You're a professional, a young woman in her mid twenties with a good job, and you've only been employed there a week. It's Friday. Casual Friday. So that morning you decide to break out your old torn-shoulder Madonna throwback shirt and skintight ripped jeans, and you're extra careful to let your pink Victoria's Secret wire bra strap show. You douse yourself in some chinsy Body Shop body spray and head off.
By day's end, every woman in the office has given you looks so dirty, you'd swear they'd mistaken you for Melania Trump. Conversely, every married male has made it a point to stop in and hand you something pointless to "look over." But the only thing they're interested in looking over is sitting behind your desk, drinking your coffee, looking an awful lot like you.
You say to yourself as you drive home, "I wonder what it was? I mean, it's Friday. And I'm hot. I'm making as much as anyone else in that place. This shirt is my favorite. I wore it for ME. Ditto these jeans and high-heels. I really don't care what anyone else thinks."
Monday rolls around, and the first thing you see is an office letterhead on your desk, with a hand-signed message from the boss. The boss is, predictably, a cantankerous Republican bitch on her second marriage. It reads:
"It came to my attention Friday afternoon that your attire was offensive to your coworkers. Please be sure to adhere to our dress code policy and only wear attire that is professional and becoming of our company image. This is the only notification you will given on this matter. If this issue is not resolved, the board will take the appropriate measures to ensure that our office does not become a hostile environment.
You're shocked, but should you be? After all, "Casual Friday" isn't a license to dress like a Reagan-era hooker. But you were so comfortable, and you actually got work done! It feels outrageous. It feels wrong on every level. The week goes by, and Friday rolls around again. This time you stop and think before you dress. Frustrated and intimidated by your options, you decide that the spare pantsuit will have to do. It's a straight-laced, colorless thing that would make Carmella Bing look frumpy. But it's safe.
I can't tell you how many times I read internet comments about "why" people wear their fragrances that mimic the same basic message: "I wear fragrance for me, and I don't care what others think about how I smell."
This is an interesting approach to society. Wear clothing to look good for other people. Wear your hair in a way that doesn't make you look like a dirty slob or a bag lady. Wear your attitude, with or without pretense, so no one could ever accuse you of lacking personality. But your fragrance? Ah, that - that's easy: people don't exist. The only nose on the planet is yours. The olfactory world is like that lame Times Square scene in the movie Vanilla Sky. How you smell does not matter beyond your own nose. You don't care what other people think about your personal odor. It's all for you.
I'm probably guilty of this sentiment myself, and given how often the subject comes up, it's likely that I've said the same thing at least a half dozen times across as many forums.
But let's face it - is this the way to go about wearing perfume? Is it appropriate to not give a shit when you apply your signature? Is it a question of your selection, or how much you apply? Is it passive aggressive to not give two shits about either one? Or are other people too sensitive to be bothered with?
I think these are questions without clear answers. The scenario described above is fairly realistic for many workplaces (and not for many others), but it addresses personal appearance, which is often the first vantage point for being judged. Perfume raises the question of personal smell, a far more subjective topic, one that even excludes a certain percentage of the population (the anosmics among us). Do we perfume wearers have to treat it as seriously as we treat our clothing?
There is some passive aggression to the idea that we shouldn't care what others think of how we smell. It's not exactly the most considerate stance to take, particularly if you're in close quarters with others for extended periods of time. It also assumes that perfume has a very limited message to impart, one that does not reach beyond a basic olfactory summation of your style. Are you the "fresh prince" who smells like salty melons? Or are you the academic intellectual who finds solace in clove oil? Which stereotype does your scent make you?
I'm probably not going very far out on a limb in saying that it's likely you don't want your perfume to "sum you up." Gravestones sum us up, not perfumes. Isn't the marginalization of an outsider's opinion on your scent the same as saying your perfume is little more than a trite "impression" of you on that given day? Wouldn't you rather ascribe some meaning to that impression, abstract as it may be?
I'm certainly not a fashion icon by any measure. My clothing choices are so banal and forgettable that I could probably be the poster child for some futuristic anti-fashion movement. Yet I have a large rotation of fragrances, many of which are quite different from each other. Thus, my choices are reflective of my mood, and how I wish to carry the day. Perhaps there are times when it doesn't really matter "why" I chose something, and I simply threw something random on myself to smell "good." Full stop.
Then there are times when it's a more calculated choice. I'm wearing Tea Rose on the day after wearing Lapidus Pour Homme. What implications does this have for whoever smells me? If the same noses are sensing my presence on both days, they may infer from day one that I'm feeling "manly," and on day two "a bit femme." Or perhaps that my Lapidus day is me in a bad mood, while the Tea Rose day is me feeling cheerful. These could be the humorous musings they have about me, if they take all of five seconds to care. I'm sure it's happened many times.
So I can't say that how I smell doesn't convey a deeper message. With the "a bit femme" thought, there's a new line of questioning that comes up: "Is he gay? Maybe, but he smelled pretty straight and "frat-housey" yesterday. Is he bi? Perhaps. Is rose masculine these days? Or is he just a weirdo? I think he's that last one, for sure!" Judgments about my core self are being rendered, all because of what I'm sending through the airwaves.
