White Flower Failure

Bella Donna by Georgia O'Keeffe

For most of us, certain perfume notes may not sit well on our skin. For instance, berry notes can sour on me. I have had the painful experience of standing at Aedes in New York, waiting for a spritz of Parfums DelRae Bois de Paradis to settle on my skin (“My favorite!” the salesman said), and then having the salesman lift his nose from my arm with a firm, “No”. Similarly, on me Molinard Nirmala might as well be bug spray.

But beyond the chemical aspects of perfume are its aesthetic properties, and some of these don’t sit well on some people, either. This is where I have White Flower Failure. Tuberose, gardenia, and lilies smell just fine on me, and I adore them when I smell them on others. But when I wear a tuberose-based perfume, what I see in the mirror doesn’t match up with what I smell. I smell delicious, creamy flowers, and depending on the perfume, maybe purity or maybe a sexy, ladylike aroma, or maybe something else. What I see in the mirror is a slightly messy redhead wearing a rumpled vintage cashmere sweater, with no makeup but for red lipstick — that is, what didn’t wear off with her morning coffee. What I experience is dissonance.

This is true whether the white flowers are Coty Sand & Sable, Frederic Malle Carnal Flower, Robert Piguet Fracas, or — and this really breaks my heart — Serge Lutens Tuberose Criminelle. They all smell wonderful, but they clash somehow with my fundamental nature. A few white flower-heavy fragrances work better: the warm vanilla and sandalwood in Annick Goutal Songes give it the slightly retro feel that works on me, and the incense in Chanel No. 22 makes it a great scent for situations requiring delicacy or anything happening in a church.

I know some of you may be ready to scroll down to the comments section to write, “Wear what you want! If you like it, isn’t that good enough?” And I agree. Wear what perfume or clothing or eye makeup that you want. You only have to please yourself. One of my neighbors, a senior citizen woman with a passion for hot rods and a part-time job delivering auto parts, walks in a cloud of Victoria’s Secret Amber Rose, and it is perfection. But I don’t want to wear something — no matter how beautiful it is — that doesn’t blend with my esprit. For me it would be too much like drinking an Orange Crush with linguine carbonara, or watching Goldie Hawn play Camille. Aesthetic conflict.

Although white flowers don’t work well for me now (see, I’m leaving open room to change), I take comfort in knowing that incense, leather, chypre, and vintage scents are often terrific. I can carry the mustiness of the old Carons and the drama of the big Guerlains, and I’m right at home with the funkiness of many of the Serge Lutens scents. In the meantime, I’ll put a few drops of Tuberose Criminelle on a handkerchief in my bag to sniff now and then. On my wrist will be her more rustic sister, Iris Silver Mist.

Image: Bella Donna by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939, via Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

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47 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    No, I agree with you. Enjoying and admiring a fragrance does not mean that you can live with it, and make it your own. For instance, Chanel No 5 is beautiful on my skin, but Chanel No 5 is to me a completely different person – a lovely person, but not me. I only wear it on my mother's birthday, because it's her favourite scent, but it doesn't work with her skin chemistry…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Oh Angela, how right you are. I'm still irristibly drawn to girly floral but although some of my youthful beauty remains gazing back from my mirror is a messy writer with reading glasses in her hair and grown-up children, for heavens sake! (Where have all the years gone?) I should be embracing something more sophisticated, woodsy, grown-up – you kindly suggested Apres l'ondee for concentration and while I appreciate it, I don't want to wear it. Instead it's white and green and pink and purple flowers rather than taupey, smokey, that draws me in.

    Actually Serge Lutens has been a godsend in helping me reach a more interesting landscape, despite my weaknesses. I can and do wear Tubereuse Criminelle and am currenly in love with Fleurs d'Oranger. And something like Villoresi's Garafano and I Perfumi's Iris di Firenze, weird and wonderful as it is, makes me feel I'm still in a garden, but it's suddenly not such a sunny, skip-about place (hello birds! hello trees!) – and there's something distinctly interesting in the undergrowth!

