White Shoulders (Evyan)

In the sixth grade, I encountered two memorable volumes in our classroom library: The Endless Steppe, a gripping personal memoir of Siberian exile... and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself by Judy Blume. Strange as it may seem, these two books have one thing in common: both contain descriptions of the child-heroine's first perfume experience.

In The Endless Steppe, author Esther Hautzig recounts how her mother smuggled along a bottle of L'Heure Bleue for the interminable train journey to Altai Krai. In the stifling darkness of an overcrowded cattle car, she allows ten-year-old Esther a secretive, grownup dab of fine French parfum. Its potent beauty becomes their shared weapon against fear and dehumanization. And what of Sally J. Freedman back in balmy Miami? Her pivotal perfume scene finds her fretting over whether a spritz of her mother's White Shoulders will overpower her fifth-grade "Latin Lover", the aptly-named Peter Hornstein.

You couldn't ask for two more divergent moments-- one full of tragic grandeur, the other frivolous and carefree. Even as a kid, I found myself drawn to the former. I could connect to it-- hazy Oriental perfumes being already a part of my budding scent lexicon. But no one close to me -- not my mother, nor any of my friends' mothers, nor my great-aunts, nor my schoolteachers -- wore White Shoulders. I grew up without any fixed reference to it save that which I found in books.

Luckily, in literature, it flows like tapwater. Whenever a storyline requires an olfactory set piece, a detail to establish mood or character, White Shoulders seems to be the fallback name in fragrance. The frequency of its appearance in print (not to mention the strange consistency of language with which authors work it into their plots) makes it one of the most oft-cited symbolic devices in all of literature. What about this ubiquitous fragrance compels the imaginative mind so?

Perhaps its inherent contradictions tell the clearest tale. At face value, White Shoulders is a sweet white floral, packed to the rafters with heady gardenia, tuberose, and jasmine. Yet for all its indolic potential, it's the furthest thing from sexy imaginable. If Tabu footed the bill during courtship, and Chanel No. 5 or Arpege suit the occasion of an anniversary dinner by candlelight, White Shoulders covers all the rest of Mom's waking hours with its soapy-clean aura of virtue. This is a perfume tailored for maximum continuity and reassurance.

But does it really soothe the soul?

Not on the printed page, it doesn't-- at least, not fully half the time. As often as it's used to evoke wistful nostalgia or mild romantic attraction, White Shoulders serves as literary shorthand for deep ambivalence, even disgust. Through the response of every character who catches a trace of it on the breeze, we learn the identity of that which they most love... and fear.

The following is a cross-section of White Shoulders quotes culled willy-nilly from contemporary novels, memoirs, and non-fiction titles. I've grouped them in categories based on a commonality of theme, but in each case, the speaker's tone runs the full spectrum of response from rapture to horror as they contemplate the White Shoulders women in their lives. Good girls, bad girls, little girls, old ladies, mothers, grandmothers, seductresses, frumps, hicks, sophisticates-- even a ghost or two comes forward to join the discussion. Here, you may find your own feelings about White Shoulders echoed verbatim, for good or bad. The personal verdict I've come to is that our culture can't get enough of this perfume... and it doesn't know quite how to feel about it, either.


HER SIGNATURE SCENT

She smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, whisky, and White Shoulders perfume. She clasped her hands over her stomach, and I saw her perfect white hands with perfect red nails.
-- Mama’s Shoes
(Rebecca D. Elswick, 2011)

She smelled like the combination of rubbing alcohol and “Ivory” soap, with just a hint of “White Shoulders” perfume.
-- Land of the Morning Calm
(Harry Bryce, 2007)

Just a light sense of the fragrance of White Shoulders perfume, blue eyes, soft dark blond hair, warmth, and something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
--2012 and the Ring of Light
(Nancy E. Shaffron, 2007)

"The smell of White Shoulders perfume lingering in the air, I love your perfume, Kelley. Don't ever change it . . .”
-- Hard Impact
(Susan Andrews, 2004)

"I don't reckon I've got a Bible, but I believe I've got something even better!" A cloud of White Shoulders perfume spread as she rose and spun around to head for her bedroom.
-- The Romance Readers’ Book Club
(Julie L. Cannon, 2007)

Shirley sported her black and white saddle oxfords, her cute little pink cardigan sweater set, and her lovely smile, a hint of White Shoulders perfume, her happy face and her sweet little wrists.
-- The Canyon Kids
(Shimon Camiel, 2006)

She filled his office with the aroma of White Shoulders perfume and grape bubble gum.
-- Crucifax
(Ray Garton, 2010)

