On Finding a Signature Scent

Signature scents are one of those things about which American beauty writers love to write. There’s this mysterious allure of wearing the same fragrance for the whole of one’s life that appeals to those of us struggling against a culture of novelty and trends. We see it as a very European thing; it almost always comes up in discussions of so-called “French girl” beauty. But the fact is that, as with makeup, new fragrances come along all the time. And we are always tempted by the new.

I’ve spoken briefly in the past about my problems with fragrance and body products. I had a catastrophic reaction to a scented body product that left me shy of anything with any added fragrance for a long time. While I’d started looking into natural personal care items before then, that was the incident that really tipped me over the edge into true hippydom. Lately, I’ve somewhat returned and realized that not all synthetic ingredients are bad. In fact, I’ve come to realize that it was likely an irritating essential oil that caused my original reaction.

Which is lovely as I’ve always loved fragrance. I have a particularly keen sense of smell and have associated scents with memories for the most odd events. I remember the oddly floral cologne that the first boy I ever slow-danced with wore. He had blond, floppy hair and was very cute and I was amazed that a boy even noticed me at the dance where I’d become separated from my friend group. I don’t remember ever seeing him again at a dance.

My mother wore Muguet des Bois by Coty, an appropriate beginning to my lifelong affinity for old-fashioned perfumed. Muguet was launched in the 30s and was based on the scent of the lily of the valley, my mother’s favorite flower. She had a small patch of muguet on the side of the house, but my grandmother had an even bigger patch in her garden. When they were in bloom, we would have them in vases around the house, and I would bring a bouquet to my French teacher. The very first upscale perfume I ever bought was Gucci Envy, which has a strong lily of the valley note to it. I bought it at Sephora to console myself after a breakup. I ended up wearing Envy for the rest of high school until I suddenly developed migraine headaches from the scent.

As I went away to college, I decided to reinvent myself with fragrance as well. I bought a bottle of Issey Miyake’s Eau d’Issey, which I kept on a shelf in my freshman dorm room. I honestly can’t remember any other personal care product I used (although I know shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and deodorant were present), but I remember that bottle of Issey with it’s conical bottle. It was a lighter, more modern floral. I also remember that my roommate’s boyfriend was oddly attracted to the fragrance.

After Issey came a period of time when I experimented with old classics. I wanted so badly to love Shalimar but discovered that I could not stand perfumes based with vanilla. So I found that Guerlain’s Mitsouko was similar, without the vanilla. It’s a lovely heady chypre with just enough floral to keep me interested. I felt so sexy wearing that fragrance… until a boy I was mad for mentioned that it reminded him of his sister!

From there, I abandoned high-end perfume for a while. I used Bath and Body Works Night-Blooming Jasmine, which was my first introduction to the sensuality that is jasmine. I lived across the street from a shopping center with a BBW and would layer the scent mercilessly, particularly on the weekends when I would take a bubble bath, followed by body lotion. I would emerge from the bathroom pink-cheeked, very soft, and trailing a cloud of floral. A friend and occasional lover commented that I should always smell of jasmine. Sadly, BBW discontinued the scent.

As I went away to graduate school and tried to grow up, I dabbled with designer perfumes: Fendi and Tocca. But never really found something that resonated. And then I reacted and banned fragrance from my life for months. I smelled of unscented soap and the vinegar I used to rebalance my hair after washing with soap.

Thankfully, somewhere along the way, I discovered Pacifica. Pacifica is a brand that started as a fragrance company. Similar to BBW, but with the goal of using natural ingredients, they have ranges of scents, such as California Star Jasmine or Malibu Lemon Blossom. The scents are mostly inspired by sunny, warm, and exotic locations, and tend towards fruitiness. But they have a scent called Persian Rose that is my favorite scent. I’ve been wearing it pretty consistently for a few years now and I love it. It is a balanced rose scent, based around Bulgarian Rose, but lifted with fruit and anchored with violet and myrrh. It is beautiful and complex but still definitively rosy. While some may think that rose is an old-lady scent, this is anything but geriatric.

