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To suss out the best fall perfumes, we asked writers Rachel Syme and Helena Fitzgerald — the founders of the fragrance newsletter The Dry Down — for their most beloved seasonal options. Here, six of their favorite scents, and the feelings, memories, and specific fall days each of them brings to mind. You can subscribe to their newsletter here, and see what they recommended for spring over here.
Want to try them out? You can purchase a sample pack of their recommendations from Brooklyn-based fragrance store Twisted Lily for $30 (and get a bonus $20 gift card that can be used toward a future full bottle).
Parfums Quartana Wolfsbane ($185)
By: Helena Fitzgerald
Nobody really wants to smell like a haunted house, or at least I doubt you have ever thought of that being the aroma you wanted to waft through an evening. It’s easy to talk about how certain parts of autumn smell — holidays with their food and drinks and spices, and warm indoor spaces gathering wood and smoke against the coming cold of winter. But before autumn gets cozy, it gets spooky, and Parfums Quartana’s Wolfsbane is the smell of the haunted part of the season.
The first two notes are Angelica root and fig leaf. Angelica root is an uncommon note, a sticky-sweet medicinal herb that I’ve never seen used in any other perfume. It smells at once like Halloween candy and like cough medicine. It’s not pleasant, but it’s compelling in the way that unpleasant things are often compelling, off-putting in a way that makes you want to smell it again.
Fig is one of my favorite notes in any perfume, but in this one it’s cacophonous and purposely out of place. Figs are usually meant to smell like summer, sun-warmed abundance, and decadently ripe fruit. Here, it smells jarringly out of season — a little rotten and awkward and shifty, a reminder that decay follows immediately after perfect ripeness. Wolfsbane is also shot through with tuberose, a heavily sweet, redolently sexual white floral equally out of place in a autumnal perfume. It makes no sense to place tuberose in something that heralds the cold and the end of the year rather than spring and sunshine and new growth. Out of place like this, its sweetness is menacing, the beautiful song that entices a victim into a room full of horrors, the house made of gingerbread in the middle of the woods.
The opening of Wolfsbane smells like what a witch might use to make her poisons taste superficially like candy, their sticky-sweet overtone luring children to their doom. Wolfsbane smells a lot like that witch’s forest-hut in general — a mix of spices and moldy candy and moss and dirt and rot, curses, and lightning strikes and skeletons, frogs and toads and bats and an undertone of dead things, of lurking terror.
Right around Halloween is when we get to enjoy being scared. It hasn’t really gotten cold yet, and the onslaught of winter doesn’t yet feel like consequences. The weather hasn’t driven all of us indoors or made every plan seem better cancelled. Nobody is a hermit yet, the nighttime is spooky, and everyone still wants to party. A small amount of fear is exciting, even silly. We enjoy being scared in a Halloween way precisely because it’s embarrassing, because a haunted house is cheesy, and usually after we scream in terror, we get to laugh at ourselves for being scared.
Making fear a game is a good way to ward them off. Halloween welcomes in fears and then drains them of their power, distilling monsters down to silly costumes for adorable kids and drunk grown-ups. Halloween is also one of the drunkest, messiest holidays, and this perfume smells like that, too, with absinthe as another dissonant, wrong-angle note in its center. Some whiffs of this scent smell mainly like booze and mint and sweat and staying in a bar too late at night after the buzz rubs off and the real edges of things start to show. But smelling like a bar is just one more way that this perfume smells like Halloween.
Even its name is silly and spooky, like a store-bought costume. It gestures at being scary when really it’s as cheesy as it is scary and as comforting as it is weird. A lot of contemporary perfumes want you to believe that they smell bad. There’s a vogue for gross-smelling scents, for bottles that promise to smell like death or trash or graveyards. The idea, perhaps, is that wearing these shows that you’re cooler — stranger, more interesting, edgier, and less self-conscious — than people who simply wear perfume in order to smell good. But, of course, the secret of almost all of these weird, edgy perfumes is that they do actually smell good, because no one would wear them otherwise. I might want to smell like the idea of an open grave or a bar bathroom, but I don’t want to smell like the reality of either.
