One Intrepid Cologne-Wearing Journalist's Journey Into the Dark Underworld of Feminine Fragrances, Just in Time for Valentine's Day
My whole adult perfume-wearing life I have been a signature scent kind of lady. And that one scent happens to be found in the men’s cologne section at Sephora. Namely, YSL L’Homme, the same scent worn by “the Andy Warhol of our generation” Kanye West, though for the sake of full disclosure I’ve recently made the bold switch to YSL’s slightly heavier, muskier L’Homme Nuit and I’ve never looked back.
Courtesy Elizabeth Arden, Gap, Bath & Body Works, Juicy Couture, and Victoria’s Secret
Then, one fateful day, the lovely ladies of the People Style department were brainstorming Valentine’s Day content ideas and we landed on the subject of perfumes that men love on women versus the types of perfume ladies flock to. As we started to talk specifics, our associate digital beauty editor Jillian announced that her roommate is a devotee to Britney Spears’ Fantasy and that men are obsessed with it, and by proxy her. Likewise, our senior style editor Alex admitted her sister’s Michael Kors tropical vacation-inspired scent has dudes literally following her around the bar.
As the an evidence began to pile up, I saw my entire dating life (or lack thereof) flash before my eyes. Could I be doing this all wrong? Could I actually be subconsciously repelling men in my attempts to smell just like them? Could this explain my years of routinely being referred to as “sir” on an almost daily basis?
I needed all the answers, and I needed them yesterday. So I decided to embark on a scent quest of sorts. To bravely go where a million style journalists have gone before me. I would shed the safety blanket of my cologne of choice, and don the chrysalis of these sugary sweet, floral fragrances in order to emerge as a radiant feminine butterfly with a posse of libidinous gentleman following in the wake of my fruitcake-esque scent.
First things first, since I was now confronted with the brutal fact that I’ve been conducting my entire life’s scent strategy wrong, I needed to arm myself with some actual facts that could give my dating life that hot, olfactory edge. I started by turning to my inbox where my boss had so kindly forwarded an infographic from Scentbird entitled “Turn Your Lover on This Valentine’s Day” to start me off on my journey. Though I am fundamentally, viscerally opposed to the word “lover” in any context, I was desperate for info, so I read on. According to Scentbird, 66% of men agree, a good smelling woman is sexier than a well dressed one, and 93% said they find a woman wearing literally any perfume at all to be a turn on. Although honestly, I feel like that speaks more to the low threshold women have to surpass to arouse a men’s sexual attraction than any actual hard and fast preference. But down to brass tacks: According to their survey 33% of men agree the sexiest smell on a woman is floral, followed by 16% spicy, 12% fresh, and 11% fruity. But if your favorite perfume includes any musk or citrus notes, don’t expect a second date anytime soon.
While these were some solid guidelines, I felt like I needed more. So next, I spoke to the maker of the sexiest™ fragrances known to man, Victoria’s Secret in-house nose and VP of Product Development, Mark Knitowski. “The trail and aura a fragrance creates can be incredible.” Mark wrote to me over email, “a successful fragrance creates a feeling of confidence within the customer when she wears it. Fragrance is powerful in making a statement about you.” “[Women] want to feel confident and they want to be noticed,” he continues, “fragrance allows them to walk with another bounce to their step. They smile because they feel good and that is the most important thing.” But when it comes to a fragrance that gets those sultry vibes going, “[Sexy] is truly in the nose of the wearer, however the depth and the mysteriousness of the warmth really plays into a sultry aura that creates a sexy provocativeness.” In conclusion, Mark encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, emphasizing that, “It’s good to venture out to find new scents that can speak to you.”
With all that in mind, I was ready to stop reading about and start living my best fragrance-fueled life, trying out some of the girliest scents on the market to see if they could impact my love life for the better as V-Day began to loom darkly on the horizon. Your nostrils can thank me now.
Day 1: Britney Spears’ Fantasy Pairs Perfectly with a Toasty Egg and Cheese
Britney Spears Fantasy
I undoubtedly was over excited about launching this investigation and went way too hard right out the gate. I opted for Britney Spears’ iconic fragrance Fantasy as my first choice without fully understanding what I was about to get into. It doesn’t help that I have a heavy trigger finger when it comes to fragrance and never really know when to stop spraying, especially when the point is to get a reaction out of other people. My first feelings after dousing myself in Fantasy is that I am an impostor. An impostor who will not stop furtively sniffing her own hair. My second thought is that I smell like a strawberry-kiwi flavored Lip Smackers that’s been dipped in white chocolate and left to melt on the hot dashboard of a car. As I walk around my apartment in the morning, I pass my roommate who enthusiastically asks, “What is that?? You smell nice!” I demure, “It’s Britney, b*tch.” So far, so good. Her cat was less impressed, biting me as I reached out to pet her and confirming all of my worst fears that I am in fact a giant sham. When I get to my bodega, a construction worker turns all the way around to check me out, although honestly I am so incredibly pungent, I’m not sure this is really about attractiveness as much as it is concern for my mental sanity. I am given a lot of extra napkins though, so there’s that. Plus, I discover that the smell of a hot egg and cheese sandwich pairs beautifully with the floral notes in Fantasy, just in case Brit is looking for some inspiration for her next scent. For a brief moment I even think, I’m clearly an undiscovered fragrance savant! At work we have a department-wide meeting where my co-worker mouths to me from across the room, “I can smell you.”