    Perhaps it's about staying with what pleases but adding something unexpected for drama and mystery. What about some gardenia in the woods?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well, I'll be…I just finished writing something for tomorrow…something almost exactly opposite to your wonderful post, but sort of about the same thing if that makes sense (no, it doesn't) :-) I used to have White Flower Failure all the time, but then something happened, literally overnight, and now I can't get enough of them, and now it seems to me that they totally “go” with me. So maybe they will start blending with your esprit too at some point in the future. Miracles happen and all that. :-)

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have the same problem with Chanel No. 5! It's beautiful, but best for someone else. Fate is cruel, making No. 5 right for your mother but not good on her skin, and vice versa for you.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Jane, beautifully written comment! It sounds like we aren't exactly fragrance twins, and I can see how the gorgeous white scents–light, green, and sparkling, but with an unexpected angle–are perfect for you.

    I do need to find more “grounded” white flowers to try. Maybe Caron Narcisse Noir, which I haven't tried yet, would work.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the optimism! I can completely imagine becoming a person that–at least sometimes–can pull of white flowers. Which perfume was it that tipped the white flowers in your direction?

    I'll keep sniffing my samples and waiting for the day when they just seem right.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Angela, I know exactly what you mean!!!!! I love HEAVY orientals, lots of spice and I am this tall and lanky, freckle-faced, very pale and very blonde woman from Norway. I hear “you can't get away with that” all the time. Even on my last trip to Aedes, Markus said “No, dahling, with your look, you should be wearing this”!! Yuck, more white flowers and just purity bottled. I feel sexy and red hot and I want to wear stuff that matches my inside, yet they don't match the outside. A pickle…a real pickle!

  8. Anonymous says:

    K, so you have the opposite problem I do! I think lots of the white flower mixes are really sexy, though. Have you tried Tuberose Criminelle? It has a strange, alluring, vaporous topnote that says “I am not what you expect”. I wonder, too, if you could get away with wearing some of the men's scents, especially the vetiver-based scents? I can imagine them on a tall, blond, Nordic goddess type.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Of course, you could go the other direction and change your look–even just slightly–to match the perfume. I found myself dressing to match my Lutens Chergui the other day, and have dones so with other perfumes, too. They call out some essential glamor from within me that is hidden–but not quenched!–by my every day sloppiness.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I like this idea! Now I'll be on the search for White Flower dresses–maybe a bias-cut, off-white 1930s-style dress, or a crisp pique sundress.

    What do you wear with Chergui?

  11. Anonymous says:

    And I should also say that I enjoy a certain amount of dissonance. But I think Angela has beautifully described that irritating feeling that an aesthetic *miss* (as opposed to a hit) creates. How many times have I been irritated by a paint color just one shade wrong, or a chair in not quite the right place? Very different from deliberately clashing colors or texures…splendid dissonance requires bold commitment!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Well, I don't have very many glamorous clothes so it was pretty subtle, but I did put on a flowing golden-toned sweater and similarly flowing pants — and some earrings with a bit of sparkle in them. And I tied my hair–which is big and curly, back in a low ponytail. I think I was thinking about honey and easy glamour and I guess it worked because when I walked out of the bedroom my sweetie said, “Well, hello beautiful woman!” Can't ask for much more than that!

  13. Anonymous says:

    “Honey and easy glamour” sounds divine and very Chergui. I know just what you mean about striking a conscious note of discord–in fact, I think it's necessary if you want to look good to pack a little surprise. Still, the white flower thing will require a little more work for me. I haven't given up, though.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I too am a (faux) redhead, vintage-wearing gal and I too have white flower failure. Even Carnal Flower, which I adore, I put on maybe twice a year. I suppose I hadn't thought about why; I think you wrote it out beautifully (I mentioned you on the blog today BTW re Femme)
    Caron Narcisse Noir is the only “real” Caron I've fallen for. I agree that you'd love it, but it's a dark and dirty thing!

  15. Anonymous says:

    I'll definitely have to try Narcisse Noir now–your comment nails it. As for Femme (thanks for mentioning me in your blog, by the way, now I feel famous) I had to see that part of me that was Femme to make it work, too. In that way, it was sort of an expansive perfume for me, personality-wise. Maybe someday the white flower perfumes will work the same magic.

    No wonder I like so many of the same scents you do–it sounds like we share some of the same specs!

