"You Smell Like Powder"

"And so do you."

I work with a young woman who greets me, on many mornings, with a backhanded compliment, saying with a laugh, "You smell like powder." Now, it should be noted that many masculine fragrances do in fact smell like powder, and that I own and occasionally wear a few of them. If I were to wear Royal Copenhagen, and she were to tell me that I smelled like powder, I would say she has an astute sniffer. Ditto for Tabac, Old Spice, Caron's Third Man, Brut, Canoe, KL Homme, Lagerfeld Classic, and Rive Gauche Pour Homme.

But she rarely mentions the powder thing when I wear those scents. (Granted, some I rarely wear.) No, she mentions the powder thing every single time I wear Grey Flannel. That's right, Grey Flannel. Green, mossy, flowery, earthy, woody, dark, somber Grey Flannel. The greenest old school masculine I've ever encountered. And it doesn't matter if I'm wearing vintage or new; her reaction is always the same. It actually makes her laugh: "Bryan, you're wearing baby powder again."

That this girl should associate Grey Flannel, even Jacqueline Cochran Grey Flannel, in all its Green Irish Tweedy glory, with baby powder, is simply a testament to how differently our minds interpret things. And is she wrong? I've always felt that GIT has a bit of a talc-like powder element in its far drydown, and I've also noted a mild powder element in Grey Flannel's heart, so her comments aren't obviously "wrong."

However, I rarely think of Grey Flannel as being a "powdery" scent. If I want powder, I don't reach for anything Beene. I reach for any of the others mentioned here. I reach for Grey Flannel when I want dry, green, floral, mossy. I wear it thinking "soapy" and "woody" and "bitter" and "fresh." Galbanum has a powdery aspect to it, and this burst of hazy greenness greets me every time, but it is soon followed by rich citrus esters, and the brisk snap of violet leaf. So what's up with this powder thing?

There's a simple lesson here. No matter how well you think you know a fragrance, or how well you understand its effect on you, your interpretation of what you perceive upon smelling something will not be the same as someone else's. The other person will likely have a slightly different interpretation of what you're wearing, or an entirely different take altogether. If it's the latter, then this turns your perception upside down completely. Until I began working with Ms. Powder Nose, I always thought of Grey Flannel as "green."

Now I can't help but think of powder, specifically baby powder.

But it gets better. One day I wore Mitsouko to work, and again, the powder comment. "You always smell like powder!"

Does anyone think Mitsouko smells powdery? I don't. Of course, as with all scents, there may be an element of powder in the fragrance, and this is usually where the florals are. But to completely identify Mitsouko with "powder" is very strange.

Perceptions vary, and in the case of this person, I can only say that she apparently perceives many synthetic compositions as being powdery, or of having prominent powdery qualities, regardless of whether the fragrance is generally thought of that way. Grey Flannel and Mitsouko are two frags that I generally consider "mossy." But who am I to argue with her?


  1. I’ve been thinking about something like this question a lot over the past twenty four hours, as I’ve been wearing Eau Sauvage Parfum, a Christmas gift, and alternating between smelling, reading, listening to myself think and (owing to the persistence of this composition) being interrupted by my own nose. It’s a great example of how expectations can confuse the issue. As has been said by you & others, this does not make one think of Eau Sauvage as we know it… It is the furthest thing from an hesperidic old-world cologne; a deep, unctuous formula, consisting of minimal bergamot, maybe a touch of lavender and jasmine, lots of coumarin and some stabilizing, woody vetiver and a wisp of vanilla, all communicated as almost subliminal directives from behind a near-opaque veil of myrrh. When I first tried a year and a half ago, I wrote a review interpreting it as a sort of lower octave echo of the effervescence of the famously radiant original. I’m still mulling that over… The myrrh is mobile; in fact, it is ticklish. Once you’ve accepted that it is all about the myrrh, it is surprising how moreish it can be, here like cream soda, there a kind of appetizingly chalky sandalwood or tarry tobacco, and overall dense and complex. Objectively, I think it smells quite good, but I can’t stop interrupting myself to analyze it. Now, my background is in visual art and, to a lesser extent, poetry, and I know from the former, especially, that when it is a question of trusting sensual experience or language, experience must win, every time, or turnabouts and chagrin will be forthcoming. I know by now the distinct ‘duh’ moment that happens (embarrassingly, afresh, all over again) every time I realize that language has failed and we are back again in the realm of the naked encounter. Thank goodness, or nothing of substance could ever happen in the studio. But it doesn’t help with the insecurity – nothing does.