Halloween works in the same way. We like that the haunted house is scary, and we like that being scared turns out to be a joke. The weirdness of Wolfsbane’s dissonant sweetness and pungent animal qualities (“deer tonque” is listed as a note) is offset by a cocktail of well-known, woody, autumnal notes, vetiver and sandalwood and patchouli and cumin. Wolfsbane is like a haunted house out of which you emerge into a Halloween party at an old friend’s apartment. You might have had fun being scared, but you knew where you really were all along.
Being scared is kind of silly, and this perfume is both. It’s a Halloween costume of a scent, frightening on the surface, but recognizable enough to wear for a whole night and smell cozy by the time you change into sneakers to walk home. I asked my most goth friend to smell it and she loved it. “I expected it to smell like a werewolf,” she said, “but it actually smells like Hugh Jackman playing a werewolf.” Wolfsbane wants to be scary, but it’s really a handsome man playing scary in a big cheesy movie.
Arquiste Ella ($190)
By: Rachel Syme
In the land of perfume, it is always Halloween. Fragrance is a costume; it’s grown-up playtime. Sometimes it’s a box of wilted sparkle boas in the corner of a dollar store, sometimes it’s a pricey rented Madame X gown. It’s bobbing for apples with every dab of the wrist.
Even people who claim to have aged out of trick-or-treating (but still like to wear perfume) wake up in the morning and spritz on a persona before they walk out the door: the “smell my feet” part of the singsong may no longer apply, but they haven’t completely rescinded the invitation to lean in and perhaps offer something good in return. Perfume is, in many ways, an adult way to ring the doorbell at a stranger’s house, to prompt questions about dress-up and disguise.
One of the joys of fragrance is that it is simultaneously private and performative; it’s an invisible masquerade, a forever Halloween of the heart without the monster facepaint and blood capsules and fun-sized Twix. Instead, all of those spooky inspirations can be shoved into bottles — there are perfumes that smell like the inside of a rubber Frankenstein mask, perfumes that smell like caramel and chocolate, perfumes with a blood accord (which is really a combination of wet pavement and musk). There are fragrances that smell like popcorn balls, and ones that smell like pumpkin innards, or cinnamon brooms. If you wanted to smell like you’ve actually been mummified, there is a scent for that, too. There are perfumes inspired by the Salem Witch Trials, by the Headless Horseman, by Room 237 in The Shining.
In 1997, perfumer Max Gavarry created a scent that was actually called “Halloween” that was not at all creepy, but rather an airy concoction of violets and green banana (he was inspired by “vampy, mysterious women,” whatever that means). With perfume, you can put Halloween on your body any day of the year and get away with it; it can feel more subversive than slipping on a wig precisely because there is not a lot of outward pageantry to it. It’s a costume ball with one guest, an intimate facade that also faces outward when you get up close.
Halloween is, in theory, a holiday that seems to be the opposite of intimacy. It is all about getting out, moving through the world, knocking on doors, and showing up. It is so essentially about peacocking that many people wear feathers. It’s the one holiday that still creates spaces in which you must go for it, like, really go for it, in order to fit in. It is a festive time of having zero chill, when half-assing it is duly noted.
If there’s one recent perfume that smells like this, the spirit of going all-out on Halloween, it would be Arquiste’s Ella, which is a boozy, strutty floral inspired by ’70s disco that smells exactly like putting on a sequined jumpsuit and light-up platforms, a goofball simulacrum of what being a disco baby may have been like. Like a costume that comes in a bag and is only meant to be danced in once, this is a perfume that is more suitable for a very limited engagement of pretending to be that which you are not.
