Smelling Violet Chachki: Olfactory Costuming and the Act of Perfuming as Resistance
As an act of civil and social disobedience, the wearing of scents can make powerful statements about identity and bodily presence. As shown by Cerulo (2018), olfactory meaning-making has an impact on social interaction. In this presentation, I argue that perfume can be subversive and political, and that scented bodies have agency.
Using fragrance as a personal identity statement means that we can dress in scent. I am inspired by theoretical perspectives on costume agency (Monks 2010, Barbieri 2017), suggesting that costume interacts with the body wearing it and plays significant parts in performance. Costuming is something other than just dressing up a body; it could be viewed as an act of producing the actors’ body or co-producing the performance. The same, I argue, is valid for what I would like to call perfuming. Actively and consciously wearing perfume far exceeds smelling nice; rather, it is about creating bodily presence and designing an olfactory identity that interacts with the wearer and the surrounding space.
I propose that scents can be worn as olfactory costumes, as non-verbal resistance, and that scented bodies become noticeable and potentially dangerous. I discuss how the subversive qualities of perfume can be used to transgress the normativity of beauty – and gender ideals. In this presentation, I analyse examples from niche perfume brands such as Dirty Violet, an olfactory portrait of drag artist Violet Chachki, meant to capture the essence of her stage persona. ‘Niche’ is understood here as smaller companies with a limited distribution where the boundaries of fine perfumery are expanded through a refusal to submit to the gendered norms of the commercial fragrance industry, and the deliberate use of socially unacceptable smells, such as bodily fluids.
Viveka Kjellmer is a senior lecturer in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Gothenburg. She also holds a university degree in economics and has previously worked in marketing. She has written about advertising and the image of scent, fashion exhibitions, and visual consumption. Her current research concerns costume, body, and identity, as well as scented scenography, olfactory communication, and the agency of scent.
All images: photo & editing by Viveka Kjellmer, 2020.
Perfumes/art works discussed:
Afanador, Ruven, Portrait of Violet Chachki, Photograph, 2019.
Daltroff, Ernest, Tabac Blond, Eau de parfum, Caron, 1919.
Lie, Antoine & Maisondieu, Antoine, Eau de Protection, Eau de parfum, État Libre d’Orange, 2009.
Little, Douglas, Dirty Violet, Eau de parfum, Heretic Parfums, 2019.
Vanilla CEO, Eau de parfum, CRA-YON, 2020.