- Scent Semantics no. 5
My built-in dictionary gives me *a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past* for this month’s word:
In 2022, nostalgia is a luxury I can no longer afford. I’m ditching nearly everything left that has defined my life for the past almost two decades, and I feel not so much as one whiff of regret. Goodbye to all of it – and to none of it, for everything I gained in seventeen years, I’m already taking with me: my new profession, my values (such as they are), my burgeoning career in writing Things Not Related to Perfume Writing.
And yet – why not indulge a little? Or a lot? What period of my peripatetic life makes me feel nostalgic, what perfume more than any other in my life is tied into it, where will those words take me?
Time travel with me back, back to when I was young enough to think I had possibilities, that I could change the world and make it a better place, that one pint-sized sarcastic slice of humanity could make a difference, until she realized, a few short years later, that she couldn’t.
Time travel back … to the autumn of 1981.
Then and now
These days, Copenhagen is one of the truly hip and happening capitals of the world. Our influencers and fashion create trends the rest of the world follows, our three-star Michelin restaurants have become tourist destinations in their own right, and Copenhagen has become its own byword for ultimate, drop-dead cool. Cool art, cool culture, cool music, cool fashion (so you can look cool while doing Cool Things) – this city I call my hometown is nothing if not cool in 2022.
But in the autumn of 1981, it was a very different story. The late 1970s recession had hit Copenhagen hard, the shipyards closed, the countless factories and shop artisans that had made Denmark and Danish design famous in the 1950s and 1960s had all packed up and moved elsewhere, where living was cheaper, the labor was cheaper and the government gave you at least 50% less hassle and bureaucracy.
The Saddest State of Affairs
In the autumn of 1981, yours truly was emphatically not at the top of her game by any stretch of the imagination. My gymnasium grade point average had been 0.1 point shy of guaranteed admission to the University of Copenhagen since discovering sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and every plan I had ever made for my life since age 11 had collapsed into smoking ruins to rival the industrial wasteland along the harbor front of Copenhagen. Unemployment was high. Prospects were dim. I was eighteen years old, living on my own at a concrete student housing project, a dangerous age to be without direction.
So I did what rudderless eighteen-year-olds did at the time. I developed a massive crush on a 6’4” radical anarchist/teaching student I had met at a Rock Against Racism fundraiser (It was the early 1980s), and faster than you can say Emma Goldman, I became a raging militant anarchist myself, spouting off meaningless Proudhon platitudes with all of Emma’s blithe self-assurance.
The next thing I knew, I was a punk. It went with the anarchism, the chaos both inner and outer, the sense of everything going to ashes and ruin, so you might as well light up the joint, drink all the cheap vodka, go to the show, find a safe corner to pogo in at concerts at the Salt Warehouse, where the floor was sand and sawdust, and where I never came home without massive bruises from pogoiing in unsafe corners at punk concerts, sawdust notwithstanding.
At some point during that time, I became involved with the outer fringes of a very radical group called BZ. Their aim was to land a youth center run by youth as opposed to parents who were still faithful to their own Sixties ideals, on our terms, with our music – which of course could be nothing but punk.
Almost Over. Almost
At that time, punk itself was on the verge of being over. In London, where it all began in 1976 with Vivienne Westwood’s Sex, with Malcolm McLaren, with the Sex Pistols and everything and everyone that followed, it already was.
But Copenhagen wasn’t hip back then, and neither were we. We were too busy arguing we really could change the world, starting with our own.
So there I was, with my ratty hair and my ratty, fourth-and fifth-hand clothes, arguing the finer points of the revolutionary act of squatting in empty buildings and on some fundamental level, in a permanent state of aesthetic outrage.
Surely, this wasn’t why I had been to Paris with my hyper-stylish, drop-dead mother, why I loved unfashionable art and culture, why I would sometimes sneak out to matinee performances of demodé operas on the sly because I loved Mozart, or why, if I were really in a snit, I’d grab my flute and blow my way through all four movements of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It certainly wasn’t why I showered more than once a week, or why even my own rags were usually laundered dark gray, as opposed to black.