Right now at the Museum of Sex in New York City, there’s an excellent exhibition of legendary nightlife photographer Bill Bernstein’s disco photographs from 1977 to 1979 featuring black and white images of beautiful young people cavorting at Le Clique, Paradise Garage, Xenon, and Studio 54. There is sweat glistening on their clavicles; often they sit on black sofas in tangled puddles of legs and hair and stilettos and tight leather. The tables in the pictures are all glass, glinting like skyscrapers (the better to snort coke with, my dear), and the disco-ball lighting makes everyone’s cheekbones look like they are made out of mylar.
There’s a palpable, raw sexuality to these shots that you can practically smell through the film. Studio 54, according to those who were there, smelled like poppers (which had a very distinct medicinal funk, or so says Tom Ford) and cigarettes and human skins sliding against one another like salamanders, and also a thick cloud of the power perfumes of the day: Tatiana, Fiorucci, Oscar, and Opium (which even had the afterparty for its launch at the club).
Ella does not smell like any of this. If anything, it smells like a snapshot, the flashbulb image left behind after the last days of disco. It is a candy-sweet bouquet of roses and angelica and honey cut with cigarette smoke and patchouli and civet (but not real civet secretions, which shone in ’70s perfumes and is now unable to pass IFRA regulations). It is a Halston-esque nod to its heavy predecessors, to be sure, but less vulgar than the times it references. (As one perfume-expert friend told me, “it is successful because it is so clearly a throwback to ’70s green, fruity scents, but using a more modern palette — but it also doesn't really smell modern.”)
Wearing Ella makes you feel like dancing in that way that having three cocktails makes you feel like dancing; it’s so stuffed full of flowers that it can feel almost daffy and broad; it’s liquid courage in a bottle because it so clearly wants you to go somewhere. I have worn it alone, in my apartment, and it felt as silly to me as putting on go-go boots and then not using them for walking. Ella is a scent that, like a Halloween costume, craves an audience, a bash, a place to promenade. In perfumeland we are always playing dress-up, but Ella is this desire distilled into its purest form: a polyester playsuit, a joyful artifice.
Etat Libre D’Orange Noel Au Balcon ($95-$149)
By: Helena Fitzgerald
Noel Au Balcon is one of the first perfumes I ever bought, and I bought it because it smelled like a Christmas party, which for me is among the biggest feelings there is. I grew up in a big house on the campus of a high school — we didn’t own the house, the school did, and my parents, who worked at the school, were therefore obliged to throw all of the school parties and functions in our living room. The biggest one of these was the yearly Christmas party. Those Christmas parties are still my definition of a party. No party since then, no matter how loud or raucous, how large or eventful, how debaucherous or drama-filled, has ever quite lived up to them for me, or even touched their hold on the definition of the word “party.”
It was an all-day event, and for an entire week beforehand our house would ring with preparation. From 12 years old onward, I learned adult sociality through those parties as a microcosm. I learned how to make small talk and how to pretend to remember people’s names and how to squeeze through a crowd without spilling drinks, and that the best part of a party always happens in the kitchen.
But as I got older and began to metabolize what I had gotten from this party I had helped throw each year — before I had been old enough to know what a party is — I figured out that holiday parties are about desperation. A holiday party is meant to offer a temporary and hysterical escape. The world outside the party is cold and frightening; it gets dark at four in the afternoon, and fraught family obligations loom as the dates of the actual holidays approach. A holiday party is obliterative; it holds up both hands to ward off these realities. At the white-hot center of a holiday party, nothing exists but light and noise and free drinks until the early-morning end of the party arrives with half-empty glasses strewn across every surface and the people still left taking off their heels in a near-stranger’s living room.
Noel au Balcon smells almost exactly like this party: the glitter and desperation and spiced cider and door wreaths and tinsel. It smells like pine trees and cleaning supplies and mini quiches and the bright, chattering spike in conversation when new guests arrive. It smells like homemade heavy chocolate cookies and sugary gingerbread. It smells like spiced cider and oranges with cloves stuck in them, wasting away forgotten on a kitchen counter because nobody ever actually remembers to make mulled wine. It smells like cheap plastic disposable champagne flutes and older women’s perfume, the gathering susurrus of Mugler’s Angel, Dior’s Poison, and Chanel’s No. 5 rising from a mountain of coats piled together on a bed.