That night was my friend’s birthday which I decided would be the perfect captive audience for my experiment. With a few sprays to freshen up and every breath tasting like a teenage girl’s bedroom, I approached my unsuspecting victims. One gentleman at the party who was forced to sit next to me told me that I smelled like a girl he would have a crush on in middle school, but that on an adult woman it was just plain creepy. Later on in the evening, this same man burped, looked at me with alarm and concern in his eyes and said, “I think I just burped up your perfume. It tasted like honeydew melon. I haven’t eaten any honeydew melon.” After announcing to the table that I was wearing eau de Britney for an article, a gay man leaned in close, told me my perfume was divine, and then whispered in my ear that I smelled like “not a girl, not yet a woman.” But the birthday girl herself was highly unamused, yelling at me to stop walking up-wind from her for the rest of the night. But really none of that mattered, as one thought just kept running through my head, “This must surely be what it’s like to be Britney.”
Day 2: Bath and Body Works Warm Vanilla Sugar and I Go on a Freudian Tinder Date
Bath and Body Works
For day 2, I decide to take it down a notch. I clearly overdid it with Britney, so I reach for something that sounds a little simpler and more subdued, Bath & Body Works Warm Vanilla Sugar. A word of warning: The first person I encountered after spritzing myself was my extremely hungover roommate who screamed at me, “Get away! You’re going to make me vomit!” Noted, Warm Vanilla Sugar is not the fragrance to settle a nauseous stomach.
Fair enough considering this is undoubtedly one of the most pungent scents I’ve ever worn, and this time it wasn’t just my overzealous application. This stuff seems super concentrated, filling my entire bedroom with that just-baked cookie scent. Luckily, I am in the eye of this odor storm and smell absolutely nothing. I do notice, however, that other people are definitely taking note. While I’m busy making breakfast, my male roommate pops his head in and says, “Wow, what are you cooking it smells great in here?” I realize what this scent has been missing all along is the permanent context of a kitchen. I don’t correct his mistake. As I plop myself down on the subway bench on my commute to work, I witness the girl next to me sniff and then immediately turn her entire body away from me in disgust. I smell like I work full-time in the Domino sugar factory and all of my clothes have become encrusted in the stuff.
On the bright side, this entire project is the best pick up line I’ve ever had. I quickly become engaged in a conversation with a prospective suitor on Tinder who is willing to venture all the way out to Brooklyn in order to help me with this scientific endeavor. I slather on some Warm Vanilla Sugar-scented body lotion figuring it won’t be as abrasive as the eau de toilette, and I’m right! It’s actually kind of comforting in this form, like I’m a fifties housewives who’s whiled away the day baking a few too many apple pies. When I finally meet my date at the bar, he is equally impressed, taking multiple sniffs before declaring that it’s pretty subtle and not as bad as most perfume! Things quickly went downhill from there, however, as he seemed to have a Freudian response to the scent, beginning to ramble on about his mom, eventually referring to the smell as “subliminally triggering.” And with that, I decided I didn’t feel like sticking around to find out exactly what it triggered.
Day 3: Juicy Couture Rosé Meets Fashion Week and They’re Not Friends
At this point, I realize there is a crucial difference between wearing enough fragrance that people can easily smell you and drowning in so much of it that it actually taints the food you eat for the rest of the day. Clearly, I’m still learning how to walk that tenuous line. I smell like a fruit punch Jolly Rancher meets a sales assistant at Forever 21, though it’s not as bad as I thought it would be when I smelled it in the bottle. On the skin, it’s much lighter than anything I’ve worn thus far, even though it has a chemical tinge that is decidedly jarring. An appropriate fragrance for a day that was very weird from the get-go.
I wake up to a text from an ex I haven’t spoken to in months, making me genuinely wonder if the news of my fresh feminine scent could be spreading already. I also chose to wear an extremely uncharacteristic outfit consisting of quite possibly the tightest dress I have ever worn in my life (which for me just means you can vaguely see the outline of my body) and a pair of platform loafers. As I step onto the subway, I feel as though the Juicy Couture gods are smiling upon this lewk, even as the three year old sitting across for me makes it clear she is not.
That night, I meet up with one of my friends who is a fragrance aficionado at (IRONICALLY) a high-end perfume event to kick off fashion week. I make her sniff me without revealing what I’m wearing and she’s immediately totally stumped. “This could be anything!” she shouts, already angry and befuddled, “I’m good with scents and I literally cannot place a single note in this.” She finally concludes, “Don’t be mad, but there’a a hint of cheap, there’s a hint of hooker in there. I want to say you smell like a booth at the Crazy Horse, like something has happened here. You’re not sure if it was good, or bad, but something definitely happened.” Later on that night while eating dinner with her boyfriend and an assistant designer from a major French couture house, I take the opportunity to gather more impressions. My friend’s boyfriend is even more tongue-tied than she was, finally managing to sputter out, “It’s not bad, it’s questionably fine,” while our designer friend is less diplomatic, musing in her broken English that I smell like a candy counter, and concluding that it is “definitely not high end, it smells like you bought it at a grocery store.” Not bad, considering that is actually probably exactly where this fragrance is sold.
