Who do you want to be today? A spot of olfactive play-acting you say? Don’t mind if we do… Because fragrance allows us to take on different personas in a less intrusive way than our garbs and a more socially acceptable way than unleashing ‘Miss Whiplash’ by the water cooler. Whether you shrug on a crisp cologne, slip into a slinky floriental or don a patchouli power suit, it’s about using the tools available to us – in this case, fragrance– to bring out different aspects of your personality.
Children are encouraged to role play as an important part of their psychological development yet as adults ours tend to be relegated to cringy team building exercises or when flirting with sexual fantasies in the bedroom. “Fragrance is such a varied and subjective art form that it allows us to transform into different versions of ourselves or express our different tastes and interests,” says fragrance expert and perfumer Roja Dove. “It’s often used to make us feel sexier, bolder, and more confident like an olfactive suit of armour that elevates our characters to something more appealing than the dull scent of our own bodies.”
“One’s smell says so much on so many deep levels. Being able to affect those around you when you’re playing another person has a profound influence on how far you can disappear into that person.” So said Jude Law to perfumer Azzi Glasser who has worked with actors from Helena Bonham Carter to Johnny Depp to help get them into their roles. “I work with them very closely and read each script, learn their characters and then work out an exact formulation that will style them straight into their roles,” she says. “Each formulation doesn't always smell good but gives an exact feeling of empowerment and realness to every character. Sometimes they simply smell of cigarettes and alcohol or even cocaine such as in ’The Dirt’”. (Incidentally for Ms Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lastrange it was a poisonous mix of foxglove, hemlock and belladonna). “Fragrance is very important to me. It helps me define the characters I play, their history, their emotional inner landscape, and it communicates who they are,” agrees actress and founder of NCP Olfactive, Noomi Rapace. “It helps immensely with my focus and stepping into each role. For example, when I portrayed Simza in ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ I used a patchouli oil that I came across when I was doing research on the Roma culture. In ‘What happened to Monday’, each of the seven sisters had a very specific and significant fragrance which helped me switch between the different personalities.”
So how can we indulge in a spot of role play ourselves? Make believe tends to rely on exploring oppositional natures; good vs bad, naughty vs nice and notes themselves have the ability to convey different character facets. “Over the years I’ve helped several actors to select perfumes to help them realize a stage character,” says James Craven, fragrance archivist at Les Senteurs. “Perfume can enhance traits that are both inherent and dormant in a person, with greens and chypres tending to lend confidence, poise and briskness. Orientals conjure voluptuous, extroverted, sensual and dramatic moods. For me, hesperidics (citrus’) are clean, bright but sexless- like Nancy Mitford’s Polly Montdore, whilst Vanilla often infantilises folk with its cosy comfy feel, reputedly because it shares a molecule with mother’s milk. Animal notes (nowadays expertly synthetic) such as ambergris, musk, civet, castoreum should be handled with care,” he warns. “They are known to arouse passions as they remind us of the basic role of the sense of smell in the animal kingdom: to avoid danger, to find food and to propagate the species and are therefore smells of immense power and influence.” But according to Craven, role play doesn’t have to be serious stuff and fragrances can also be ‘sheer boisterous fun’; “A certain Lady X used to say to me, ‘Please give me two bottles of such and such a perfume...it makes me laugh! It’s so desperately common!’”
A word of warning though, whilst role play can be liberating, sparking creativity and an exploration of your deepest desires, it has to resonate with an aspect of your character that already exists; “witness the sad spectacle of a very young, diffident person totally extinguished by a flamboyant Oriental that he or she is quite unable to carry,” says Craven.
“Fragrance should be something heightens our sense of self and style,” adds Dove. “When a person wears what they think they should wear, it becomes glaringly obvious and the fragrance wears them.” Now go and play will you?