It smells like the shock of cold air when I would step outside for a minute right in the heart-middle of the party, when the room was so warm that I had forgotten anywhere could get cold. Years later, it was this same smell that came stinging back through memory of when I would throw parties in my first apartment in New York. When things got too crowded and too warm, I would go into the kitchen, sit on the counter, and stick my head out the window into the cold air. It smelled the same as it had when I was a kid and first learned what a house full of people trying to have a good enough time to forget the lives waiting for them the next day smelled and sounded like.
Christmas comes sooner and sooner every year; the proliferation of holiday decorations and purchase aisles at Duane Reade now seem to arrive practically before the end of summer. This isn’t anything new, but it feels new. We are so impatient for the dark afternoons and the cold snap, for reasons to plug in all the things meant to add light and warmth. We are so desperate for any available joy.
Most parties are about desperation, and most big holidays are, too. Holidays are meant to offer coziness, going inside and closing the door, whittling down existence to a room full of people you love and have known a long time. But most of us don’t have those things — the room, the warmth, the love, the families we like, the people we’ve known a long time. The luckiest of us have perhaps one or two on that list, and so the rigmarole and performance, the big light-up Christmas tree bulbs on sale in mid-September, the parties that smell like sweat and champagne and oranges and dead trees dragged indoors, seek in a frenzy to fill the space between the idea of holidays and their reality. Holiday parties shove desperation to the forefront. They admit the fear and failure these occasions carry and dwell in it, tossing back drinks to keep away the encroaching night and assembled families.
While many holiday perfumes smell like that out-of-reach coziness that the holidays promise, Noel au Balcon smells like the party that acts as a frantic barrier against the holidays’ essential loneliness, all oranges and pine branches and tinsel and champagne, and one more hour of putting off going home.
Dasein Winter and Winter Nights ($240)
By: Rachel Syme
It may seem strange to recommend two scents that fetishize winter in the middle of autumn, but then again, if we’re being honest, most of this season, at least for me, is spent romanticizing the blizzard to come before it actually hits. There’s a tipping point at which we must acknowledge that summer is truly gone, and it’s at that moment that the shearling-lined winter craving kicks into overdrive. This moment also happens to be the first one in which you really wish you’d worn a jacket, and suddenly you realize everything, everywhere, ends. It can be jarring! We want hot cocoa to rush in and save us from mortality. How can you be melancholy in the face of marshmallows made for Lilliputians?
There’s an increasing crowd of people (most of them online, where else) who bray that the fall fantasy is all played out — that if they see another pumpkin-spiced waffle, they are going to hurl themselves into the sea — but I’d argue that these autumnal grouches have it all wrong.
Fall itself gets kind of a raw deal, as far as seasons go. People claim to love apples and leaf-peeping, sure (and do they? Do they really? What was the last apple you ate that was exquisite?), but they also lump into their seasonal frolics the wearing of coats, the drinking of hot liquids, the glory of staying inside, the eating of hearty breads. And those are winter things, technically. Fall, at least for the seasonally impatient, is about the rush to get to winter without any of the consequences, without the sloppy sludge and the numb fingers and the guilt of ordering Seamless in a storm. (N.B.: If you do this, you had better be tipping a full 100 percent.)
“Fall perfumes” are also a nod to as-yet-unearned warmth; they tend to feature notes of firewood and cloves, mulled wine, and cardamom. They are Hallmark cards about abundance, decorative gourd season diluted in alcohol. What they really want is to make you think of high winter, when you are hoarding your metaphorical harvest in a root cellar and drawing on resources from earlier in the year for comfort.
This sounds nice in theory — drawing up the remnants of the year around you like a quilt — but in practice, it can be miserable. No one has ever actually liked eating turnips; they have only liked the idea of caramelizing them because that’s all that’s left and it’s too snowy to go out. The reality of this is that turnips are always bad, even when you add sugar.
Winter and Winter Nights are perfumes that allow you to dream about this peaceful chill before it happens (and again, a completely serene dark season never usually happens, not in the fantasy way you play it out in your head). Winter (the perfume) is full of spruce and French blue lavender, along with cooking spices; it’s aromatherapeutic in that it smells a little like the herbal puff that rises up from a sauna when someone pours water over the hot rocks.
Winter Nights, on the other hand, is a dark green juice that is heavy on palo santo and cypress, pure peppermint Christmas Tree farm. They are two sides of the same coin in that they both smell like burying your nose in a pinecone, though Winter adds a touch of baking cookies and Winter Nights a thick slurry of over-steeped black tea. They both smell like being swaddled in wool in the woods — which, again, is something we long for in fall when we think about what’s to come, when we don’t actually have to worry yet about getting frostbite in the forest with no one to help us.
In the actual dead of winter, when everything is very quiet, perfume tends to get loud again. Winter is the ideal season for wearing heavy, bombastic scents that you cannot pull off at any other time — soupy ouds, hilariously femme roses, that one weird sample you own that smells like wet dog. Because the skin is so dry and the air is so cold, perfume doesn’t really carry in the snow; it becomes something worn almost inside your clothes. This sense of play becomes a lifeline when winter seems to stretch on forever; no one wants to be reminded in winter that it may never be warm again. Winter and Winter Nights are best worn in fall, when winter has not yet numbed our fingers and we still dream about being alone among the pines.
Apoteker Tepe Holy Mountain ($110)
By: Helena Fitzgerald
A house or a room with a fireplace sounds extremely luxurious until you try to actually make a fire. There may be people reading this who are exceptions, and if that’s you, consider yourself excepted, but: You do not know how to make a fire.
This turns out to be true anywhere that offers a fireplace: in a high-end hotel room pretending to be a rugged country lodge, in a woodsy Airbnb, or even in a friend’s house way out in the nowhere country with a neatly chopped pile of wood sitting picturesque and pungent with sap behind the garage. A fire in a fireplace, in a home safe and hidden in the heart of the forest three-quarters of the way up a mountain, is a perfectly cozy idea, and nearly impossible to create in real life. Actually making a fire is dangerous and tedious and often far more work than reward; it’s too much risk to do in a house not your own, but too much risk in your own house, too.
Autumn is a time for retreat, a season to think about what you did, to gather plans and warmth for the cold months ahead. Few of us actually grow or harvest anything ourselves, but the year’s emotional narrative still runs parallel to a farmer’s calendar. Spring and summer still feel like times for newness, for planting and for imagining future abundance. Fall still feels like a time to harvest and lay in protections against winter, and winter still feels like a threat even when we live most of our lives indoors. At this time of year, as October settles into the coming cold, we turn away and gather, we hoard what we have and bring it indoors, we stockpile our loves and our ambitions to burn through the coming winter. Even though the fireplace in my apartment hasn’t functioned in decades, autumn makes me want to build a fire.
Apoteker Tepe’s Holy Mountain smells the way it would smell if you knew how to make a fire. It smells like that house in the woods that you don’t have. Its notes are almost entirely woody or wood-related: guaiacwood, pine smoke, balsam fir, resin. It smells like pushing through a forest as it gets darker, moving away from the light, away from the exteriors and known quantities of summer, into the unspoken things, into mysteries and hoarded warmth as autumn turns into winter. It smells like the part in the fairy tale where the traveler sees a lit-up window in the middle of the chilly darkness.
There’s a reason so many stories feature an unexpected house in the middle of the woods, a place of sanctuary in the middle of the unknown cold. Our longing to get thoroughly lost is twined with our longing to be found. The Holy Mountain smells like that unexpected fairy-tale place, the smoke issuing from the chimney, the expertly made fire crackling in the fireplace, all the walls and the ceiling and floor made of wood that’s spent centuries absorbing the smells of fireplaces and winters.