Day 4: Victoria’s Secret Bombshell Spawns a Brutal Metaphor for My Entire Romantic Life
This is the perfume I was most nervous to put on. I could smell in the bottle that it was stronger and more overtly feminine than anything else in my scent arsenal. There’s a blizzard raging outside, but as soon as I spray it on, I feel like a bellini. A tropical mixed drink in the midst of a snowstorm. What I’ve noticed most about all these fragrances is the way they endure, settling semi-permanently into your hair and clothing. Days later I’ll catch a rogue whiff of the last perfume I wore and break into a cold sweat, frantically searching around my body for the bottle I’ve surely sat upon and crushed beneath me by accident. I’m starting to understand why these scents are so effective at snaring men. They rub off on everything and last forever, like an animal marking its territory, to couch it in the most un-sexy terms possible.
After work, I’m supposed to meet up with some friends but they’re late, so I pass the time in a purgatorial shopping environment also known as Century 21. Just like when I introduced the Warm Vanilla Sugar to the kitchen, I instantly realize a department store is the crucial context this smell has been lacking. It seems right at home amidst the frustrated mobs of milling tourists and racks of deeply discounted clothing that has been ripped to shreds by their frantic, bargain-loving hands. I begin to move antagonistically slow through the store, standing aimlessly in front of displays for minutes at a time, refusing to move no matter how fast the German tourist manically flips through hangers towards me. It’s all about life’s small pleasures, but this is no place for real New Yorkers, I conclude. As I sashay up and down the department store alleys pretending they’re a runway, I couldn’t feel more like a real Victoria’s Secret Angel in my element. Except I have a feeling if I was a real VS angel more people would get out of my way/not intentionally run into my body with their shopping carts.
When I finally meet up with my friends at the bar and I’m ready to actually put the Bombshell into action, of course, we are literally the only people there. They quickly convince me to hand over my Tinder account and start swiping away on my behalf, debating fervently with each other over the type of men I would or would not date. Staring out at the empty bar as I sip on my drink, sniffing the final pathetic wafts of my VS fragrance and watching my friends swipe right on some of the most truly unfortunate looking men I’ve ever seen, I can’t help but feel this is all a crippling depressing metaphor for my entire life.
Day 5: Gap Dream (Come True)
I saved this smell all week as a special treat for myself. For those unfamiliar with the pure magic that is Gap Dream, you clearly were not a tween in the ’90s because every girl I went to middle school with would instantly recognize the airy notes of this throwback favorite. I decide that there could be no event more apropos for this scent than the NYFW dinner I’d been invited to by Tumblr, after all, there’s surely no website in the world more devoted to the celebration of 90s nostalgia. I forgot the bottle on my desk at work, so I didn’t have the chance to spray it on until right before the event. But from my first spritz, a flood of adolescent memories came rushing back. In fact, this might have been the first eau de toilette I ever owned. Aromatic enough to make me feel like a real adult, yet still purple enough for my mom to deem it perfectly acceptable for a child to wear.
This is honestly the first scent I’ve authentically enjoyed since I started this project. I feel like I’m moving through the world on my own little lavender, floral scented cloud. But there’s still something spicy that gives the smell some depth, bringing it the closest to something I’d actually wear in real life. I definitely got carried away with the application (surprise, surprise), but at least this time it was with joy. I remembered for the first time all week that scents are supposed to actually make you happy, not become an incredible burden to put on. I had meant to ask people at Tumblr their opinion, but by the time I got there and realized that caliber of cool kids in that room, I was too embarrassed to be the weirdo girl asking strangers to smell her.
I’d like to start by saying ScentBird lied to me. While their statistics say that 80% of men will approach a woman to comment on her scent, my personal findings say that 100% of millennial men would rather die than make actual eye contact with a living, breathing woman. To be fair, I also live in NYC where being approached by a stranger and engaging them in friendly conversation is akin to sprinting dead at them while screaming that you want to marry them and murder their dog for your new winter coat. But really, it’s probably my own fault for setting my expectations too high. No one reacts to perfume as dramatically as you would hope. By which I mean, no one immediately fell in love with me, chased me down the street, or handed me free gifts for no reason other than smelling like a delicious sugar cookie.
My main takeaway from this investigation? Do what you feel. Men honestly don’t seem to care. At best, they understand, vaguely, what a truly terrible scent is. But they really don’t have the vocabulary, let alone the interest, to discern anything beyond that about the way a woman smells. If they are attracted to you, as long as you aren’t permanently living in your stale sweaty workout gear and taking a mid-day bath in expired dairy products, it will all be ok. What makes you feel sexy is sexy to other people. In retrospect, I probably didn’t need to subject myself to a week of this scent-fueled madness in order to figure that out.
What’s your favorite feminine fragrance? Do you think the scent you wear makes a difference in how you feel or how other people react to you?