In which we unretire, listen to the new (old) Barbra Streisand record, launch an advice column, and recommend three scents to our readers.
Hello Dry Downers (and newcomers to the DD family) –
Surprise! This newsletter – now almost SEVEN years old, can you believe? – is turning out to be the Barbra Streisand of perfume-adjacent web content; we keep “retiring” and yet we cannot stay away from one last command performance of “Cry Me A River” in a belted cream-colored sweater dress. Speaking of Babs, a fun fact: she just last week released a new (old) album, “Live at the Bon Soir” a 1962 recording from her personal vault of master tapes (imagine sitting on a masterpiece for sixty years just because you felt like it….god, I love her). Babs started singing in the small cabaret on West 8th Street when she was just eighteen, and she made a live recording of a twenty-four song set thinking she might release it as her debut album, but she was instantly such a sensation that Columbia Records roped her into a shiny studio deal and her scrappy little club album was scuttled away into the archive. But you really should listen to it – there is a rawness and desperation in her voice here that you rarely hear later when she was a Big Star luxuriating in the buttery (buttahry?) certainty of megafame. She sounds here like she really wants it, even though she also sounds absolutely confident that she is going to get it. Has any twenty year old ever been so secure? Listening to it makes me want to do things and be things, to pick up a bubblegum pink rotary phone and make some very important calls. Anyways, here’s her original recording of “Happy Days are Here Again,” in honor of the fact that The Dry Down is, at least for now, here again. If this record was a perfume, it would probably be something like Jean desPrez’ Bal a Versailles (for the newcomers, when we link out to any perfume in this newsletter, it is to a place where you can snag a sample), a feral, room-dominating animalic rose that also made its big debut in 1962 and had far more confidence and bluster than it had any right to. I recommend clicking play while you read the rest.
In any case, HELLO! For those of you who are new around here, a bit about this project: The Dry Down is a newsletter about perfume that has had many lives – first as a G-chat conversation about perfume samples between myself (Rachel) and Helena (Fitzgerald, one of my favorite people and writers, who also writes the unmissable newsletter-in-essays, Griefbacon), then as a TinyLetter, then as a series of live events in NYC, then as a Substack in the early days of this thing, and now as an intermittent (and free) Substack that flares up every year or two when we get bored or miss thinking (or overthinking) about smells. But now (and especially as another social media platform seems to be crumbling into pieces) this letter is going to be back a bit more consistently – at least monthly – in a few different ways. The big news is we are starting a monthly (or maybe more or less often, we’ll see) ADVICE COLUMN, an extension of the Perfume Genie threads that I do (or did) in that other, maybe crumbling place. Basically, you write us about a memory, or a special upcoming event, or a time period, or a person, or an otherwise indescribable feeling, and we will try to find you a perfume to channel that very thing. There will also be a few regular Dry Down letter installments throughout the year, and H and I are going to be bringing back The Six, where we recommend six perfumes around a theme, etc. Lots to sniff ahead. But for now, let the perfume genie begin…if you want to make a future request, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FROM THE MAILBAG….
Justine writes: “Hi Rachel! I am in need of a scent for cashmere sweater season. I’m intending to spend my winter layered in cashmere, feeling chic and a little rock ‘n’ roll, a scent that lingers in my hair the next day and makes me feel like I have a secret.”
First of all, congratulations to Justine for succinctly nailing a vibe in two sentences that took me ten years of clumsy, autumnal outfit experimentation to appreciate. The mistake a lot of people make, when it comes to cold weather dressing, is to steer so hard into Meg Ryan Fall that you at one point feel that you absolutely must own a felted bowler hat and billowy tapered tweed pants. Nothing is wrong with either item, in theory, but in practice they are clunky and difficult to wear; they itch and irritate, they weigh you down, they don’t breathe. I used to resist cashmere, because “cashmere” to me was more of an idea than a material; one that was unattainable to me because I wasn’t someone’s childless aunt (yet) and because I did not live inside a marble Nancy Meyers kitchen and because it just seemed so far-fetched to swaddle oneself in rare goat fluff. I had this sense as a child – did I get it from magazines? The movies? – that cashmere was a threshold that people crossed when they became an adult, but not the fun kind who used their freedom to see midnight movies or buy an entire cake just because they felt like it. Cashmere was for the kind of adults who shut doors of opportunity as they age, who barricade themselves inside cozy stasis and nice things that must be protected at all costs. I had a choir teacher who had this beige cashmere pashmina that she would stroke like a live snake around her neck, and I remember thinking that getting older must mean buying fancy things and petting them into submission. Didn’t want to be a part of it!!! But then, I discovered vintage stores and the glories of secondhand cashmere, and I saw what all the fuss was about. I mean, it’s a cloud. It’s a cloud you can wear. I still feel a push-pull relationship to the cashmere sweater – I cannot get past the feeling of cosplaying at the kind of woman who burns very tall vanilla candles in giant glass hurricanes – but what really pushed me over the edge was the advent of the cashmere sweatpant, an item that magically made an entrance around three or four years ago and which many people finally justified buying during the year we all stayed inside. You can find them now in many, many places, but my friend Ashley recommended the Naadam ones to me and I’ve never loved an item of clothing with such intensity.
