Scent-imental: FQ on the fragrances that spark their fondest memories

19 February 2024
By Sarah Murray

As growing research suggests, there’s a scientific reason why scents strongly link to emotions and lasting memories. These are ours...

Image: Mecca Australia.

Ever noticed how certain scents transport you to another time and place? Perhaps it was a new perfume picked up in duty-free on you way to an idyllic escape. Or maybe it was overbearing fabric softener from a particular relative. As growing research suggests, there’s a scientific reason why scents strongly link to emotions and lasting memories. Scans show specific regions in the brain dedicated to processing scent, the olfactory bulb if you will, are in direct connection with the limbic system which is responsible for emotion and memory, explaining why aromas can evoke stronger emotional memories than other senses. Below, the Fashion Quarterly editors share their most cherished scents and the memories that make them. 

Sarah Murray, editor-in-chief

There is one fragrance that stops me in my tracks every time I smell it. When I lived in London, I would trudge unhappily (homesick) down the grimy Kilburn High Road, and every now and then, between halal chicken stores and Thai takeaways, I’d smell it. I’d look up, and look for him, my mind convinced he’d be there – but he wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t. Back then, my Dad was living in Auckland, likely enjoying the warmer weather and a cool beer, while I was on the other side of the world, navigating a series of administration jobs and freezing in my one winter coat, a Kathmandu puffer Mum insisted on buying me before I left on my big OE. Dad had been wearing that scent for as long as I could remember. He’d put it on every night after he got home from a hard day digging drains – sometimes by hand. He would shower, comb his hair through so you could see the demarcation lines, and put on aftershave, even if he was doing nothing else but sitting down with us for dinner.

Afterwards, he’d retire to his armchair, and I swear that scent seeped into the cream leather, where it remained for years. That scent, his scent, reminds me of the Irish Club. Of Dad getting ready to take us all in on a Sunday night – the slightest trace of peppermint toothpaste on his breath. Of the slippery-soled shoes he wore so he could glide around the dance floor once the band started. Of him waltzing with me as I stood on his feet.

Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male

I’m not sure whether he chose Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, or if Mum did, but every Christmas he’d get a new bottle. He got a kick out of the fact it came packaged in a can. He would regale us (repeatedly) with the story of how he was once so poor he had to eat frozen peaches from a can for a week when he was living in London and had the misfortune of getting the mumps. Maybe he liked it because it was a sign of how far he’d come, of the definitive line it signalled between work and home, or the way we clambered around him always telling him how great he smelt. Probably, he found a scent that worked and he stuck with it.

After he died, I used to keep a bottle in my bathroom. I’d draw it out every now and then, and lightly sniff the dispenser. The mix of mint, lavender and vanilla would transport me straight back to life with him. Sometimes, in a desperate attempt to be close to him, I’d spray it onto my wrist and sniff it throughout the day until it became too full, too overpowering, too painful, and I’d wash it off in a frenzy, furious with myself for going there. After a while, I gave it away. It seemed stupid, keeping a fragrance that both comforted me and tortured me at the same time. A scent that gave me so much security, but now a deep grief that made my back teeth ache.

Brooke Lean, founder and creator of fragrance brand The Virtue, believes fragrance really is an emotional journey, and that each fragrance evokes different emotions and deeply stored memories in all of us. “There are different theories and science around what determines whether an individual likes a scent or not, some even say our preferences to scent are developed in the womb. Personally, my leanings toward scent are based on my life experiences, places I have lived, countries I have travelled to, and how those experiences have made me feel, the memories that are attached and stored at a visceral level in our bodies when we smell something that evokes a response, be it a pleasant one or not.

“Fragrance is, in its essence, a way to time travel,” she says. Even now. Even seven years after he died, if I catch a whiff of his aftershave while walking down a busy street, I’ll look up and expect to see him. My senses believe he is there before my mind catches up. I travel back, just for a second, to a life with him in it. I’m hoping someday soon, I’ll be able to keep another bottle in my bathroom cabinet. And that someday soon, that smell will only make me smile.

Georgia Bramley, art director

Narciso Rodriguez For Her: my first signature perfume that trademarked my teenage years; a coming-of-age scent that established my preference for musky, amber notes in the fragrances that I wear now.

Vanessa Bathfield, commercial director

Chanel Coco Mademoiselle was the first scent gifted to me by my parents, for my 16th birthday. The sweet scent combined with bursts of citrus will forever be a reminder of my French
heritage and my teenage years.

Louise Dunn, digital editor

Tom Ford’s Soleil Blanc transports me to a past life when summers moved slowly; sitting on the sidelines in shaded grass, watching cricket. I cycled through many scent personalities in my early twenties but this was one of the first fragrances that felt like it fit me – and not the other way around.

Amberley Colby, editorial assistant

Fantasy by Britney Spears was the very first fragrance I owned that wasn’t a body spray – and boy did I love it. Fantasy has a really beautiful balance of sweet notes and muskier, woody notes, so I justified wearing it until my early twenties because it smelled more mature than it actually was.

This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly‘s summer 2024 issue. 


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