Scene-stealing perfumes for when you’re making an entrance 

Drama, oomph and some serious trail – Lizzie Ostrom on what to wear when you're feeling a little exhibitionistic

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By Lizzie Ostrom on

Walking very slowly is apparently much more tiring than going at speed, which possibly explains why visiting art galleries and museums can be so draining. All we’re doing is dawdling about, looking at things, but after 15 minutes, many of us are eyeing up those fishing stools available on a needs-must basis, or are yearning for a spot on an uncomfortable marble bench. Never have I seen such a group of people in need of a cup of tea and a sit-down than those filing out of the recent Hockney show.  

A few months ago, loitering about in the Tate and feeling sorry for my tired legs, a striking woman in her sixties, wearing Issey Miyake Pleats Please clothing, strode by, leaving a marshmallow cloud of Guerlain L’Heure Bleu, that classic 1913 perfume smelling of Viennese biscuits and a chemist’s ointment. I rarely encounter anyone actually wearing it and was captivated. Even better, the perfume banished my lethargy. Thankfully, I knew what it was, otherwise I’d have been driven mad procrastinating whether to stalk her and ask or forever wonder. I even own a bottle and, having smelt it anew so unexpectedly, couldn’t wait to get home to try it on. I left so quickly the museum gift shop didn’t get a look-in, which is highly out of character.


The silent encounters we have with strangers in galleries offer prime opportunity to be captivated by a new perfume. We’re up close with others, standing side by side in front of a work of art, then coming apart again, in and out of the rooms, in a merry dance. Often hushed with concentrated attention, we say little, so in the silence perhaps are more attuned to the scents carried on the air. It’s all part of the electricity in the experience – especially given art galleries are prime hook-up locations.

Estée Lauder Knowing is slightly cool, like that moment on a midsummer night when finally the sun sets and, an hour later, you notice your first shiver

Though you might prefer something discreet, exhibitions are an invitation to, well, bring out your inner exhibitionist. Peacock about. I’m thinking drama, oomph and a serious trail. I often turn to the classic Estée Lauder fragrances when claiming this queenly air, because they have such good projection, while steering clear of being cute and sweet. Azurée, £50, from 1969, is a husky-voiced combination of herbs, woods and leather. Knowing, £42, from the 1980s, is a dark mossy rose, statuesque and austere. It’s slightly cool, like that moment on a midsummer night when finally the sun sets and an hour later you notice your first shiver. I also think there’s a place here for Hermès 24 Faubourg, £45, which is as giant a mixed floral bouquet as those that grace an awards ceremony or uncontrolled wedding. Ever so slightly old-fashioned, this scent needs the confidence of one who would also take an Hermès silk scarf and wear it over the head, tied under the chin, making this blue-rinse accessory chic again.


If you’re concerned these perfumes will act like a flashing neon arrow above your head, may I suggest you have a sniff of Sarah Jessica Parker’s latest gender-neutral perfume, Stash SJP, £32. This perfume absolutely nails the cedar incense and creamy sandalwood you might expect from high-end fragrance houses, at about a fifth of the price. The fragrance isn’t loud, like Azurée & co. It uses glowy wood aroma materials, which mean the perfume subtly permeates a space, so the trail comes and goes in waves. Indeed, this perfume smells as beguiling if you’re a few feet away from someone, rather than right up close. While our appreciation of art is often extended by learning the name of the work, I think in this case ignore Stash, which sounds as if part of Jason Statham’s filmography, and focus on the juice.



Lizzie is co-curating the exhibition Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House June 21 – September 17. 

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