After I shower in the mornings, I apply a very lightly scented body moisturizer and then dab on Persian Rose solid perfume. I may occasionally use the end of a bottle of eau de toilette to spritz, but I generally prefer the solid perfume. It warms and deepens on my skin in a more natural way. It doesn’t spread out from me as much, but I can always bring my wrist to my nose and remind myself of the scent, which makes me so happy and relaxed.

I think that the fragrance is a manifestation of my own personal style evolution. It is not expensive or designer, but it comes from a company that tries to source the best ingredients. It is blended and well-thought-out, but not pretentious. And it blends a traditional fragrance in a modern way. I love the way it makes me feel old-fashioned without feeling frumpy, much the way much of my wardrobe does. And in a way, fragrance is the first layer of my wardrobe.

A Whirl of Fragrance

Several years ago, I had a horrible skin reaction to an artisan soap. I suspected a fragrance oil the soap maker had used. Naturally, she was horrified and offered me a free bar to make up for it (I chose an unscented bar based on olive and avocado oils). Since then, I’ve been careful around scented products. Since then, I’ve come to realize it was probably a natural essential oil that caused my reaction, but I still vet fragranced items quite carefully. As I also get migraine headaches, I have yet another reason to be careful.

Sadly, fragrance is one of my favorite things. A scent can evoke so much feeling and memory. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching around for fragrance companies that really pay attention to the ingredients they put into their fragrance. I don’t always get completely all-natural items, but I prefer companies that avoid the major nasties and focus on naturally-derived scents.

Recently, I placed an order from Demeter Fragrance, a company that has been on my radar since I was a teenager and they were releasing really weird scents like “Dirt.” They focus on single-note scents and encourage blending and layering. As someone who favors simple scents and florals, I love this idea. Rather than getting a designer fragrance with a dozen notes in it, I can blend my own, really letting each element shine.

So I put together an order of samples, along with a small bottle of one of their completely 100% natural scents. I went with an assortment of florals (violet, Bulgarian rose, and jasmine), along with two spicier scents to use as bases (bourbon, and whiskey and tobacco), a sample of vetiver (for grounding), and a bottle of the 100% natural rose scent. They also included a free bottle of magnolia perfume.

I have to say the scents are lovely. The 100% natural rose is very rosy, though I can detect the distinctive scent of rose geranium. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to stay strong on my skin for long, but I appreciate it as a nice, natural-smelling scent.

The other florals are wonderful, too. The jasmine is a rich, syrupy jasmine, probably sambac rather than grandiflorum. The violet is very, very light, but has a lightness that I will revisit in the spring time. The Bulgarian rose is a fantastic, real-rose scent. Some people think florals smell grandmotherly, and while I’ve never seen that as a problem, none of these have that powdery scent that can make floral perfume smell odd.

The whiskey and tobacco has a strong pipe tobacco note, with a bit of whiskey’s sharpness underneath. It has a bit of vanilla to it, without smelling too sweet. The bourbon smells, well, like my bottle of Eagle Rare. It’s just sweet enough, just sharp enough, and with a brightness that will be fantastic in spring and summer. And vetiver is likely going to become my favorite base note.

I have to say, I was most impressed so far with the sample of magnolia. It’s not overpowering, but it’s very floral. When I was in high school, on my walk home, I would stop and stick my nose in the gigantic white blooms on the magnolia trees along my route. This captures the faint rosiness, the notes of honeysuckle and jasmine, and that special fragrance particular to a magnolia. It brings back memories, which is the ultimate goal of most fragrance for me. Despite the fact that it’s very much a spring-y scent, I will probably wear it throughout the dark days of winter to brighten my mood.

As far as the samples go, my plan to start blending and layering them to see what combinations I like. Then, I can order larger vials for blending a custom scent. So far, I believe I will try mixing jasmine with whiskey and tobacco, and vetiver. I may also try rose, violet, and bourbon.

I’m so excited to play with my little order of fragrance. I haven’t yet seen how the synthetic fragrance blends last on my skin, but I’m looking forward to experimenting.

Note: I purchased all these fragrances with my own money and have not received anything in return for this post. Even the sample was a standard gift-with-purchase.

