"Sillage" in French, the word means the cleft water and foaming ripples that mark the wake of a ship. There's a clue in that, for by the English it is used almost exclusively to mean the waft of perfume left by the presence or passage of a wearer. Everyone demands intense sillage these days: they even measure it. A respectable sillage should reach an arm's length from the body and no further. And so on. Frederic Malle has even recreated the odour of sillage in his witty and delicious Cafe Society candle and room scent: une sillage de sillage.
For centuries, though, the lovely and desirable sought the alluring enchantment of the sillage without the dubious connotations of the scent that gave it birth. To be seen to wear perfume on the skin was meretricious and dingy; yet to smell delicious was the mark of goodness, of moral integrity. The odour of sanctity revealed that a person was pure, benevolent, divine, without spot or stain. And it would continue to manifest even after death, rendering the mortal remains incorruptible, giving off a redolence of sweet myrrh, roses and what have you. So the aim of the fashionable was to create the illusion that scent emanated from one's own skin, pores and soul - just as Alexander the Great sweated forth the smell of violets.
"From her fragrant robes, a lovely perfume was scattered" reads a hymn to the goddess Demeter. For thousands of years, men and women strove for this effect and contemporary literature - poems, plays, novels - colludes in the illusion. Desirable individuals were believed to exude scent from a vague, mysterious source. They are surrounded by an aura of perfume which suffuses their clothing, furniture, possessions and which leaves wonderful sillage when they move, "a faint delicious fragrance hung about her". Perfume clings to the objects that the beautiful people touch and it lingers in their rooms, their beds, luggage and hair. But the source of the scent remains vague, unspecified: it manifests spontaneously; it seems to transmit from incense burners, herbs & flowers or from the very air. It comes from the purity of the soul.
I remember various memorable encounters with sillage. Some 30 years ago the ground floor at Harrods always smelled subtly and sweetly of gardenias as though left in the wake of generations of exquisite shoppers dipped in the Floris house exclusive. And most of all I recall midsummer midnight at Luxor in 1992 and the temple of Rameses on the Nile waterfront: everywhere the faint but insistent odour of Oscar de la Renta's Volupte, the osmanthus & violet hit of the day. It was the scent and epicentre of the hot blue night.
For sillage connoisseurs everywhere let me put in a word for Andy Tauer's Gardenia Sotta la Luna - la Stupenda, indeed! Here is a massive and glorious gardenia scent enhanced with all the creamy sandalwood, tonka and vanilla notes exuded by the flower itself; it exudes a mossy, dark, jungly quality. But the volume, the expansion! I like to wear just a drop of this one and follow its progress as it expands and inflates like a great balloon of fragrance. It opens up like the flower which inspires it, from a tight green bud to a voluptuous all-encompassing mantle. This is a case where less is definitely more.