trees, and the fiery orange setting sun, I douse myself generously in the cheap perfume that I bought there; it’s incredible what a little bit of sandalwood is capable of.