Yet I carry on undeterred, blithely uncaring that coworkers are formulating relatively complex assessments and questions about me, little old me, the uncaring man who simply wears what he wears because he's wearing it for him, and no one else. Right? No, no, no. Wrong. I'm not an idiot. There's a message there for others to receive, and it means something, even if the message is mysterious, contradictory, or just plain unclear. My fragrances - all of them - are strung along together as one ongoing communication with the outside world, and this largely unspoken dialogue is borne out of care.
Granted, these perceptions are more likely to occur among people who don't know me, but are always around me, namely coworkers. Friends are privy to more information, but coworkers are all walking that fine line between familiarity and fired. Everyone is careful not to hit that wrong note. Let's not create a hostile work environment.
This includes me. I must try not to cause headaches, or whatever other form of fuck-all discomfort that could arise. I shouldn't advertise a symphony in D Minor and start playing punk, even though I'm dressed in a button-up shirt and blue jeans with Anaïs Anaïs in second gear.
And can I really honestly say that a comment from some equally unscrupulous asshole who is offended by my fragrance, or perhaps by its volume, isn't going to stay with me for a few years whenever I reach for that particular scent in my rotation? I'll be really as real as real can be here, and admit that the one that got an insufficiently hushed "Pee-yeew!" from the hot blonde at the front desk as I was walking away is the one I wear a bit less frequently than I used to.
I've seen the argument that if people are seriously offended by one's choices in fragrance, such people are "going out of their way to be offended." Most fragrances are designed to smell good, and most are hypo-allergenic, so what leg does anyone have to stand on by being "offended" by some perfume? They're reaching. They're looking for reasons to complain. They're Whoopi Goldberg.
I happen to agree with this, if we're talking about the random passer-by on the street. Strangers in a restaurant have no business being offended by your fragrance. For them to take offense, or to care in any negative way, is a major reach on their part, a blatant attempt to stir up trouble and waste your time. They're the ones who protested Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, back in the nineties when they were making Basic Instinct. The protest was framed to show the public that it's offensive to "misrepresent" others, namely bisexual women and male rapists, with the implications being that Douglas and Stone were inaccurately portraying these two disparate minority groups.
These arguments were a colossal waste of time. Anyone with a sense of perspective could see that Basic Instinct was being directed by the reigning prince of schlock cinema at that time, none other than Paul Verhoeven. The flick was merely a B movie featuring two A-Listers, and Stone wasn't even really A-List at the time. Were Romanians offended in 1931 when Dracula was released? Maybe some were. But they were offended by a B movie, in a time when most B movies were being made to offend someone, somewhere, somehow. Studios hope a relatively small group of people will be screaming mad, and give them free press. They bank on them, really. There's always a group of screaming mad people, waiting for the next reason to get mad and scream.
They're the same folks who made "Fragrance-Free Zones" a thing twenty-five years ago.
So yeah, random people have no business being offended. What do they care, anyway? I'd rather smell a questionable perfume than the stink of a New York subway car.
But people who are part of your life, whether it be your professional or personal life (or both), deserve a little more respect.
I'm always careful not to over-apply, and I'm embarrassed if someone can smell me from across the room, as I should be. I'm also careful about what sort of scent I wear on certain days. If there's going to be a building meeting, maybe Kouros is a bad choice, and Pour un Homme de Caron is a better one. If it's "Casual Friday," a fruity-floral like Chrome Legend is a nice, non-threatening sort of thing to enjoy at a light volume, but let's not have too much fun and apply fifty sprays. Your friend's grandmother's funeral is a Grey Flannel affair; you should shelve your bottles of Laguna and Joop! Homme.
In all actuality, saying "I wear fragrances for ME, I really don't care what anyone else thinks" is a little callous, and should only ever be half-true. Say it if it makes you feel good, but if someone challenges you on it, don't pretend it's a non-issue that shouldn't be discussed further.
There's one other element to this that bears mentioning: the "Panty Dropper" meme that keeps cropping up on forums. The idea, if you've been living under a rock for the last ten years, is that certain perfumes make sexual partners swoon, and drop their panties (or boxers). These fragrances are purportedly Love Potion No 9s with guaranteed results in the bedroom, as endorsed by countless brain-dead "bros" from here to Algiers.
And this offends some people, because it's "sexist," and it's "untrue on every level." Oddly enough, the suggestion that perfume is inherently sexy, and a tool useful for attracting sexual partners, is also considered offensive in some quarters.
Let me say this: If you're seriously offended by this term, and with the idea that some fragrances on some people could, and against all odds, elicit strong sexual responses from whomever they wind up with on Saturday night, you're an asshole. Find something worthwhile to be prissy about, like the fact that Donald Trump might actually become the leader of the free world next year. Huffing about a term like "panty dropper" is just as tacky as the term itself. Perfume goes on our bodies, our bodies have a way of going on other people's bodies, and it's no leap to associate perfume with sex. Unless you're on basenotes, where the sexiness of wearing perfume is apparently an alien concept.
For the rest of us, it's perfume. It's at least a little sexy to wear it.
To varying extents, we all care about it.
Let's find it within ourselves to lighten up and laugh about it.