    I any case, I guess I’d say that your coworker doesn’t have enough experience really trying to put sensual encounters into the right language, and is resorting to a shortcut, the inaccuracy of which is grounded in the associative by way of the anecdotal (people do it all the time when they talk about art, believe me, and its an unlovable task to try to disabuse them). Maybe next time she says it, ask her what she means, or when she last smelled powder (try playing dumb, or becoming Dr. Freud?) It might be interesting to have her try to put it into words, to see if there is a clue in a ‘story’ of what powder means to her that would help you better understand what’s behind her impression or (better still) a new way of thinking about your old favorites.

    1. Her nose is untrained for sure, but the fun of tuning her understanding of ambient fragrance is robbed a bit by knowledge of who she is. I once told her not to trash a sealed bottle of water, viewing such disposal as wasteful, given its viability for use by someone else. She immediately criticized me for wanting to save the bottle, and asked if I save everything, to which I said I try to save anything that doens't need to be thrown away, and that I've saved many things over the years. Her response? "So you're a hoarder."

      She is someone who uses any molecule of information she can glean against you via willfull distortion, which explains why, at 31, a physically attractive woman such as herself is hopelessly single. If I were to attempt to further enter the Viet Cong of her imagination in an attempt to reconcile her interpretations of classical chypres with the smell of baby powder, I imagine I would suffer a considerable degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome in the ensuing months.

  2. It's weird. Fragrantica did a Best in Show for powdery scents, and one of the writers listed Grey Flannel.
    I don't get it. It smells soapy, sure, perhaps also like potpourri, but I don't get powder out of it. The florals don't even remind me of all those after shower/baby powders, which I'd usually associate with lavender.
    I could see someone thinking Versace Lhomme, Eau Sauvage, Monsieur de Givenchy etc as being powdery, since their lemon notes do slightly remind me of the lemon top in Jean Nate, even though I don't get a powdery vibe out of them. But I just don't get Grey Flannel being powdery

    1. I can get the idea that Grey Flannel is a "powdery green scent" if we're going to be as accurately descriptive as possible. It's abundance of galbanum and oakmoss (in older formulas) does lend itself to a rather powdery aura, particularly in the second to last EA formula, before they stripped all the moss out. But to define the fragrance flatly as "powdery" seems entirely wrong. This is a viable wetshaver masculine, but unlike Brut and Canoe, its qualities veer starkly into the woody-green territory, and steer well clear of baby powder or plain talc.

      I also get the powdery aspect in the mid stage of Versace L'Homme, as you mentioned. Bright spiced citrus accords can become dry to the point of seeming powdery, especially if they aren't tempered by florals or woods. Oddly it's the ginger in L'Homme that seems to add to the spare dryness of the scent, which is something I really like about it.

  3. From Fragrantica GB's GF- "Top notes are galbanum, neroli, petitgrain, bergamot and lemon; middle notes are mimosa, iris, violet, sage, rose, geranium and narcissus; base notes are tonka bean, almond, oakmoss, vetiver and cedar."

    Powder notes are usually iris/orris, violet, vanilla, taif rose, some musks, heliotrope, opoponax, and some amber-oakmoss effects.

    She's actually not too far off looking at the notes of GF. Maybe she can't smell some of the other green/floral/citrus notes so that's what it smells like to her? The sage, citrus, and very herbaceous tonka bean stand out to me in GF.