My Vintage-Inspired Beauty Routine, Part 2: Body

The second part in my series on my beauty routine is my body care routine. My body routine is actually quite minimal, but I use natural products that smell and feel luxurious, so my shower every day is like a mini spa getaway.

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My body care routine is minimal because I try to make sure my lifestyle is conducive to beauty. I eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water. I find that eating enough fat is key to having soft skin and shiny hair. It’s a trick I learned in high school when I worked for a chocolatier.

I also keep active. This is an important beauty trick, as I find my skin is clearer when I’m active, in addition to my body looking and feeling better. Brisk walks (especially when it’s chilly!) leave me with a renewed sense of energy and a rosy glow. I try to take one nice walk each weekend, and get in bits of walking where I can during the week. I also perform my yoga and dance stretches several times a week to keep my limbs limber. It helps me carry my body more easily.

You see, a lot of beauty, especially vintage beauty, focuses on comportment as much as lotions and potions. Victorian women had their corsets to help them maintain erect posture, but I’ve cultivated it on my own. Over the summer, I was cast in a play where I played a character from 1905, and was able to get away without being corseted because my posture was sufficient to give the illusion of corseting.

But of course, most people read “beauty” and want to know about the lotions and potions. So I’ll go through my daily body beauty routine.

First, I drink a glass of water upon rising. This really should have gone in the skincare post because it’s made all the difference in the world with my complexion. I don’t add anything to it, just a glass of room-temperature water (I keep it by my bedside table all night so I don’t even have to go to the kitchen to get it). After that, I might get up and do some light stretches. Boyfriend takes the first shower most mornings, so I can plan my day, perhaps write a little, and choose my wardrobe. Then, I’m in the shower.

My shower is quite short. I will cover hair care in a later post. For my body, I wash with a cotton washcloth and some naturally-made soap with lots of lovely oils, and a light rose scent. Right now I’m using Good Soap from Whole Foods, but I’ve often used Mystic Water Soaps in the past. Most of my body care products are either rose or citrus scented. At the end, I turn the hot water down and rinse off with the coldest water I can stand. Then, I leap out and towel off.

I use my rose soap to shave my armpits when they need it, and I use either my soap or a bit of hair conditioner to shave my legs, about once a week. I shave my legs a bit more frequently when the weather and my schedule is conducive to showing a bit more leg, and less frequently in the dead of winter when my legs never see the light of day.

When I get out of the shower, I deodorize with a spritz of rosewater and a swipe from a crystal deodorant. I’m sometimes a little funky by the end of the day, but very few things will prevent that for me. So I stick with the natural stuff and try to change clothes or wash a bit if I feel myself getting stinky. Then, I apply lotion to my legs. I usually rub any excess into my elbows and hands. It was a trick to find a good body lotion because I have certain sensitivities, but this Acure lotion is my current favorite. Duly scrubbed and lotioned, I can head to the bedroom to dress!

In the bedroom, I finish off the one last step of my body care routine: fragrance. I had a bad skin reaction to some fragrance a few years back, so I’ve become very very careful about what I put on my skin. But I was fortunate to find Pacifica Beauty. All of their fragrances are derived naturally and have never caused a reaction, and their Persian Rose is a lovely pure rose scent, with just a hint of the warm undertone of myrrh to ground it. I dab it on at my pulse points. I also have a small vial of jasmine oil that I use for special evenings with Boyfriend. Every man I’ve ever met goes wild for the smell of jasmine.

Once in a while, maybe a couple times a month, I’ll give myself a real scrub-down with a pair of exfoliating gloves. I rinse with cold water, and apply rose-scented apricot kernel oil to my body. It leaves me smooth and glowing and just a little pink. This is particularly nice in conjunction with my weekly mask. I can apply my mask, and rinse it off under the warm showerhead. The steam helps soften the clay a bit before rinsing, so I don’t have to scrub my face too hard.

But for the most part, my body care ritual is simple and focuses first on best practices, and then on just a few good-quality ingredients. It’s just enough to keep me feeling feminine and clean without overdoing it.