Signature scents and the myth of unique individualism

The very notion of finding a commercially available scent that somehow expresses one’s unique style, flair and presence, is paradoxical, if not downright contradictory. And the goal of selecting a mass market olfactory symbol that both captures my uniqueness, but also guarantees I will be lost in the crowd, reflects much of what is mythical and disingenuous about the consumer culture of style.

According to the romantic myth of the signature scent, I am meant to identify a perfume that accurately reflects something important about me. If I am traditionally feminine, then, perhaps, one of the Chanels will serve as my calling card. If I am a contemporary young man on the clubbing scene, then 1 Million or Invictus might work. In addition to expressing who I am, though, the signature scent is also supposed to hold a place in others’ minds that marks this olfactory trail as mine. In romantic literature the signature scent transforms the forgotten hankie, or rumpled pillowcase, into a talisman of memory and feeling. And it is this mixed intent, of both identifying oneself as a type and asserting one’s individuality, that makes the phenomenon of the signature scent so interesting to me.

After all, in settling on Chance, Dylan Blue, or Shalimar, we are selecting a sort of olfactory uniform that represents a pre-fabricated type of woman or man — e.g., young and playful, or sophisticated and serious — rather than the particularity of an actual, singular person. Of course, advertising ostensibly appeals to us as individuals, though its goal is, and must be, to reduce individual preferences to a reproducible, economically scalable formula. We are, in many ways, interchangeable units in a consumerist machine who, perhaps for this very reason, may need constant reassurance that our “unique” preferences and values are reflected in every choice, be it breakfast cereal, mascara, cough syrup, or athletic shoes.

Because of how easy it is to romanticize perfume, and, perhaps, because of its deep associations with our most primordial sense memories, it is easy to lose sight of how perfume consumerism, too, is driven by the same marketing and consumerist pressures as Ambien, Taylor Swift, and iWatches. In other words, though the romp through the department store fragrance counters may feel like a personal quest for a holy grail, it is, of course, conditioned by cosmetic companies’ narrow ideas of who we are and what, in our insecurity, we wish we could be. Much of their success is driven by our willingness to embrace prefabricated genres, often highly scripted according to race, gender and age.

This production of massive fragrance fan communities has its appeal, of course. In a previous OtherWise post, for example, I described how much I enjoy being able to join others in appreciating the wildly popular Sauvage (the insensitively Depp-centric marketing campaign notwithstanding). There is something socially and humanly satisfying in uniting with others in mass appreciation of a product, Olympic athlete, or musician. What’s jarring about the signature scent trope, is, though, the “signature” part, the pretense that our attraction to it is primarily about individual expression.

A stubborn attachment to the illusion of unique individualism is predictable given how loath many North Americans are to admit that, in fact, we are pretty content to blend in with the crowd. As critics the world over have pointed out, the notion that we are meant to express and celebrate our own individual essence is almost a religion in the U.S. And it’s one that rears its head in perfume discussions in amusing ways. For example, according to perfume lovers’ quasi-scientific references to “individual chemistries,” even though I may select a massively popular scent like Nautica Blue or La Vie Est Belle, I can rest assured that, as it blends with my particular biology (and spiritual essence?) it will be transformed into an aroma that is uniquely mine.

I suppose we should all be pleased that there seems to be far less emphasis on signature scents than there used to be. This surely has partly to do with the sheer variety of options now available. I also wonder, though, if an insistence on oneself as beyond the “signature scent” ideology may itself be understandable as yet another chapter in the quest for individuality. There is, after all, a wildly popular post-modern notion of identity, according to which I regard myself as a protean, internally-driven aesthetic agent, utterly impossible to label or pin down. Happily, there are scores of niche and indie labels prepared to help me, and the many others like me, to fulfill our quest to become mysterious, unpredictable, radically unique 21st century individuals.

2 thoughts on “Signature scents and the myth of unique individualism

  1. I wore a particular fragrance (Sung) for at least half the year for about a decade when my children were younger. Years later, one of my daughters said that she always remembered me smelling of Sung. For her it was my signature scent. Now I wear a different fragrance nearly every day and have some regrets that I no longer will have someone remembering me by a particular scent. It was a designer mall scent, but I didn’t run across other people wearing it. And it plays a special place in my fragrance history.

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  2. For me, this is the one appeal about the idea of a signature scent. It’s funny, though, I’m working on an essay about my mother and I realize that my scent memory of her is actually some combo of hairspray, cigarettes, and drugstore perfume. I guess our “scent profiles” include more than just perfume……It’s sweet that your daughter associates Sung with you. I bet one day she buys herself a bottle, if it’s still available….

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