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How people are using perfumes to tap into their ‘shadow selves’

In an age of toxic positivity, we’re increasingly being drawn to bad smells and fragrances that help us access the darker recesses of our psyche

Scent has a remarkable knack for stirring our emotions and memories. A faint trace of smoke machine fog can transport you back to the sticky dancefloors of your first night out; a whiff of a stranger’s aftershave on the Tube can have you grappling with the sting of an old heartbreak. But what if scent could do more than just make us reminisce? What if fragrance holds the power to not only unlock our emotions, but assist us in navigating them? 

In the past, plenty of “feel-good fragrances” alluded to the emotional benefits of perfume through soppy campaigns of girls frolicking in flower fields. But today, a host of avant-garde perfumers are challenging the misconception that mood-focused perfumes need only be associated with positivity. Instead, their creations aim to explore our full spectrum of feeling; delving into the darker recesses of our psyche, and triggering emotions we may have long buried.

The rising interest in such fragrances coincides with a growing appetite to explore the “shadow self”; a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) to describe the parts of our personalities we tend to hide or repress. The practice of delving into our shadow has gained significant traction in recent years – the hashtag #shadowwork has over two billion views on TikTok a gritty antidote to the toxic positivity of the past decade. Now, this practice is increasingly extending to our beauty rituals, with fragrance offering a complimentary sensory dimension to shadow work.

As we’ve seen with the rise of “unapproachable make-up”, people are exploring the power of perfumes to not just attract, but repel. On the popular r/fragrance subreddit, a recent thread asks for recommendations for fragrances to “strike fear in a man’s heart”, writing, “I want to smell like a villain... I want to smell so evil and powerful and murderous that a whiff would make a man’s asshole pucker when I walk by.” The olfactory equivalent of winged eyeliner or bold lip comes in the form of darker fragrance notes: burnt tobacco, dark rose and leather all appear in the recommendations. Meanwhile on TikTok, the search “dark feminine perfume” has reached 2.2 billion views; with suggestions for Extrait de Parfums to “match your femme fatale energy” sitting alongside instructions to “set your boundaries”, “practice detachment” and “say NO more”.

Here, perfume is reimagined as armour, a tool to give strength, even in our darkest moments. As James Elliott, the nose behind innovative fragrance house Filigree & Shadow, explains: “Laurie Cabot of Salem, Massachusetts fame once wrote that wearing a pentacle around your neck was an added charm of protection because so many people fear what they don’t know. What is fragrance if not a charm?” 

The connection between darker emotions and scent is not new: countless expressions like “smelling fear,” “smelling anger” or “smelling a lie” attest to this relationship. In the world of perfume advertising, ad executives have long risen to the challenge of marketing a transparent liquid by bestowing it with names that evoke the dark art of seduction: think Gucci’s Guilty, Dior’s Poison, Fendi’s Furiosa or Lanvin’s My Sin. Such perfumes beckon us with the promise that one spritz possesses the alchemic power to whisk us away from our everyday lives. 

Nowadays, contemporary perfumers are delving into portraying darker moods more explicitly, utilising scent’s unique ability to permeate beyond our rational thinking and deep into our subconscious. As Tanya Moulding (AKA the Perfume Mistress) – an aromatherapist, educator, and olfactory curator – explains: “Scent is a conduit to our emotions and memories, bypassing our rational brain and tapping into subconscious beliefs, thoughts and unresolved conflicts. Uncomfortable emotions are a fact of life; however, they can provide us with a unique opportunity for personal growth. Using a fragrance in a mindful and intuitive way can help us to embrace the complexities of our shadow self, assisting in transforming and integrating our darker emotions.”

Brands are increasingly tapping into this sentiment, positioning perfumes as tools to assist with shadow work. Etat Libre D’Orange’s Hermann A Mes Cotes Me Paraissait Une Ombre, is described as a “shadow companion… Your conscience, your soul, your complementary ego”. With notes of black pepper, incense and patchouli, its description describes how with a shadow perfume “you can test the boundaries of your own attitudes”.

Filip Rabiej, from Bloom Perfumery, explains how perfume allows us to explore our alternative selves, even more powerfully than fashion can. “Since perfumes are invisible, and therefore social norms do not apply to them as strictly as to clothes, that often encourages people to go ‘all in,’” he says. “Perfumes stopped being a ‘final touch’, but have become a standalone part of our presence.”

And go “all in” they do. In a backlash against saccharine sentimentality, a host of experimental fragrances instead celebrate vice, danger and subversion. Serge Lutens’ VITRIOL D'ŒILLET (Angry Carnation) combines carnation with notes of pepper and cloves, its description notes how “anger is notched into the heart of this perfume”. Meanwhile, at Juliette has a Gun (the gun here being “a metaphor for her perfume, her weapon of seduction”), fragrances are designed to evoke different facets of Juliette’s personality: including mutinous, vengeful, fiery androgynous. 

Other perfumers tap into disgust to trigger visceral physical responses. Take, for example, Sombre by Strangers Parfumerie, which with notes of champagne, mould, sweat and vomit, speaks to both hedonism and shame. Or Etat Libre d’Orange’s Secretions Magnifiques, a perfume designed to capture the scent of mingling bodily fluids: sweat, saliva, blood and semen. Launched in 2006, the perfume has had a resurgence in interest; its salty, metallic smell and notes of adrenaline evoke the slippery tension between sexual attraction and repulsion. “The first time [my boyfriend] made me smell it, I literally almost vomited,” Isamaya Ffrench said about the perfume in 2019. “There is something grotesquely carnal about it – almost like fresh rotting flesh, but it plays a trick on your brain and leaves you wanting to smell it again and again.”

While “dirty” and unusual notes have long been used in fragrance, the fact that perfumers are increasingly prioritising these ingredients marks a significant shift towards a more direct engagement with complex emotions. At Filigree & Shadow, each fragrance tells an emotional tale: whether of grief, ephemeral love or longing. James Elliott, the nose behind the brand, explains:A couple of years ago I was asked who I make my fragrances for. Without hesitation, I replied, ‘people who’ve been broken’... I think we seek out fragrances who see us for who we truly are and celebrate that.” But perfume can be a protest as much as a celebration; as Filigree & Shadow’s “Laughing with a mouthful of blood” shows. Created in direct response to Roe vs Wade, the perfume encapsulates feelings of rage, with one user describing it as “Absurd and manic – like the smell of my mind on one of those days when people are a little worried about me”.

The digital age has radically transformed how we perceive and present ourselves, we’ve become experts at crafting idealised versions of reality. Yet, in the shadows of these virtual identities, aspects of our true selves lie dormant, waiting to be acknowledged and understood. Perfume can serve as a grounding counterbalance: allowing us to confront the complexity of our emotions in a controlled space; and alchemise our shadow into strength. As Rabiej notes: “To a certain extent, we are all freaks, and perfumes just let us unveil that usually hidden layer.”

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