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Smelly Sexy French People vs. Soapy OCD Americans

The French do have a bad reputation in America when it comes to body odor, but why? Is it because they don’t notice the smell?—Perfume capital of the world? Unlikely. Too much stinky cheese in the diet?—I don’t think Americans are in a position to compare eating habits. I would argue that the French appreciate a wider range of odors than their air freshener-consuming American counterparts.

Let’s use a food analogy: A typical American may enjoy steak (probably overcooked by French standards) but not brain or intestines. In general (and you, dear reader, may be the exception), we Americans have a relatively narrow palette when it comes to both food and smell. In other words, one person’s body odor might be another person’s alluring (or at least more bearable) scent. As for the French palette, Napoleon’s legendary letter informing his beloved Josephine of his return from Italy says it all: “Home in three days. Don’t wash.”

Yep. We Americans tend to like things squeaky clean and soapy fresh, while the French supposedly stink. Or so goes the stereotype. And yet, other than during peak-hour métro rides, I can’t remember the last time I’ve grimaced at the smell of a French person. I have, however, had to hold my breath to avoid inhaling the nauseating scent of some popular American fragrances. There’s one in particular, which I have yet to identify, that reminds me of the rest home where I once worked. It smells like old lotion, dusty sachets, and sadness. One of these days, I’ll have to brave the mall perfume section just to solve the mystery of the hideous scent. I’m just afraid it will be like this:

Anyway, in spite of my post title, I’m not here to decide whether Americans smell better or worse than the French (but since we’re talking about it the answer is, it’s a tie: The French know how to use scent better, but they smoke too much and consequently let the cigarette smell destroy their advantage.) Instead, let me say a few words about the art of appreciating perfume.

Perfumes are generally classified according to family. The family names have changed over time, but a few of those you are likely to encounter in France include:

  • les floraux: floral scents, such as, jasmine, rose, and lily. Test Chanel Nº5 or Joy by Patou.
  • les ambrés: ambery scents usually based in ambergris and vanilla, such as, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s J.P. Gaultier or the men’s fragrance le Mâle by Gaultier.
  • les boisés: woody fragrances, for example, Guerlain’s Mitsouko or Dior’s Dolce Vita.
  • les frais: fresh, often citrus-based fragrances, such as, Un jardin en Méditerranée or Eau d’Orange Verte by Hermès.
  • les fougères: an herbaceous scent more common in men’s fragrances usually based in lavender and moss. Try XS by Paco Rabanne or Hugo by Hugo Boss.
  • les gourmands: scents based in food smells, such as, Thierry Mugler’s Angel and A*Men.


The family classification is not an exact science because of the complexity of perfumes. Further complicating matters, a scent changes over time, like a play in three acts. Immediately after applying the scent, you have the notes de tête (literally translated head notes, but it is known as top note in English. Try, for example, Un Jardin sur le Nile by Hermès for an exquisite top note of green mango.). A common mistake among busy shoppers is to consider only the top note of a perfume. Just minutes after application, however, the scent begins to move into the notes de coeur (heart notes, commonly called middle note in English) and stays there for several hours. Finally, the lingering notes de fond (base notes or bottom note in English) remain when all else is gone. In keeping with our theatre metaphor, remember to experience the whole show before forming your opinion. What may start out looking like a comedy in the first act, may become horrible tragedy by act three.

If you want to explore something probably not found at most local malls, try l’Artisan Parfumeur or Serge Lutens. Both parfumeurs have interesting lines with unexpected scents. Do you want to smell like the sweat of Mali warriors? Neither do I. But that you gives you an idea of how experimental some of the boutique brands can get.

If you want to educate yourself about the art of perfume, the blog Perfume Shrine is a great place to start. I first came across the site when reading an interview with perfumer, Isabelle Doyen. Explore the site, and you’ll find primers on perfume families, “how-to” guides, essays on aesthetics, and more.

Don’t like to read? Well, then first, thanks for reading this far. And second, check out these videos:

The short video above will help you appreciate the work of the perfumer.

If you want to invest an hour or so, check out the BBC series about perfume. It has three parts. Start here to get hooked and continue to Youtube to view the other episodes.

Once you’ve read up on things, you can now go to the mall and quiz the poor person at the perfume counter so they can hate their job even more.

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