    The J&J Baby Powder here in India smells like it has a dollop of patchouli in it. I wouldn't be surprised as patchouli is used in a lot of ayurvedic remedies for children here.

    Prada's Infusion D'Iris smells like a sophisticated take on J&J's BP to me. From Fragrantica- "This modern and elegant fragrance opens with notes of mandarin, galbanum, orange and orange blossom which lead to the heart composed of iris, cedar and vetiver. The base is composed of incense and benzoin."

    Vetiver is another note that smells dry & powdery to me also.

    I've had a number of friends/patients/distant family suffering the terminally negative 'willful distortions' you speak of. Unless you really get to know them (which I don't recommend) it's hard to say if it's 1) simply behavior learned from a depressive or Cluster B parent, 2) they are clinically depressed and interpret everything negatively, 3) they have Borderline Personality disorder and interpret everything as a threat.

    I had a friend once that was sooo negative she earned herself the nickname "Eeyore." One day I was so sick of her negativity I asked her, "Do you realize nearly everything you say is negative? You do know that is a choice? You can choose to focus and speak about the positive aspects of things and people will react positively to you." It was like a light bulb came on with a look of surprise on her face. Yes indeed, she did have a depressive alcoholic parent from which she had learned to frame everything negatively in her life.

    Physically attractive males and females whom are depressive or BPD can usually find an enabling spouse if they wish to. Eventually the enabling spouse realizes his/her 'white knighting' will not save their beloved from mental illness & divorce ensues. Or the enabling spouse becomes the long suffering codependent caretaker of his/her dysfunctional husband/wife. Depressive & BPD patients are the hardest to treat as they don't really want to change. They will take meds but therapy goes nowhere as they prefer the familiar prison of their negativity & willful distortion. What does usually work is if they lose EVERYTHING- by completely alienating family, friends, spouse, employer and financial security. Then they start participating in therapy looking to change their behavior & taking their meds regularly. Or they go suicidal. Or they decide someone in their life is to blame for all their mishaps and go full on "Fatal Attraction."

    Your friendly pharmacist & armchair psychiatrist,
    Dr Maizoon

    1. What discourages me these days is that people have no perspective on anything. Trump's election is proof. The teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling is still going on, and it's insane. Getting into relationships is like diving into a pool of bullshit with someone, although I would guess it's always been that way to some degree. Nowadays though it's hard to even get through a first date without wondering how the hell you could spend your whole life with her. If she thinks I smell like powder, fine with me, I'm too exhausted to argue.

  4. Maybe the issue is whether saying, 'you smell like powder' means something else entirely... I find my wife has gone through a funny moment of declaring that some fragrances do not smell particularly masculine or alluring (which, to her credit, does not mean that she finds them unappealing as fragrances), only to seem to find them quite attractive at other intervals, usually after they have become more integrated into her perception of me over the long term (the best example of this is Caron's Pour un Homme). The way I see it, she is a little uncomfortable with a new branding of me-ness being brought into the house (what next, a red sportscar?), and, being an exquisitely tasteful single-signature gal herself, tends to associate my current interest in experiential experimentation with fragrances with indecisiveness, the latter not the most reassuring (read: 'masculine') of traits. Only when it becomes familiar, a piece of me (or us?) does this fragrance get trusted with a richer range of appreciations. 'You smell powdery' may be your friend's way of keeping you at arm's length, a protracted vetting, or a way of seeing if you'll take the bait and push back a little. My advice (not that anyone asked!) is to develop a -- hopefully endearing, in a Hepburn-Tracy kind of way -- stock response that has just a little pushback of its own.
    OK, now another subject entirely... I know that this is my problem, but the most current version of Grey Flannel just doesn't feel as 'damp' and mossy as I want it to. I feel like a cad for asking, but do you know anything that might take its place? The closest I've sniffed is the (now discontinued) Narciso Rodriguez, but it lacked the floral beauty of GF. Encre Noire had a kind of damp dimension I thought, but I'm allergic to ISO, so it's a no go...