As she entered he could smell the fresh scent of White Shoulders perfume. She was a beauty with her soft and lovely body. She had blue eyes as blue as the hotel pool.
-- Another Sixth Sense: The Fort Lauderdale Story
(Brian Keith Roesch, 2002)

Even before she reached the table, Huff picked out her perfume — White Shoulders. This was the beauty's only regrettable feature, since Gertie Huff wore the same perfume.
-- Crawfish Mountain: A Novel
(Ken Wells, 2007)

As he dribbled out to the middle of the driveway he could smell her fragrance. It lingered on him. Mallory and all her friends wore the same perfume, “White Shoulders.” And it was sickly sweet.
-- The Last Jewish Shortstop in America: A Novel
(Lowell B. Komie, 1997)

When the wind was just right I thought I smelled her perfume. White Shoulders.
-- Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade
(Jack Gantos, 1995)


MOTHERS AND GRANDMOTHERS

My mother was a bashful champagne blonde who always smelled of White Shoulders perfume.
-- My Trip Down the Pink Carpet
(Leslie Jordan, 2008)

Within an instant a floral perfume odor began to permeate the bedroom, and it smelled like “White Shoulders” perfume. She always knows when I need her the most, my grandma was standing nearby. She had passed a few years back, but while she was alive, she wore this perfume religiously.
-- Connects
(Katrina Rose, 2011)

White Shoulders, her mother's favorite perfume, lingered in the air. The subtle tang of perspiration and leather was there too. It was a familiar and pleasant mix that tugged at Calleigh's emotions.
-- All Fired Up
(Kristen Panter, 2010)

Suddenly the perfume made sense. My mother wore perfume when I was a girl. White Shoulders. The cheap stuff, she always used to say, a dead giveaway of her wheat farmer origins. Even when she was wealthy enough to afford better she kept wearing it.
-- Iced
(Jenny Siler, 2001)

Brenda barely noticed her mother's retreat, the clacking of the heels, the faint odor of White Shoulders perfume drifting about the air like an errant ghost.
-- Wizards, Inc.
(Martin H. Greenberg and Loren L. Coleman, 2007)


"OLD LADIES" AND IFFY ODORS

Body warmth was hanging in the air, faint smells of Enid's White Shoulders perfume, and something bathroomy, something old-persony.
--The Corrections
(Jonathan Franzen, 2002)

When I approached them with Sadie at my side, Mrs. Knowles rose and put her arms around me. I was almost overwhelmed by the odors of White Shoulders perfume and Yodora antiperspirant.
--11/22/63
(Stephen King, 2011)

Smoke, vodka, Final Net hairspray, White Shoulders perfume. On her TV tray, the little white bag of chocolate-covered almonds she never ate, this week's TV Guide, her ashtray, finally empty.
-- Where No Gods Came
(Sheila O’Connor, 2004)

A woman was peering at him, her thin face wrinkled like fine parchment paper, her gaze a watery blue. Glasses dangled from a chain around her neck, and she smelled like White Shoulders perfume and cedar mothballs. Librarian. The perfect librarian.
-- Brandon’s Bride
(Alicia Scott, 2011)

Miss Smith wore buckets of White Shoulders perfume under and between the many folds of her arms and stomach. But it was Miss Burns who captured my heart and set it free.
-- The Ultimate Teacher
(Todd Whitaker, 2009)

The Parisien smelled of musty broadcloth, of armpits and unclean bottoms, of sweat laced with "White Shoulders," the perfume in vogue with taxi-dance queens that year.
-- Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker
(Ross Russell, 1996)


HOME (NOT SO) SWEET HOME

She could still smell Jesse's White Shoulders perfume. Bisquick biscuits baking in the oven. The freshly printed pages of a new Sears catalogue. Links in the chain.
-- Film Society
(Gilaine E. Mitchell, 2000)

After a time, the room began to smell like him, but since he kept the door closed, the rest of the house was Granny's: Juicy Fruit and White Shoulders perfume, biscuits and peppered gravy and floor wax, the smell of lace breaking down.
-- Like Family: Growing Up In Other People’s Houses, A Memoir
(Paula McLain, 2009)

It takes me back to the claustrophobic little house my grandmother lived in, to the depths of her bedroom, where she kept an endless supply of White Shoulders perfume on her dressing table.
-- Jump
(Terra Little, 2011)

Somewhere, the smell of home: the smell of onions sizzling in butter and her mother's White Shoulders perfume. New carpeting and clean laundry and Brillo pads.
-- Come From Nowhere
(Ellen Greenfield, 2011)

