THE PERFUME exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is something to sniff at, but that doesn't mean they're not serious about it.

Organized by the Museum of the City of New York, the show demonstrates that the subject of scent is hardly a trivial one, blending not only with fashion history but with the essential style of historical periods (and as history teaches, a society's sense of itself is not only stronger than reality, it often becomes the reality).

Not to mention that the perfume industry reaps billyuns and billyuns of dollars from making people smell different and act like animals; and the infighting among great fashion houses is a mainstay of gossipmeisters.

The great thing about this exhibit, though, is not the thoughts it provokes but the memories and emotions it evokes, because a whiff of scent from long ago can conjure up people, places and feelings we thought we had forgotten or never even knew we knew. Because they know the nose knows best, the exhibitors have put out scented leaflets at the entrance to each of the exhibit's sections, to illustrate characteristic scents of the early, middle and late 19th century and of each decade of the 20th, through the '60s.

Just the sight of a Yardley label brought back the Christmases of the '40s, when Mom would exult over yet another of her children giving her yet another damn bottle of the cologne or bubble bath, which she would use until about New Year's Day. Eventually, the bottles and boxes would migrate to the recesses of our vast linen closet; and there we found them, by the dozens, after she died.

Bay Rum brought back Uncle John, although it hardly seems his style, and Palmolive cologne (during its first century Palmolive was mainly a perfume purveyor) summoned up a great or possibly a great-great aunt who lived in a log cabin way back up a creek in western North Carolina, with whom I had spent only one hour of one afternoon 30 years ago. And did you know they call it Palmolive because originally the soap was made from those two oils?

What the exhibit's great swirl of scents did not evoke was any sultry scenes. I never was able to, nor even wanted to, make time with a girl or woman who smelled other than human; but there's no accounting for tastes.

The folders tell you to rub the scent strips on your skin, because perfumes are designed to interact with the body. And so they do; rubbing up with all the folders will not only get you the full effect, it will get you some very funny looks on the subway.


Reflections of Fragrance and Society. Through April 22 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 13th and New York NW (near Metro Center station). Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday.