Clothes In The Wardrobe¤

Delicious fumes of Norman Hartnell's In Love surge forth...

Delicious fumes of Norman Hartnell’s In Love surge forth…

I worked for years next to this exotically buoyant and very vocal girl who sold heady sultry Chiara Boni perfume. She habitually wore emerald eye shadow and cyclamen lip rouge, and she used to hang around the public pay phones to grab potential customers the moment they hung up. Her big line as she plied the bottle was –
“ the sort of perfume, when you open your wardrobe door you smell it!”

And that magic tag shifted a lot of stock. As Lord Beaverbrook would have said, it “shook hands with people’s hearts”. I love this notion too, but to be perfectly honest it’s not a phenomenon I seem able to materialise in my own home. Maybe my family and I don’t spray heavily enough; maybe we wear too great an assortment of fragrances for one particular scent to cling.¤¤ Or perhaps the fabrics are all wrong, no leathers or furs; not enough wool, feather, silk or velvet. Like an pre-Columbian Aztec, I tend to live principally in plain or wadded cotton. I am currently sweetening a built-in closet on the bedroom landing by hanging scent-soaked flannels on the clothes rail: it works but I’m still not greeted by a gorgeous billow of fragrance when I open the door. (It’s maybe another aspect of this current pseudo-scientific obsession with projection versus sillage: a controversial subject which we might come to on another occasion. Or on the other hand which we might choose to ignore).

But thousands DO get this enviable boost! A survey taken by LW on your behalf reveals that around 50% of habitual perfume-users experience a buzz from their own clothes whether in cupboards, on hooks or slung over chairs. A regular reader confides:

‘Over the years I’ve loved opening my wardrobe door and being hit by a wave of Shalimar: it’s just magic… It makes you feel wonderful and I can’t put my finger on it… however, as the perfume has been differently formulated that hit has become less and less..’

I think, maybe, that sense of wonderment my correspondent refers to, and which so many share, comes from the perfume seeming to have developed another life, a separate existence as a comforting avatar. For those who enjoy the wardrobe effect, fragrance has become the wearer’s Doppelganger, animating the garments in her absence so that she opens the closet to find her other self rushing out to greet her like the reflection in a glass. A mirror image graced with her own perfume: a second, perhaps idealised, self with (intriguing if spooky speculation) an entirely different character altogether.

And of course we love, too, to smell the clothes of loved ones  – whether absent temporarily or for ever. The widowed Queen Victoria slept with the Prince Consort’s nightshirt in her arms and his dressing gown was placed in her coffin. Toyah Wilcox talked on the radio last week of working with Katharine Hepburn in 1979, and Hepburn still wearing Spencer Tracy’s old clothes – shirts, suits, trousers – twelve years after his death. “This is his sweater, never been washed. I can smell him…”. And think of how babies and infants reject much-sucked, licked and cuddled toys and “snitch-cloths” once they have been cleaned. The intermingled smells and fluids provide the animal comfort not the texture nor the cute faces.

Our wonderful Sarah McCartney created a glorious perfume around the idea of a secret scented storage space: The Lion Cupboard is named after her late father’s personal treasure cupboard. It smells of lavender-strewn cashmeres and scarves, dark fragrant woods, tooth powder and paste (heavenly pink Euthymol perhaps? Eucryl?), leather-bound diaries, distant colognes and the familiar, ever-present yet always tantalising mystery of the past. Lorenzo Villoresi’s Alamut was once described by its creator as a ancient carved sandalwood chest found in a fairy castle of the Arabian Nights, crammed with rich oriental fabrics, spices and perfumes: wonderful odours released as the seal is broken and the heavy lid lifted.

Then there’s the redolence of fabric itself. All materials have a definite and not always attractive odour, especially the natural ones. Wet wool. Gaudily dyed new cotton. Leather jackets impregnated with take-away dinners and hung over the backs of too many cafe chairs. Remember Polly and Fanny in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ discussing their party dresses?

“Mine’s silver lame, it smells like a bird cage when it gets hot but I do love it.”

Polly is so right: I always had this problem with the odour of lame – and indeed any fabric shot with metallic threads – but thought it was just me until I read Nancy Mitford. It’s a wrenching grating smell almost as tormenting as chalk on a blackboard, tearing cotton wool or licking the wooden stick of an ice-lolly. Ugh!

Because I’m feeling it difficult to read much at present, I recently went back to an old favourite Elizabeth Goudge, that most soothing and – in a modest way – inspiring of novelists. I found The Scent of Water at the Loros shop and it really calmed me down: Val slips into a new & expensive golden and bronze house coat. Her husband is entranced both by the colour, and by the smell of new silk. For silk, too, has a very particular odour: slightly akin to steel, and also something about it of a clean budgie or parrot after a shower bath and concomitant preening session. A certain mineral quality – though far less pronounced than the sour bitterness of Polly Montdore’s slinky gown. Nowadays I occasionally smell silk in a lovely fresh tie or scarf, and it certainly holds perfume exquisitely. But I remember the scent of silk especially from old clothes in childhood: two blue evening gowns relegated at the end of their lives from once fashionable wardrobes to the grubby infant-theatre of the dressing up cupboard.

I see all this is now leading me on to further thoughts, the overlap of old clothes with the supernatural, which must wait for a further instalment on this theme in due course. Talk to you later.

¤ with grateful acknowledgement to the genius of Alice Thomas Ellis.

¤¤ and of course all my drawers and closets are filled with herbal moth repellents, smelling delicious in their own right.