Between the pine smoke and the resin and the final base note of labdanum, it smells like the fire that would be burning in the fireplace in this house, and like long, narcotic, dreamlike stories in front of that fire late at night while the wind howls outside, sunk into an old warm chair, holding a warm mug in two hands. But with a balsam fir note in the center, it also smells like getting up in the early cold snap of first light on an autumn morning to bring in newly chopped wood, sweeping up the ashes from the night before and carefully building a new fire out of the remnants of the old one, mixed with pine-sticky wood that carries the smell of the morning indoors. The Holy Mountain smells like you know how to build a fire.
I don’t have a magical cabin in the woods, and it’s unlikely you do, either. I don’t know how to build a fire in a fireplace safely, and it is unlikely I will ever learn to do so. What I can do, though, is get up early in the morning and sit at a desk in front of my window and try to make good on all the things I’ve said I’ll do. This is the time of year when we want to keep our promises. Ambition shows up again when the cold weather arrives in autumn. It’s the drive to make the big plans we’ve talked about into something material, to turn sentences into realities we can hold in our hands. Perhaps this determination, to get up each morning and turn the imagined into the actual, is some more accessible version of going outside early and gathering wood for a fire. Sitting at my desk and typing with the change in the seasons coming in sharp and clear through my window is another kind of harvesting, of turning inward, of beginning again in the fall, and the Holy Mountains smells like this, too.
Nicolaï Parfums Ambre Cashmere Intense ($185)
By: Rachel Syme
The marketing copy for this scent calls it “silken” and also compares it to a “scarf against your throat,” which are very gilded ways to say that it’s elegant and that wearing it feels like being swaddled. And this is true: Ambre Cashmere, a creation from Patricia de Nicolai, a descendant of the Guerlain family and a matriarch of the French perfumery world at 60 years old (and still going strong), is a perfume that you don’t wear so much as nuzzle up against. It should be too on the nose to say it smells the way that cashmere feels, but, eh, she named it well.
The extent to which you will enjoy this perfume directly correlates to how much you like running your hand along things you cannot afford at department stores, downy glimpses into a life more full of soft landings. And if that sort of browsing makes you angry or leaves you feeling empty, then this perfume might do the same. Cashmere: It’s complicated!
Ambre Cashmere contains vanilla and amber and benzoin and violet and citron and about 20 other notes, but you can very rarely pick out any individual parts of it. This is a scent that is a true composition, by which I mean that a lot of ingredients that shouldn’t make sense together do, and you don’t really care at all because the effect is supremely gorgeous. It’s so gorgeous, in fact, that it is almost upsetting. It’s like finding the softest T-shirt in the world and then finding out it costs $500; it can be a real bummer to know just how much cuddly, corporeal comfort can cost under late capitalism (in this case, it’s $185 per bottle).
Cashmere is one of those fabrics that has become a punchline: Oh, I see it’s cashmere, let me just park my yacht in the corner and then I’ll buy it. There’s always some countess in some fashion magazine’s “What’s In My Bag” column that says she cannot live without $300 cashmere socks for the plane without realizing that she is self-owning by admitting such a thing. It’s a material that’s become a shorthand for a very specific kind of wealth: not the gauche opulence of velvet, not the slinky hauteur of satin, but the sort of wealth that buys you pillowy surfaces and draped ease. It’s a kind of wealth that uses the same adjectives as really good ice cream.
There’s a push-pull to wanting this — this life lived inside a cashmere cocoon. I have one very good oversized cashmere sweater (the spoils of being a Maxxinista), and I can tell you that when I’m in it I never want to leave; the water is always fine, and I feel like burrowing. And then I peel it off, and I feel a little ashamed of how attached I was to a garment. Ambre Cashmere is like that as a scent. I’ve worn it for weeks on end and felt bound to it, craving it in the morning like a cup of coffee. It’s a scent that makes you feel glamorous no matter what’s going on with your hair. It’s the sort of perfume that makes a lumpy outfit feel put-together.