I could smell us: Mother's White Shoulders perfume, what the Pine Sol had left, the sweat Mr. Knapp is given to when he isn't sitting still.
-- All Things, All At Once: Selected Stories
(Lee K. Abbott, 2007)

The house scent alternates between cooking smells, lemon wax, and White Shoulders perfume. It's a picture of taut, preparty perfection, and Constance shuffles at the starting gate.
-- Blue Plate Special
(Frances Norris, 2006)

There was a certain hush, a certain smell of Abolene cream and White Shoulders perfume. It was very quiet; it was very dark; it was subject to its own laws like the phone booth where Clark Kent was transformed into Superman.
-- Wishful Drinking
(Carrie Fisher, 2008)

When she inhaled deeply to release a heartfelt sigh, she smelled the faint odor of her grandmother's cigarette smoke, her mother's White Shoulders perfume, and the Appalachimahoochee landfill that lay less than a mile to the west.
-- Take Me, I’m Yours
(Elizabeth Bevarly, 2011)

It was the scent of the discarded past: yellowed photographs, thirty-year-old furniture, and White Shoulders perfume, which no one born this side of 1960 wears.
Looking for Lily
(Africa Fine, 2008)

Her parents' kitchen smelled like peanut-butter cookies and her mother's White Shoulders perfume. It was also dark and empty and quiet.
-- Hunger
(Barbara J. Hancock, 2010)


GHOSTS OF THE PAST

He could smell the fragrance of White Shoulders perfume that she always wore when they were together. It immediately brought back pleasant memories of years past.
-- Ocean City M.D.
(Tom Croft, 1998)

Phoebe lay in the dark, breathing in the scent of White Shoulders, the only perfume Pearl ever wore, a fragrance so similar to that of wisteria blossoming just outside the bedroom window that it seemed something she naturally exuded…
-- Owl Island
(Randy Sue Coburn, 2007)

A hint of White Shoulders perfume lingered on her sister’s clothes, and Jenny closed her eyes.
-- Waiting for Morning: Volume 1
(Karen Kingsbury, 2002)

Sometimes, when it rains, I can still catch a whiff of her White Shoulders perfume.
-- Leap Day
(Wendy Mass, 2004)

The lilacs that grew there reminded her of the White Shoulders perfume Aunt Tillie wore, and the scent of them that spring day sent her into reverie.
-- Always True to You in My Fashion
(Valerie Wilson Wesley, 2007)

Maybe the men sitting alone in the bakery, leaning in toward her as she poured her awful coffee, would smell her perfume, a perfume as uncomplicated, as unoriginal as White Shoulders, and remember some other’s throat, some other’s wrist.
-- The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters
(Timothy Schaffert, 2007)


SOMETHING DATED THIS WAY COMES

Inside the box she'd found a small bottle of perfume. White Shoulders. She didn't know that particular scent was still being manufactured. It was such an old-fashioned fragrance.
-- Close Enough to Kill
(Beverly Barton, 2011)

I recall the scent of her perfume, White Shoulders, as it rose, heated, in the closeness of the little room, in the excitements of jewels and marble and money. The world has no use for all this anymore, I think.
-- Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents
(Ellen Ullman, 2012)


YOU GO, GIRL!

A touch of White Shoulders perfume, a quick brush though her short blonde curls, and Amy was ready. She checked herself in the mirror and muttered. “Knock him dead, Aim.”
-- Love Finds a Way
(Molly Daniels, 2007)

She could hit a golf ball about two hundred yards, straight down the fairway. As she approached, I got a whiff of her perfume, White Shoulders.
-- A Dream of Wolves
(Michael C. White, 2002)


SEX & ROMANCE

The sweet smell of her White Shoulders perfume rocked him with memories of their weekend. Tony pulled her slender form closer and felt as if he was falling in love all over again.
-- Let’s Begin Again
(Debra White Smith, 2003)

The scent of White Shoulders perfume was always present. Agnes literally oozed romance.
-- A Stranger Comes Home
(Dawn Lamb, 2006)

Her face was now a quarter of an inch from his, and he smelled the intoxicating scent of her White Shoulders perfume; in that moment she became Rita Hayworth in Gilda; no, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
-- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
(Fannie Flagg, 1997)

I came back into the living room in my pajamas, with my hair slicked back, wearing White Shoulders perfume, a clear mating signal, but he had spread official papers all over the sofa and didn't look up.
-- Cupid and Diana
(Christina Bartolomeo, 1999)

