Fashion / Perfumes / Politics

Dream Machines: Perfume as Signifier

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, at the Governors’ Dinner at the White House, February 2012

Let’s begin with Michelle Obama. In her role as First Lady, the media doesn’t focus on her charitable work, her diplomacy, or her political influence as often as they do on the clothes she wears. There are entire websites devoted to what Michelle wears like mrs-o.com, with each bit of clothing or accessory analyzed and critiqued for its symbolic value. Designers are shot into instant fame whenever she wears a piece of their clothing (she’s wearing a one-shoulder floral beaded metallic sequin gown by Naeem Khan in the photo above, in case you were wondering). When she wears off the rack clothes from J Crew or some other mainstream brand, she is lauded for her thriftiness and her desire to appear anti-elitist. A string of pearls can’t be ANY pearl necklace if Michelle Obama wears it.  The one she dons is special because of the way she matches it to her outfit to express her personal style, or because she is at an event where a more traditional look is expected.

The public’s fascination with what Michelle Obama wears is not about functionality, i.e., the parka that keeps her warm, the shoes that allow her to walk, the hat that keeps the sun out of her eyes. Other meanings are ascribed to them that goes beyond their “natural” status as things, meanings with complex significations.  It’s never just a coat or a dress or a pair of earrings when the First Lady wears them because of the many expectations imposed upon her regarding power, femininity, and social mores as the wife of one of the most powerful men on Earth.

Now let’s look at perfume. Thierry Mugler chose Eva Mendes as the face of his new eau de toilette version of Angel, and produced a commercial called “The Dream Machine.”  Mendes is not just a pretty face.  At the risk of overly objectifying her (I know how much women love that), she projects an image of sexy sophistication and wistful longing in this commercial where she sings the English version of the classic French ballad, The Windmills of Your Mind:

Mendes’s character falls asleep on a futuristic train and has a dream where she appears floating rapturously through the air in a sparkling strapless gown, her hair fluttering in the air like, um, an angel. The cinematography evokes an atmosphere of sensuality, spirituality, and desire. When she awakes and gets off the train, a glowing constellation appears in her hand that solidifies before our eyes into the famous star-shaped bottle of Angel.  The woman’s dream fades as quickly as the vapors of perfume on her skin.

In her dream, Mendes sings The Windmills of Your Mind (French title: Les moulins de mon cœur), the theme song for the movie classic, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.  It is a story of two starcrossed lovers–a bored and wealthy playboy who pulls off a bank robbery for the fun of it, and the insurance investigator who tries to frame him for the crime and, in the process, falls in love with him.

A perfume can allow you to dream vividly of a more beautiful world–this is what Thierry Mugler promises. The directors of these commercials and the marketing agencies that develop the concepts for them create a story that signifies way more than just a nice smelling fragrance in a cool bottle. You can be gorgeous like Eva Mendes, too, if you wear Angel. You can have beautiful dreams when you wear Angel. You can have the man you want if you wear Angel.  None of this, of course, has anything to do with the perfume itself. To make a more literal ad about the perfume would be way too boring and it would never sell the juice. It’s our own projection onto the images–of travel, a beautiful woman, a sad song–that might make us believe that if we wear Angel, we could be transformed into someone who we are not.  These kinds of ads take advantage of the analogical and evocative power of perfume; they offer the illusion of dreams and escape for those who own it.

Let’s go back to Mrs. O.  If a reporter were to find out that the only thing she wore to bed was Chanel No. 5, I’m sure that sales would skyrocket, even if for a short period of time.  The perfume house Krigler makes a fragrance called Lovely Patchouli, first produced in 1955 and famously worn by the former First Lady and modern style icon, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  Who wouldn’t want to smell like Jackie O.?  I totally would, but sadly it doesn’t smell good on me.  Oh well.

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3 thoughts on “Dream Machines: Perfume as Signifier

  1. Now that you mention it, I’d love to know what perfume Michelle Obama wears! What does one wear to a state dinner?

    Maybe I play right into brand marketing, but part of the reason I like perfume is because the really good ones allow me to fall into a dream. I have some that make me feel more confident, and others that I prefer to be cozy in and wear to bed. How could you have a bad dream when you go to bed smelling like By Kilian?

  2. There is a rumor Michelle Obama wears Creed’s Love in White.

    There is no way I could have a bad dream if I wear Kilian to bed, especially since I know I paid close to $400 for the bottle that comes in its own gorgeous satin lined black case with a lock and key.

    The growth of the aromatherapy industry can attest to the popularity of using scents in a therapeutic or palliative way. Light a lavender candle in your bedroom to help you sleep. Add a few drops of eucalyptus oil to a sink full of hot water to alleviate your cold. For less than $10, you can pick up a small bottle of essential oil at your local health food store that will last a long time.

    So why on Earth did I spend that huge amount of money on Kilian’s Amber Oud? I’ve never spent $400 on a pair of shoes much less a fragrance in a pretty bottle. Maybe the ingredients are of super high quality, obtainable only by donkey up steep mountainsides? Perfumers charge a lot for their services? Packaging? None of the above. I bought it because I love the way the brand is marketed, I love the way the perfume smells on me, and I love the idea that I can own this little bit of luxury that I can lock away with my own key. Perfume carries with it enormous cultural and social signification given its immateriality, i.e., liquid in a bottle that evaporates on you versus a mink stole you can wear that keeps you warm. I don’t pay for the smell, I pay for the fantasy.

    I write this so that I can understand better the way that perfume houses and marketers work. I like dissecting the language and imagery that sucks me in.

    • I’m a bit late with this reply but I just wanted to say that your comment was so lovely! It should be a post of its own. I pay for the fantasy too. And it’s easy to do when By Kilian, Amouage, etc create such gorgeous fantasies. You can’t help wanting to get swept up in it.

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