Which is all to say, Justine, that I fully understand and respect this request. I am also tickled also by your inclusion of the “rock ‘n’ roll” angle, as what you are really saying is that you want to give off louche, 1970s, elegance-goes-electric fumes, a la Carly Simon, who fully held her own with scruffy rockstars despite the fact that she was very much a posh girl from Riverdale whose father owned a publishing house. I’m picking up what you’re putting down! And there’s a scent for this! Well, there are two. The first is going to feel deeply literal, and I apologize for what seems like something I just Googled, but trust me here. Patricia Nicolai’s Ambre Cashmere Intense is going to check most of your sweatery boxes: it’s got a thick golden glug of vanilla absolute surrounded by a warm hug of spices and resins (clove, labdanum, benzoin) and a powdery sprinkle of orris butter, the fatty residue of the iris root that smells like flowery lard. This perfume wraps you up and gives you a cup of hot cocoa and tells you you’re beautiful. But if you want something a little more hard rock and hair-lingering, I’d go with another Nicolai perfume, Cuir Cuba, which adds pipe tobacco and the smell of a new leather jacket to the mix. It is very “I’m with the band, but also my dad still pays for my cell phone,” for whatever that is worth.
Sara writes: “Hello! I'm a longtime lover of perfume genie and looking for a wedding perfume for my sister. We both love to acquire new scents and I am on the hunt for a scent for her wedding day in mid December. For context, she is in her mid-twenties and is getting married in the lowcountry of South Carolina. The ceremony is taking place under old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and right on the water. We grew up visiting this exact spot, via bicycle, kayak and long walks. My sister's past perfumes range in taste but include Chanel Mademoiselle, Tom Ford Black Orchid, Mugler Alien, Replica Jazz Club and Jo Malone Gardenia & Oud Absolu. She does not like powdery scents and detests Marc Jacobs Daisy. Overall, I would love a scent that evokes the emotion of feeling the winter sun on your skin on a clear winter day in a place that feels like home, feeling surrounded by friends and family, and a certain sparkle that comes from knowing you smell incredible.”
A gal who detests Marc Jacobs Daisy and loves Black Orchid and Alien? Come sit next to me, Sara’s sister! Taste!!!! I love a woman who loves a funky scent. Also, December bride in the lowcountry…the title of a folk song I would listen to on a long road trip. Before I conjure up a recommendation, let me just say something about the “wedding perfume.” This is a regular request I get in DMs, and I am always so honored to be asked about it, because there is nothing more intimate than selecting the way you want to remember the day you made a wild and irrational public commitment to intimacy. I do think that “bridal” is an over-leveraged marketing category in perfumery, as like most things having to do with weddings, it has become commercialized and expensive and laden with expectations and leans into whatever will look best in photographs (you’d think perfume, as an invisible indulgence, wouldn’t count here, but wedding photographers these days love to take close-ups of the bride spritzing on her scent; it’s a whole thing on Instagram). There are hundreds of TikToks about how to select a wedding perfume – to layer or not to layer? Floral or green? High femme or butch? Bold or whisper soft? – but none of them say the one thing that every bride-to-be needs to hear, or at least I certainly did: fuck the rules. None of that matters. You will remember next to nothing about your Big Day except the blur of it whizzing past you. All you can do is set out a few breadcrumbs that you can grip onto in your memory, and they should be yours alone to collect. The thing I remember most about my wedding day? The fact that, despite all predictive models and the fact that it never rains in the summer in New Mexico, it poured just as our (outdoor) ceremony was going to begin. E and I were quickly funneled into a tiny room in an adobe house to wait it out while our guests camped out underneath an overhang and sent us videos of everyone singing “Ironic.” In that small room, where we sat for an extra hour as my dad and uncles moved the chuppah inside while rained soaked their suits, E and I just got to hang out with each other, which you never get to do on your wedding day. We did silly dances. We talked about how crazy it was that somehow we had convinced 80 people to show up at a lavender farm just because we met. We made each other laugh, a lot. If it rains on your wedding day, you do gotta laugh. Because, well, fuck the rules. I remember that hour most of all. I think that was when we were really married. Everything that came after was kind of perfunctory. And when all that happened, I was wearing a chalky, powdery violet perfume called A Goodnight Kiss that Roja Dove made to replicate the smell of his mother’s face as she would leave him with his nanny (waxy lipstick, talc, her floral shampoo). This perfume is hilariously pricey, but I sprang for a 5ml vial of it, knowing that I would only wear it this one time and never again.