Taking further stock of the situation, she realized that they were both naked, and then she smelled it: the elusive hint of White Shoulders perfume.
-- Ghost Moon
(Karen Robards, 2008)


THE PERILS OF ADULTHOOD

I remember Teddy Bear coats, the New Look, White Shoulders perfume, pointy Whirlpool bras (not infrequently improved with cotton stuffing), Ipana smiles, eyelash curlers.
-- Essay by Alix Kates Shulman, Atlantic Monthly (1972);
anthologized in The Marriage Agreement and Other Essays (2012)

How would I know I was grown... (w)ithout saying, I have turned into my mother? Would I have to lie sprawled across a summer-bed, silver dangling from my earlobes, my child strangling in the heat of moist sheets and department-store White Shoulders perfume, before I was grown?
-- Pushkin and the Queen of Spades
(Alice Randall, 2005)

Charlotte walked behind her, inhaling the White Shoulders perfume - the smell of her parents going out dancing or over to a neighbor's for bridge.
-- Magic Gun Trick: A Collection of Short Stories
(Jeannine Dorian Vesser, 2008)

I was a smart, mouthy tomboy in a 2,500-person town where the ideal of womanhood carried with it a lot of chiffon or mascara. Instead of pictures of music or screen idols adorning my bedroom walls, my ceiling was hung with the model airplanes I'd assembled. I didn't smell of White Shoulders perfume. I smelled of airplane glue.
-- Managing Martians
(Donna Shirley with Danielle Morton, 1999)


THE ODOR OF SANCTITY

All the Christians sat listening to the sermon, but a great gulf separated them. She was on the other side! She could smell her mother’s White Shoulders perfume. If the atom bomb went off, she would wake up in hell, where five billion years was nothing. Five billion years was but a drop in the bucket of eternity.
-- The Hallelujah Side
(Rhoda Huffey, 2000)

Offering the ladies of her Prayer Warriors group a sheepish grin, she slipped into the second row of purple-cushioned pews beside Sister Jamerson, and was instantly enshrouded by an ambiance of White Shoulders perfume.
-- All Things Hidden
(Judy Candis, 2004)

Just before their three-day honeymoon, she'd bought a tiny bottle of White Shoulders with the last of her own money. But Carl had said perfume was as seductive as immodest dress and might lure a man to sensual thoughts.
-- When Sparrows Fall
(Meg Moseley, 2011)


DEATH AND DANGER

I'd done badly in biology class the year before because I hadn't been able to look inside the body cavity of my dissected fetal pig—its pink skin peeled back,smelling of babies and ham and my mother's White Shoulders perfume…
-- Boy Heaven
(Laura Kasischke, 2008)

Everything smelled of White Shoulders perfume, heavy and sickeningly sweet. A bottle had broken and doused the contents of her purse. To those who had come to know Liz Wheaton, it had become the smell of fear and lingering hate.
-- A Wicked Snow
(Gregg Olsen, 2007)

The scent of White Shoulders perfume mingled with the coffee and cinnamon in the air. Shelby turned in her seat to face the mother of the most recent murder victim in Loomis.
-- A Cloud of Suspicion
(Patricia Davids, 2009)

The mattress was only a few inches deep, but from within it Hulan could smell a distinctive scent that she remembered from America. It was White Shoulders perfume. No wonder the women who slept here talked of ghost spirits. The oppressively sweet odor had always reminded Hulan of death.
--The Interior
(Lisa See, 2007)


LOVE, LOSS, AND FINAL FAREWELLS

I brushed her teeth gently and let her wash her mouth out with mouthwash again and again until the taste of vomit was gone. I touched her cheeks and throat with drops of White Shoulders perfume, the essence of Lucyhood to me.
-- Beach Music
(Pat Conroy, 2002)

I was immediately overwhelmed by the familiar scent of her White Shoulders perfume. Standing there, she seemed so close that I expected to turn around and find her behind me.
-- My Lost and Found Life
(Melodie Bowsher, 2007)

She smelled of coffee and cigarettes and White Shoulders perfume. “I love you,” I whispered in her ear. It was the last time I said it.
-- The Last Bridge
(Teri Coyne, 2010)


This exploration of White Shoulders' literary legacy was inspired by a decanted vintage sample generously gifted to me by Natalie of Another Perfume Blog. Her version, so much fuller than the current formulation, clearly declares itself the precursor (mother? grandmother?) of Estee Lauder's White Linen, which further improves on the formula by retaining the hint of sex that lifts the wearer above mere household sainthood.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, gardenia, jasmine, tuberose, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, lily, iris, amber, benzoin, musk, civet, oakmoss