Aromas are particularly evocative, I am told, because of the location of the olfactory bulb (which processes them) in relation to the parts of the brain which deal with memory and emotion. Smells can take you back in an instant, fling you through decades and across continents. They can make you smile or cry – I remember confiscating my housemate’s deodorant at university because it was the same brand as a recent ex had used, and I couldn’t bear to be around it. All this to say: I’m no connoisseur, but I know what scent can do. Armed with sentimentality and a resolve to ‘really concentrate’, I headed to Perfume, at Somerset House.
Perfume is arranged as a sensory extravaganza, unfolding through almost a dozen rooms and opening with a kind of taster space, wherein we find one stand-out scent from each decade of the 20th century. This is the only room (until we emerge in the gift shop at curtain’s close) where we’re permitted to combine the visual with the sensual, i.e., see the bottles in which each liquid comes; after this, things get a lot more abstract. Here, though, there’s a pleasing correlation between the character of a scent and its presentation: from the chic Chanel No. 5 (the bottle as timeless as the smell it contains) to the sleek CK One – defining scent of the 90s – the examples in this introductory room tell us as much about the societies which demanded their creation as the concoctions themselves. High glamour, you say? No problem – for the 30s woman, Schiaparelli offers ‘Shocking’: daring, animalistic and all packed into the shape of a female torso decorated with vivid glass flowers. A decade later, and things are feeling lighter – enter Balmain’s ‘Vent Vert’, all fresh grass and citrus, floating in the most pleasingly utilitarian little bottle you ever did see. I learn enough about the different families of scent – green, oriental, floral etc. – and the intricacies of ‘naturals’ v.s. synthetic ingredients to equip me for what lies ahead.