  16. Anonymous says:

    I just loved reading this. I wear some big white floral fragrances, but so many of them just don't “fit” me properly somehow. It's something to do with the feel of them, I think, more than it being simply a matter of wearing those types of heady notes.

    Songes' cozy warmth is lovely, just as you say, but alas I can't quite wear it and feel confident in it's fit. But it sure is nice to have around to sniff at ;P

  17. Anonymous says:

    Very well put! I know EXACTLY what you mean. I posted something similar once on MUA and got deluged with “people can wear what they want!” messages. Of course they can. But if certain scents evoke certain colors, then they can certainly evoke a certain physical appearance. You are entitled to your schemas, even if other people don't share them.

    I don't do white flowers either. Delicate scents seem ridiculous on my 6', androgynous frame. My body, my coloring, were made for ambers and woods. Better yet, chypres. Alas, most chypres turn sour on me.

    The hormonal changes that came with pregnancy and nursing somehow turned me off the darker woods and spices I used to like, and onto florals. I feel like a fragrance neophyte again. How on earth do I wear these, and which ones won't seem silly on me? Thank goodness for the rose. I've always been able to work the rose.

  18. Anonymous says:

    What a great topic Angela – I always enjoy your articles, they explore such interesting themes and concepts about the perfume experience!

    If you think it's hard to pull off white florals, imagine what it is like for a man – I LOVE the white florals, but obviously can not wear them – they smell way too girly! So, I suppose it could be worse – you at least have the opportunity of growing into them – that's not really going to happen for me!

  19. Anonymous says:

    ya know I have to admit, I sort of wrote off SL after such hits like Un Bois Vanille, Rahat, Chergui and Datura were such misses with me. I'm not disputing the man can make art, I admit that, but I have yet to find a scent of his that I can actually wear, pull off and enjoy myself. BUT! I will have to smell out this TC of his. Funny you should mention mens fragrance, my very favorite fragrance on the face of this earth is Chanel's Egoiste… NOT the platinum but the discontinued original. Now that was a work of art!!

  20. Anonymous says:

    I can so relate, Angela. Thanks for another beautifully written article. I told my boyfriend today “I don't always buy the perfume to wear it”, and he was mystifyed. Sometimes I just want it for the history of it, or that I can spray it in a room and smell the prettiness of it, though “pretty” (referring to white florals) to wear doesn't suit me. I prefer the darker, the incense scents…but I will wear the pretty white floral ones once in a while…just for the hell of it.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Maybe it is, as you say, more a “feel” than a list of notes that makes something fit or not. Still, it's nice that I can at least sniff them from time to time, even if they don't go with me well.

  22. Anonymous says:

    There are lots of things many of us *could* wear–besides perfume, you can count pink tutus, speedos, birkenstocks, etc–but we choose not to do it, even if we like these things in a vacuum!

    How interesting that pregnancy changed the scents you can wear. It would be weird–but kind of fun–to explore a whole new realm of fragrance. Rose is such a good stalwart.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the compliment! You're definitely in a worse boat than I am. But if you wore a little, just enough that someone with his/her head were practically in your neck could smell it, it could be really sexy, mixed with the smell of a man's skin. At least I think so.

  24. Anonymous says:

    You know, that is such a good point! You can always spray the scent you like on pillows or curtains and enjoy it that way. Any room that can stand up to a Casablanca lily in a vase should be able to stand up to a little Fracas on the couch.

  25. Anonymous says:

    We want scent gestalt. But I often wear scents as mood dictates, regardless of appearance, dress, etc. I like to wear Datura Noir to bed sometimes.

  26. Anonymous says:

    “Scent gestalt” is a great term. (I wish I would have thought of it!) Thanks for the comment.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Ha! Love that…must try the Fracas on the couch.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Interesting post! White flowers seem to be the only things that are guaranteed to work for me (with the exception of gardenia which I find ghastly for some reason. Anyone else out there repulsed by gardenia?).

    I am sometimes intrigued by the super-heavy spicy scents. I loved the scent of Chanel's Coco -it smelled great, and the adorable French saleslady who was helping me said she liked it on my skin. But it was ultra-glamorous and just “not me”. Chanel No 19 eau de toilette on the other hand, seems to suit me to a “T”. If I were going for a truly kick-ass glamour fragrance, I would probably have an easier time with something like Fracas rather than a heavy oriental.