This leads to the only advice I can give about a “wedding perfume.” Don’t pick a favorite, because wearing it won’t ever feel the same, and you will only diminish its madeleine memory powers if you diffuse it over time. Pick something strange and maybe even dangerous, and most of all, something that makes you feel like a strongly-brewed version of yourself. A wedding is an exercise of endurance, for the couple anyways, and you need something to bolster you throughout the day. For your sister, given her penchant for heady and bold fragrances, you can interpret a “clear winter day” under an oak tree with some volume; this need not be a quiet or polite perfume. I see her wearing DS & Durga’s “Amber Teutonic,” a gorgeous Alpine mix of cypress and cedar and mountain wind, or for a more florid lowcountry feel, Isabey’s “Lys Noir,” a perfume that launched in 1924 and is thick, syrupy narcissus flowers undercut with dry (not powdery!) patchouli and musk, like a bulb pushing up through permafrost. I’d steer her toward tuberose, orris, jasmine – noxious, big flowers that smell like wintertime because they are big enough to cut through a snowy evening. But whatever it is, she must pick it for herself. Present her with a handful of samples now, and, as an early wedding gift, offer to get her a full bottle of the one she chooses. She’ll always remember that.
“ 1. Perfume Genie request: I love “Elephant and Roses” and “Amrys Femme” - both tried on your recommendation - which are still my go-to 'I want to feel sultry and pour myself into a dress for date night' but I'm in a very different gender place than I was when I purchased them. I've started transitioning and am much more of an Old Navy Orange Shirt transmasc now, while I do love the occasional return to high femme glamor (see above). What recommendations do you have for a newly unearthed modern-thembo-by-way-of-Kirk-Douglas*?
2. A young transmasc friend asked me recently if I wear perfume or cologne - thank you for planting the seeds of my answer: "gender is fake; wear what smells good."
xoxo, N [they/them]
*credible assault allegations aside”
Oh, how I love this letter. The footnote! The invocation of Old Navy Orange Shirt! N, I like your style. I am so touched that somehow, this little project has led you to reject the cologne/perfume discourse as fake (because it is!). And congratulations on all of the joys that unearthing modern-day-themboism surely has in store. I have gotten a few requests over the years about scents and transitioning, and in embracing the “just wear what smells good” philosophy you are already invoking what I would say. I’d also add that you aren’t so much walking away from sultriness as much as approaching it from a different (olfactory) angle. This is a thrilling place to be; defining, venturing ahead, unearthing. An adventure! You must smell many things and try them on for size; some won’t feel right anymore, and some will feel as comfortable as cotton jersey. It’s all about trial and error. But if you are looking to match the Old Navy shirt vibes a little more than Elephant and Roses (which is such a juicy, sundappled rose that it makes even me, a high-femme bubble bath enthusiast who wears fake lashes when I go out, feel like I’m invoking hot pink neon femininity) I might start with the same perfumer and head in a slightly Kirk Douglas-ier direction (without, of course, the footnote). Luberon, also from Maria Candida Gentile (one of my very favorite maverick women perfumers) is a tangy, zingy, pure Scotch lavender by way of a mint float and a bed of oakmoss and atlas cedar. It’s masc, in that rugged field of heather way, but it is also constantly ducking and dashing categorization. It’s a true herbal, in that it is sharp, alive, and full of bracing clarity, like a rhizome you have recently dug out of the soil. It is vibrating with potential. It wants to grow and change; it thrives in the open air. It smells like planting seeds.
And that’s a wrap on advice issue #1! Send us your Perfume Genie requests at email@example.com. See you next time. Happy days are here again.