Perfume as luxury, art, and consumer compulsion

When political prisoner Ingrid Betancourt was released after six years of captivity, she was asked how the experience had changed her. Her complicated response included a commitment to “always have flowers in my room and wear perfume.” The experience of being brutally treated, and, she emphasizes, isolated from most of the human cultural forms she had taken for granted, helped her to appreciate how blurry the line separating luxury from necessity can be.

The notion that music, poetry, and other aesthetic expressions are mere frilly add-ons to the nuts and bolts structure of life continues to be influential, perhaps especially among those most shaped by practical, Protestant-oriented, white North American values. Such folks are, it seems, particularly conditioned to be suspicious of ornamentation, decoration and whatever may be regarded as merely cosmetic ostentation. We can have “nice things,” pretty “extras,” such implicit training teaches, but only once the debt of life has been paid.


It is hardly surprising, then, that, in the West, perfume is regarded as a quintessential luxury item, and, so, for example, generally tossed into the “beauty” category of consumer goods. And it’s a categorization that is quickly revealed to be a feminist issue. “Beauty products,” after all, are overwhelmingly thought to be the purview of women, who, as great minds from Plato to the Nietzsche opined, seem to have an innate and irresistible penchant for such trivialities. It is no wonder, then, that so many contemporary Western women, especially feminists, feel conflicted about our attraction to the realms of “style” and “beauty.”

And, of course, perfume is obviously a mere luxury item in one important sense. We do not need it — or poetry, music, or visual art, for that matter — to survive in the most literal sense. However, as soon as we imagine a life imbued with constructed human meaning, some form of intentional aesthetic creation is indispensable. The arts — and we may include perfumery here — are revealed to be as essential to certain forms of specifically human existence as are air and water. As mammals, then, we may survive quite well without such symbolically rich manipulations of our reality, but, as human beings, we may quickly feel impoverished when these are denied us.

Paradoxically, the very tendency toward the denial of pleasure and its attendant message that sensual pleasure must be earned can push us toward overindulgence. After all, what better way to prove to others and myself that I have overcome my conditioning and embraced my own sensual desire than to give full rein to such indulgent whims? Besides, don’t I deserve to treat myself? Haven’t I worked hard? In a relentlessly consumerist environment, it may even be dangerous to defend perfume as an art, and risk providing further rationalization to those willing to max out their credit cards to possess it.

On the one hand, then, perfume is more than a mere luxury. As an expression of sometimes astonishing human artistry, it has the power to awaken our sensibilities and grace us with a sublimity that may feel utterly absent in other parts of our lives. On the other hand, though, contemporary perfumery, like other forms of commercially exchangeable art, has a shadow side, an aspect of commodification that marks it as a potentially addictive collectible. Perfume is not merely a luxury, then, but nor is it merely an innocent objet d’art.

4 thoughts on “Perfume as luxury, art, and consumer compulsion

  1. The first paragraph of this column stays in my mind and heart. Flowers in your room and wearing perfume….what an incredible thought after what must have been a terrible experience,

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  2. Exactly. This is an anecdote that I have probably referred to at least once a week for the past decade. It really reminds me to seize the (beautiful!) day.

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  3. a bit off topic, but maybe still on topic: I think men miss out by denying themselves the pleasures of perfume. as you mention in your article: the misconception is that perfume is a female, therefore frilly pleasure. but men also react to smells and scents (BBQ, burbon, cigars, coffee, their mothers’ baking etc.), and perfume doesn´t have to be sweet and floral (respectively also men can like sweet and floral and not be lesser men). also, why is it that men are attracted to women wearing perfume if supposedly it´s a female thing ? (rhetorical question). we should all just embrace what makes us happier and thus better, more generous, more empathetic people and not hold back because we think it´s not gender appropriate or superfluous luxury. if all it takes for somebody to enjoy life more, are a couple of drops of liquid art, than that person is one lucky fella and should go for it!

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  4. You make such good points about the complex ways that gender is bound up with ideas about what we’re “supposed” to enjoy or not. And once we’re alert to what’s happening, it’s pretty easy to see many of the ways we’re steered toward certain “gender-appropriate” scents and away from others. I, too, feel bad for men (and women) who cheat themselves of a broader range of enjoyment. I also really admire both women and men who are willing to challenge rigidly gendered aesthetic boxes. It’s one of the things that attracts me most to the “frag com.”

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