    I've decided that florals with a touch of green (ie lily of the vally, hyacinth, orange blossom, jasmine), soft woods and citrus are what work best for me – so I guess I'm firmly planted on the pastel side of the fragrance colour wheel.

    The idea that a person's physical appearance might indicate some of the scents that work with their chemistry is intriguing. Dunno if there's any truth to that!

  29. Anonymous says:

    On the back of this great discussion, have just ordered a tester of Narcisse Noir – having never knowingly strayed onto Caron territory before.

    The effect on mood is really interesting. I also don't really wear Datura out but love smelling it and spray some on a wrist when I'm working to feel expanded and warm and right with the world. My latest private excitement is Le Jardin sur le Nil which I find incredibly exhilarating and actually do wear in public, and sniff myself all the time.

    But this buying perfumes for private sniffing and sensory exploration is something that would not only completely nonpluss my DH (if he knew) but puzzles many of my women friends too.

    Actually Diptyque's L'Ombre dans l'Eau is another fabulous mood changer for me – have you tried it Angela? – damp woods, earthy, with some intriguing drifts of rose, and yew tree even, I think. Now that is a timeless reverie of a dew-drenched summer morning in childhood, when we live in our senses and are closer to the ground.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Haha – since I would only be wearing very little, I would probably only be able to justify buying very little! Having said that, I have heard that in India white florals are considered masculine, or at least unisex, so maybe there's something in that – Songes, here I come!

    Honestly, I'm probably not that brave – and besides, there are so many other wonderful scent families that I love and which I CAN wear with impunity, that I probably should be glad of the opportunity to write one off without thinking!

  31. Anonymous says:

    Good point! It's a money saver, too.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the title for a possible novel?

  33. Anonymous says:

    C, it sounds like we're almost mirror opposites, fragrance-wise, although the really heavy orientals I have a problem with, and I do like Chanel No. 19. But it sounds like you've found your scent realm.

  34. Anonymous says:

    I haven't tried L'Ombre dans L'Eau, but it sounds really evocative. I'll definitely get myself a sample. I have plenty of small tubes of scent I keep just for smelling, not for wearing. In the same way, I have books of paintings I don't hang on the wall…

    Did you real Chandler Burr's article in the New Yorker on Jean Claude Ellena and the making of Jardin sur le Nil? Terrific article, and a real eye-opener on the perfume industry. You can probably find it on his website, chandlerburr dot com.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Angela: As usual, I'm right with you on this one. Although, I do really like SL TC, probably because the weird medicinal/urban opening really lasts on me. But Bois de Paradis – bah! Too sweet, sour as well, and just plain berry overload. Most white flowers do not work for me, but I too like to have them around to sniff sometimes. (DelRae Amoureuse being a good example, actually, as I quite like it, but am seldom moved to wear it.) Have you ever tried FM Lys Mediterranee? I keep meaning to get around to that one.

  36. Anonymous says:

    OK, now you've set me to worrying. Because I lovelovelove the white flowers. Carnal Flower, Tubey Crim, Amoureuse – gimme! But I also love huge honkin' orientals (Tolu!) and deep, dry ambers (Ambre Sultan!). I can't possibly be an accurate reflection of all of these, and very likely I don't look right for any of them. Here I am, another blue-eyed redhead (there is a real preponderance of us here, what's up with that?), 5'6″, pear-shaped… Not even in the same neighborhood as the exotic or tropical scents I love.

    Am I walking around as the poster child for cognitive dissonance? ::chews cuticles worriedly::

  37. Anonymous says:

    Amoureuse is a perfect example of a scent that smells wonderful (thank you for sending me the sample!) but somehow doesn't suit me. Yet I know I'll want to put it on the back of my hand to sniff from time to time.

    I haven't tried the Lys M, mostly because I'm afraid it will be another cold white flower. Although I've been tricked before–for some reason I had in my mind that Iris Silver Mist was an icy floral number, but it is absolutely fabulous (thanks again) and, to me, warm and grounded. Love it.