    1. Just out of curiosity, how do you know you're allergic to ISO? It's one of those exhaustively tested synthetics that chemists and those who hob-nob with them swear is hypoallergenic. I can't vouch for it, but thus far oakmoss and perhaps one other floral alcohol (something related to muguet is my suspicion) cause me allergic reactions.

      You'd have to know the person I'm referring to when I mention the "powder" thing. Generally this comment is something I don't even bother retorting to. In this particular case, I've decided I shouldn't even bother acknowledging that the comment was made in the first place. It's an attention-maintained behavior.

      Your wife sounds like the sort of woman who knows what she likes, and wants to accurately project this trait onto you. What confuses her is that you also know what you like (and dislike) but you're open to variety. Have you tried weening her onto other things? Like starting with a fragrance somewhat similar in basic appeal to Caron PuH - like Canoe, for example - and going very light on it at first, then gradually easing up the dose, so that this transition between frags seems seamless?

      A Grey Flannel replacement is actually best found in its closest relative: Green Irish Tweed. The only difference between the two fragrances is that GIT has far less oakmoss and far more fruity dihydromyrcenol pervading its structure. Otherwise, GIT and Grey Flannel are, pardon the pun, cut from the same cloth.

  5. Thank you for those tips... The self-discipline required to ween *myself* onto something is truly an object worth contemplating. She is much too clever to be fooled by seamless weening (gosh that sounds weird), but, to her credit, I think she is not all that much of a proactive projector as she seems to really like everything I really like after awhile. I think it's a matter of imprinting. I will try GIT, and thanks for reminding me... I must have had a mental block about it, a.) because it can't be sniffed around here, and b.) because some kind of latent poverty mentality probably stops me from trying it for fear I will fall for it hard.

    As for ISO... It's just a guess, but I get a kind of neck prickle (feels like a stiff neck) from Terre d'Hermes, Encre Noire, and even the lovely Declaration; it sort of sneaks up throughout the day. ISO would seem to be the common denominator there, which means that I will only ever be an academic member of the cult of Ellena... I'm also somewhat anosmic to it, which, let me tell you, is a weird situation with a note that is so often used for technical support. On contemporary synthetics and allergens: I don't wish to be one of those people for whom IFRA is the source of all evil, but I'm mistrustful of the assurances of corporations that are clearly profiting from the need to replace naturals (a fluctuating market) with predictable synthetics like ISO.

    1. I totally understand what you're saying. When it comes to allergic reactions to various chemicals, I think the mindset of their manufacturers is one of statistical probability. With a synthetic, you're dealing with a single molecule. With a natural equivalent, you're dealing with up to a thousand different molecules, all in the same substance. So the IFRA and various chemist concerns are basing their push toward synthetics on the mathematical notion that despite having some flaws, the simplicity of a synthetic material is far less likely to irritate us than its natural counterpart. I can say that I have a mild allergy to pure sandalwood absolute. Synthetic sandalwood notes have yet to bother me, including those found in Mitsouko, Arden Sandalwood, and Green Irish Tweed (which always used mostly synthetic sandalwood, though now it uses even less due to reformulation).

  6. Completely off topic (except looping back around to Grey Flannel-related enthusiasms)... I recently ordered a bottle of Barrister and Mann's Lavanille soap and aftershave splash as an attempt to prologue & flesh out my (now pretty much signature/obsessive) routine with Caron Pour un Homme. Both are lovely products, but neither really do what PuH does for me (sadly it seems impossible to find a Canadian supplier for the aftershave splash or shaving soap made by Caron). The Lavanille is a lot "darker", with a heavy musk. The Lavanille splash, however, reminded me of something else altogether: Grey Flannel. There's a strong chamomile note in it that seems to form a bridge in my olfactory hippocampus between GF and Fahrenheit. Very weird, but certainly there. If you ever try it, let me know if you have the same reaction.


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