What would you say you’re trying to communicate when you write about perfume?
The first thing I’d say I try to communicate is what the scent smells like. And that starts off in a really kind of empirical way: it smells like these notes. Then I move to what it makes me feel; what it’s conveying, what all these things together are evoking. And I try to situate it in a history: What must this scent have meant for people during its time. Emotionally, too: how does this scent make me feel? I try to hit all of those things.
Why? Because I don’t think people take scent as seriously as they should. I think in people’s lives scent actually has a lot of meaning. And because there’s not a lot of discourse around it they just experience it without really being able to analyze it the way you can other things. It’s culturally available to talk about movies or poems or fashion even, but with perfume, this very intimate, personal historical thing, they don’t really have the language to talk about it, so I try to initiate that conversation.
Why is that important to you?
It’s important to me because I think scent is important to people. It’s part of their memory; part of their cultural history. People can say, When I smell this, I return to my fourteen year-old self or my twenty year-old self or when I fell in love with this person or the way my grandmother smelled. These are important things. And I think they’re worthy of analysis.
If you could go back to the person who was going into the mall and spraying ten different things on herself, you as a teenager, and tell her anything, what would it be?
I don’t think she needed to know anything. If anything, she could tell me things. Because she was just open. She liked what she liked, she sprayed what she liked on her, and there wasn’t a lot of censorship. She just liked what she liked, and I think that’s something we can all learn from.
Where does the censorship come in for you now? Do you struggle with that?
Well, I think when I wear something people tell me they don’t like, it hurts my feelings, and it makes me second guess whether I should like it. We’re living in a culture where people don’t like perfume, they don’t like scent, they don’t want to smell you. So I’m very self conscious about scent. That girl didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. You know? I was wearing fifteen different perfumes. I wore whatever I liked. If people were like, I have a headache, I would just be like, roll a window down. I didn’t care.
Barbara Herman is the author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume and the website Yesterday’s Perfume. The short film above, These Things That Stink, was shot during a reading at Scent Bar in Los Angeles during the fall of 2013. The interview was conducted in May of 2014.