  38. Anonymous says:

    I bet you look fabulous (and I can tell from your comment that you smell pretty darn good)! If you wear the whites and love them, then they're working for you. You probably have the personality for all kinds of perfume. Some day I will join your ranks.

    I'm inspired to get out my sample of Tolu now. It's snowing outside, and Tolu would be perfect!

  39. Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much for this reference. Am printing it now. Apparently he's going to expand the piece into a book. I'm quite temped to buy his Emperor of Scent anyway. But also some other great articles on his site, and enjoyed the interview with him here.

    Thanks Angela, for that and for a really thought-provoking piece yourself. (Am sitting here loving the L'Ombre on the back of my hand, amazing how long it lasts too – always a good thing, methinks)

  40. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed the Emperor of Scent, and I'd read another book by Burr on perfume in a heartbeat. (If you do read Emperor and become enthralled with Luca Turin, there's a whole other body of info on the internet to explore: his fragrance guide, in French; and his defunct blog, Perfume Notes.)

  41. Anonymous says:

    The previous poster who complimented you on your thought-provoking and insightful articles is absolutely right. I've found myself looking for (and looking forward to) your articles, Angela.

    I'm yet another personality type, I guess. The type who takes a yin-yang approach to fragrance. I often choose a fragrance that's the opposite of my 'look'. I tend to dress at the extreme ends of the fashion spectrum — very button-down for my oh-so-serious job and as trendy as all get out for my leisure time. I'm very tall, very blonde, and couldn't get lost in a crowd if I tried, so I figured I may as well adopt 'in-your-face' dressing. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so to speak.

    Ergo, during my work day in one of my many navy blue, black or charcoal grey power suits, white flower fragances (along with chichifoofoo lingerie which only I know is there) provide the feminine balance to my masculine-inspired job and outer attire.

    Outside of work, in my trendy, flamboyant and ephemeral fashions, I ground myself with more serious, darker, deeper fragrances.

    But I do understand and appreciate your point regarding scent dissonance and the essential betrayal of one's espirt. And I, too, cherish Chanel No. 5 for the lovely creation it is, but it is simply not me and I doubt that it ever would be.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for the compliment!

    It sounds like you're really balanced in your fragrance choices. I do some balance, too–for instance, I find I reach for modern fragrances when I'm wearing vintage and vice versa. (Similarly, if I'm wearing a coat from the 1950s, I make sure my purse is new.) I love the idea of wildly girly underwear under a sober suit. And I think you should launch your own perfume called “chichifoofoo”.

  43. Anonymous says:

    Or a documentary…hee.

  44. Anonymous says:

    I am so far behind…but I'll post anyway. I tend to have this experience with fragrances I feel are “too much” for me, like a piece of clothing that's simply too large. Ormonde Woman is like this for me (and I know how you love it!), and so is Tolu. I love them both, but I feel so dinky in them. White florals make me feel steamy, like Maggie the Cat, when I'm about the least steamy person in any given room, but somehow I feel better able to pull them off. Sadly, though, I can't wear Songes. I think its stunningly pretty, but it gives me a terrible headache (why this one and not so many other white florals?). The only thing that bothers me more (because I really don't like it, maybe) is Chinatown.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Priscilla, I know just what you mean about a fragrance feeling too big, like it's obliterating some part of your (more subtle) personality. Sometimes I feel like the big white florals do that to me. Ormonde Woman is a big scent, but it's big in a way that goes with me, so it's o.k. Songes is big, too, and almost doesn't go with me, but sometimes does, so I keep a bottle around. Too bad about the headaches it gives you! Man, I'd wear anything that made me feel like Maggie the Cat, lucky you.

  46. Anonymous says:

    I'm late for the party, but I share the sentiment. White flowers are my mother, and at 36 I have yet to grow into her (not going to happen). I know the dissonance- I spend most of my time downtown (NYC, that is) or at my slightly suburban Jersey home, and feel that my fragrances need to reflect that. Only, sometimes I'm attracted to a softer, more elusive scents that are not completely me.

  47. Anonymous says:

    Lucky for me, it's pretty easy to stay away from what my mother wore, although she did have a bottle of My Sin, which I like. It's nice, though, to have something around that isn't completely you for those times when you want to shake things up.

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