All the wrong things
I had come to discover that punk itself or radicalism was just as exclusionary, just as reactionary, as any other movement. Everything was sharply delineated into Right – as in acceptable – or Wrong. You could not listen to wrong music, see uncool movies (Pasolini and Fellini be damned) do wrong things like eat Israeli oranges because they oppressed the Palestinians, and you could certainly not ever, ever, ever wear proper perfume. Especially not if it were French.
One rainy day, I walked into my favorite department store to get out of the rain. Here, punk and politics and internecine verbal fights didn’t exist, had never existed, here, all was beautiful and polished and not at all cheap, here was all the aesthetic a disaffected, disillusioned punk could possibly wish for on a rainy, windswept October day.
My mother, far, far away in Northern Greenland at the time, would laugh herself silly if she knew.
Glittering on a glass counter, there it was, a perfectly polished and flawlessly proportioned perfume bottle of rigid, rectiinear Art Deco symmetry, down to the very letters on the small label: no. 19.
The Best Me
I tried it on for size, after the sales assistant eyed me with suspicion, in case I stole it. Instead, in those first few, heady, head-spinning minutes, I found what I can only describe with the benefit of hindsight my best self, the self I truly wanted to be: flawlessly cool, perfectly beautiful, secure in her intellect, her opinions and values. From that first galbanum rush – and even then, I loved that sugar snap pea green sap, to the silky iris heart and the satin leather finish, if I were a perfume – a heretical thought …
This Would Be It.
No. 19 was sexy. It was smart. One did NOT preclude the other here, as I myself was told on countless ego-bruising occasions, it was the perfume of a person even a rudderless eighteen-year-old could aspire to be – confident, audacious, calm, collected, in control, nothing, in short, I was at that time.
Best of all – because I WAS a punk – it was iconoclastic, it was classy, and it was as far away from all the cheap nag champa and patchouli oils the other punks wore as you could get.
I bought the bottle of eau de toilette and carried it home to my student dorm convinced I had landed a priceless treasure, which of course, I had.
Only to land in scorching hot water for it.
Punk dudes anno 1981 had no defense against no. 19. It upended all their presuppositions about how punk girls should smell – of cheap nag champa and patchouli. I wiped them up with it, with my acres of black eye makeup, my ratty if scrupulously clean clothes, with the cloud of no. 19 that trailed me wherever I went.
Punk girls, on the other hand, laid into me with a will. I was supporting animal cruelty by buying a Chanel perfume, I was supporting the establishment, I was buying into the whole consumerism game lock, stock and barrel and from now on, I would be DOOMED to a life of mediocrity and non-distinction and never making any difference of any kind. They said.
I grabbed my bag of Israeli navel oranges in my cloud of no. 19 and never looked back.
Since that day in late 1981 and on to the present day over forty – how did that HAPPEN? – years later, Chanel no. 19 has been my most consistently owned perfume. I’ve had the eau de toilette, the parfum, the eau de parfum. I’ve bought it and rebought it, over and over and over. It created memories for my daughter, it landed me at least two jobs, it exuded class and composure and deathless cool to a blonde who usually blows hot and cold. It never ever grows old, or stale, or boring.
At this point in time, all I have is the deodorant in a dresser 200 km away, but I know, even after almost twelve years of perfume writing and other writing and life, I will, in the not too distant future, slink into that department store with nary a shred of guilt and ask for the eau de parfum, the version closest to my heart, at least until I can afford the extrait, which is to die for. I will wrap myself up in that familiar, beloved satin cloud, sniff a little at the memories of that long ago time, put on Joy Division at full blast and remember with a pang a time I really thought I could change the world.
I can afford that now.
I just can’t afford nostalgia.
Old Herbaceous https://scentsandsensibilities.co
Note: As I came of age in an analog time, no photos exist of me or my punk phase ca. 1981. The photo of Siouxsie Sioux was taken at the Salt Warehouse in Copenhagen in the autumn of 1981 as THE exemplar of a Punk Goddess. (Which she still IS, bless her)