Last month, I sat in a chair in the Silliman Library and immediately knew who had sat there before me. It was my friend Camille—I could smell traces of her around the veneered desk and leather upholstery. She smells like osmanthus and lemon—like a beam of morning light that’s been petrified and shattered across the floor, like wearing clean clothes and opening the windows. She smells like nobody else. Camille bought her perfume, Nimbis, from an independent parfumerie in L.A., where the owner hand-formulates every fragrance. She tried out eighty (eighty!) different perfumes before settling on her signature scent, sniffing diligently until she found one that suited her perfectly.
Nathan smells like sweet tobacco and sage. His smell conjures late-night conversations, dark liquor, and soft music. When I spray his cologne on my wrists, I feel handsome. It’s pleasurably disorienting to wear someone else’s fragrance, even more visceral and intimate than wearing a friend’s clothes because scent is so deeply ingrained in identity. A combination of an individual’s grooming products and their unique skin chemistry, personal fragrance is like an atmospheric fingerprint. Smell is the sense most closely linked to recollection, meaning that a person’s smell is a temporal thread that anchors them in the memories of others. In fifty years, sniffing Nathan’s long-empty bottle of cologne will transport me back to Yale more powerfully than scrolling through photos or listening to old playlists.
Dr. Jeffrey Alexander is a Sociology professor at Yale and a leading theorist in the subfield of social performances and material aesthetics. Last spring, I took his seminar “Material Culture and Iconic Consciousness.” In class, we discussed the social messaging underlying objects and images from French wine labels to Nike ads to Greta Garbo’s face.
Alexander has an impressive collection of thin-rimmed circular eyeglasses and an affinity for tweed blazers. He speaks slowly, in a voice full of gravel, and asks questions as complex as “how do brands capitalize on the concepts of the sacred and profane?” and as ostensibly simple as “why are you wearing that outfit?”
Alexander’s 2020 article “The Performativity of Objects” introduces “icon theory,” a sociological framework for reading the material world. Icon theory says that because materiality is animated by performativity, we can better understand our lives by noticing performance in the quotidian: it’s a way to examine how things interact with people. After reading the article, I became curious about the boundaries of materiality, and whether nonmaterial choices of design fit into the performance framework. Icon theory, in Alexander’s structuring, requires both “audience” and “object.” Do activations of the senses with no physical mooring fit into his theory?
I became interested in the sociology of smell because, along with its mnemonic capacity, perfume has a complex aesthetic nature not often examined through an academic lens. It is a method of personal design that communicates in a more intimate and profound register than what is accessible through visual stylization.
Despite not being an object in the most traditional sense, fragrance exhibits “social performance” within the theoretical framework of icon theory. In Alexander’s lexicon, “fusion” refers to an audience’s reaction to an object or performance. Although fragrance evades definition as an object because it is so diffuse, it possesses an inherent physicality: its consumption demands presence and proximity. Despite its perceived lack of materiality, it is more intimately material as a component of personal style than easily identifiable design objects like lipstick or jewelry. An elaborate makeup look or an exquisite necklace can be visually captured and virtually disseminated, and therefore does not require physical proximity to fuse with an audience. However, perfume cannot be transmitted via digital networks: it is a distinctly live social performance that requires attention here and now.
Tyler’s perfume of choice is Lust by Lush, a sweet and heady jasmine scent. She wears Lust on dates, and intentionally applies it sparsely. “I apply just a little to create a subtle sweetness that you have to get closer to really smell,” she says. The restricted performance of perfume creates a sense of physical magnetism.
Experts in perfume characterize a fragrance according to three metrics: projection, sillage, and longevity. Projection refers to how far away it can be smelled from, sillage communicates the strength of the scent trail that the wearer leaves behind, and longevity describes the scent’s lifespan on a wearer’s skin. Many perfume wearers recognize that their scent’s place on the spectra of boldness/reservation and heaviness/lightness say as much to their audience as the scent’s bouquet of notes. My friend Natalie wears Glossier You, an amber scent that “melts into the skin and smells a bit different on everyone.” They selected it in part because of its reserved projection and sillage: “I prefer perfume that clings to the skin and can’t be smelled from far away—filling an entire room with my scent feels too imposing.” Fragrance’s materiality is nebulous; it can engulf those in its range. It’s a performance that descends from the stage and demands audience participation. Smell is carnal—it can evoke reaction (fusion) more viscerally than most visual designs, which, even when observed closely are still remote.
Perfume effectively extends the boundaries of the body. For those who prefer a conspicuous scent, the price of perfume is the price of taking up extra space, of soliciting extra attention. But perfume’s spatiality is polarizing. Fragrance alters the space surrounding the body, thereby laying claim to it. When I sat down in the library, I immediately thought, this is Camille’s chair. Audiences can either find this pleasurable and fuse with the performance, or find it offensive and reject it. The intensity of our reactions to smell is linked to immediacy—because fragrance is invisible, there’s no opportunity to brace oneself when unknowingly entering into someone’s aromatic territory.
This intensity results in concrete and enduring impressions. “I think smelling good is one of the best first impressions you can make on someone. I’m always so impressed with people who smell good when I meet them, and I tend to remember them and regard them well,” my friend Z said. This implication is not so superficial as it appears. Due to its spatiality, fragrance is an immersive experience—and when immersed in someone’s social performance, character judgements naturally arise.
Said character judgements are completely subjective: people connect scents with attributes on extremely individual bases, according to associations culled from memory, media, and preference. Still, many people select their fragrance based on what they believe their audience’s judgment of the scent will be, aiming for a very specific aesthetic reaction. Some people even construct narratives around their desired scent perception. Z explained her perfume selection process:
“I want to smell like freshly laundered cloth, so I’ll seek out notes of cotton or linen. I want to give off the impression of being naturally clean and good-smelling, and actually not smell like I am wearing perfume at all. Some hints of citrus as well — I want to seem like I have just showered, or am wearing fresh clothes, because it seems effortless and charming.”
Z wants to convey cleanliness and organization, a sense of always having just freshened up, of an effortlessly immaculate lifestyle. Humans’ narrative proclivity coheres well with the complex nature of perfume in terms of both wearing and absorbing. Perfumes are composed of many layered fragrances—top notes, heart notes, and base notes—which fade and emerge with the passage of time in a dynamic performance. Fragrance actively edits the body’s orbit, and relays these edits to its audience. A fluid and abrupt narrative unfolds: the audience (if they smell the wearer for a prolonged period) registers a transformation taking place, but cannot discern the transitions between scents, imperceptible in their immediacy. Time shuffles the deck of aromas: now fanning out the top notes, now cutting open the heart, now revealing the resonant base. All of this proceeds untraceably yet perceptibly, like an olfactory sleight of hand. The intelligence implicit in such subtlety is attractive; it conveys an artist deftly orchestrating a performance behind the scenes, her skill apparent in the seamlessness of the production.
Perfume exerts its power via paradox: within its lack of visual presence hides a carnal materiality. As an atomized material, it exists in an overlap between the physical and the intangible, allowing it to at once expand personal space and demand proximity. Fragrance’s charisma lies in these unexpected complexities and subtleties. As a tool for designing ourselves and an overlooked aspect of our aesthetic identities, it embodies some of the most fundamental components of our social experience: closeness, interaction, and narrativity. At its core, smell is communal. It says, enter my atmosphere, know me more. Reclining in Camille’s chair, I feel her all around me.