Remembrance of things past: the Proustian Effect

Of all the senses, scent is the one that inspires memories and emotions. Proust’s middle-aged narrator in an early passage of ‘À la recherché du temps perdu,’ (Remembrance of things past), famously sipped on a tisane of lime blossom tea mixed with the crumbs of a madeleine biscuit. The scent triggered seven volumes of memories. In honour of Proust, the linking of smell with memory is often called the Proustian effect.

An early memory of my own, is my mother bending down to kiss me goodnight.  I remember the warm powdery smell of sandalwood and musk, that was Femme de Rochas, cocooning me and the rustle of her silk dress. But the memory is poignant too, infused with a sense of loss that she was about to disappear into the night for an evening out.

From the rose water I made by squashing petals into a jam jar at the age of six, I graduated to the sweet strawberry and vanilla of Coty’s L’aimant, bought from Woolworths with money from my Saturday job.  My friend Gina and I sprayed ourselves lavishly in the belief that we would leave a trail of scent behind us that people would find irresistible, until someone complained it was giving them a headache.

My initiation into adult perfume was Miss Dior in a black and white chequered box.  It was purchased in the Duty-Free shop on the ferry, (remember the days when a trip to the Duty Free was an exciting major part of the holiday?) Miss Dior, with its spicy flowery notes, along with the crumpled blue packet of Gitanes that I pretended to smoke, gave me the illusion that I was joining the club of iconic French actresses of the 1960’s, Francoise Hardy, Jane Birkin and Juliette Greco. Chic and sexy, although I’m afraid looking at photographs of my plump sixteen-year-old self it was a fantasy.

Certain people are forever linked to their signature scent. An artist friend of my parents only ever wore black, kept her grey hair cropped and always moved in a cloud of Lanvin’s Arperge; warm, seductive and glamorous. Years later, long after she’d passed on, I bought a bottle of Arpege hoping to capture something of her spirit, but sadly it didn’t smell the same on me. I had to find my own signature perfume.

As a young mother, I had a brief flirtation with patchouli oil. When I smell patchouli now, usually in Glastonbury where it has never gone out of fashion, I am transported back to the days when striding down the Kings Road in my green Dr. Marten boots and Afghan coat, I pushed my son in a red and white fold up buggy, shopping bags hanging precariously from the handles.  

But my favourite perfume experience came years later. My mother had a perfume called Shocking by Schiaparelli. The packaging was bright pink and the bottle was in the shape of an hourglass figure. After some lengthy research, my husband discovered that it was still sold, but only in Harrods. On the day we travelled up from Bath it was pouring. We arrived in the perfume department looking like two drowned rats.

After enquiring where we might find the elusive perfume, a discreet phone call was made. A few minutes later and a Gok Wan look alike, tall, slim, impeccably dressed in a pin stripe suit and wearing enormous black round Harry Potter glasses, stepped out of the lift and without so much as a raised eyebrow at our dripping rain coats, invited us to follow him.

The lift took up us up three floors. We stepped out onto a thick red carpet and a silent world of corridors with unmarked doors leading off it. Gok opened one of these doors and led us into a darkened room where a single spotlight shone on the iconic hourglass bottle which rested on a table covered in black velvet.

He sprayed a little (a very little, compounding my fears about what it might cost) onto my wrist and watched as I lifted it to my nose and inhaled.

Elsa Schiaparelli, he explained, invented the perfume in 1937. Apparently, it was radical then, not just for its heady mix of vetiver, musk and magnolia but for the famous bottle modelled on Mae West’s figure.  

Elsa Schiaparelli was a friend of the Surrealists. Salvador Dali designed the advertising with another surrealist artist, Marcel Vertes. The pink, he told us, was Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature colour, she designed dresses as well as perfume and the pink was deliberately chosen to shock after the restrained and muted colours of wartime fashions.

Gok murmured the (astronomical) price.

“Is there an eau de parfum version?” I enquired, wondering how we were going to escape without losing too much face.  There was, he said. Thankfully it didn’t (quite) break the bank and after all it was my birthday soon my husband reminded me.

‘Shocking’ came in the same bright pink box my mother had, and I thought how pleased she would have been to know I was using her signature scent.

I still have a few precious drops left of Schiaparelli’s perfume left, and when that has gone, I shall keep the Mae West bottle in my chest of drawers as a reminder to gently scent my underwear and to remind me of that visit.

Finally, a quote from Tania Sanchez, a Spanish politician.

“The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other is this: ‘What scent drives men wild?’

After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon.”

Remembrance of things past: the Proustian effect

Thanks go to Alexandra Wilson for this fascinating article. In the past she has worked as a food stylist, journalist and antiques dealer, finally settling down to a career as a psychotherapist. She now runs Writing Events Bath, creative workshops for anyone who enjoys writing and meeting like-minded people.

Sometimes in life it does us the world of good to just stop for a moment, settle down with a nice cup of tea or coffee and take some time out to be inspired, entertained or educated with a story online. Our Stories section does just that with short, bite-size stories to read online from Annabel, Grace and a whole team of contributors covering a myriad of different subjects from the serious to the downright daft and all aimed at our marvellously mature audience of ladies over 50.