It is a few weeks before Christmas of 1978 and my grandmother and I are standing in front of an Elizabeth Arden counter in Bonwit Teller as she purchases a face powder. My grandmother, a tiny woman in a doll-sized mink hat, likes to chat and to take her time making purchases. While she and the sales assistant debate the merits of a rosy powder over a beige one, I wander off to another counter. I am too young to care about face powder but I am not too young to investigate the contents of the bottles of perfume that each counter has displayed in a prominent place.
There is a good chance I will get lost in this enormous space that smells of flowers, grass, leather, lipstick, vanilla, and powder. I pick up a bottle of Blue Grass, not knowing that this scent is homage to the state of Kentucky, where Elizabeth Arden (nee Florence Nightingale Graham, a Canadian) has a very successful horse-racing stable. Elizabeth Arden is one of three big American cosmetics brands that dominate the department stores. Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Estée Lauder revolutionize and shape this industry and become American institutions, even if only Lauder was born in America.
“The American perfume industry has been built on a mighty chypre base”
These formidable cosmetic and fragrance tycoons guide the American consumer through decades of technological innovation. They scent their customer with perfumes that are powerful, assertive, and unconditionally in proportion to the drive and ambition of their creators. I won’t realize it until years later, but the American perfume industry has been built on a mighty chypre base. An American chypre is a bold statement built on strong leather, patchouli, and moss notes (Lauder’s Azurée is a good example) that is not as decorously nuanced as the French fragrances of the same era. The American fragrance has a parallel in the American automobile: Bigger is better. It is a time of unbounded optimism and possibility and American perfumery reflects this.
Bonwit’s beauty department is a special preserve of quiet and elegance where to my young eyes the counter clerks look like movie stars and smell as if they’d dressed in bouquets of flowers. By 1978, cosmetic giant Charles Revson has pulled his Revlon brand from department stores, so now his Aquamarine, Intimate, Moon Drops, and Ciara are found in drugstores. Revlon’s Charlie is an enormous success. The brand is also responsible for launching Norell, the first designer fragrance.
Glamorous Woman and Girl Next Door
Norell is a floral chypre of carnation and gold dust. Its signature is that of bold urban glamour. By contrast, Helena Rubinstein’s fragrance Heaven Sent (and Wind Song by Prince Matchabelli) describe soft, gauzy romance that is aimed at the squeaky-clean “girl next door” who reads Seventeen Magazine and who has an equally squeaky-clean boyfriend. Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass is still a staple, but in ten years’ time it will be eclipsed by the enormous bestseller Red Door. Red Door, named for the portal to Arden’s Fifth Avenue salon, is a massive rose/jasmine floral that easily gains membership into an unofficial category known as “power fragrances.”
Both my grandmother and my mother (and their friends), however, wear the perfumes of Estée Lauder. Lauder spends a tremendous amount on advertising and has positioned her brand firmly on Park Avenue. Her sumptuous campaigns featuring model Karen Graham show a covetable lifestyle most of her customers can only approach through the ads. With interiors exhibiting period furniture and antiques and her exteriors looking as if they belong to the landed gentry, Lauder has risen to the top of the American beauty market by selling two things: lifestyle and personal service. Her perfume triumph is in envisioning masterpiece fragrances and then placing them in glamorous settings.
1978 has been a particularly good year for the Lauder fragrance brand. White Linen, which will become a bestseller, debuts as part of a layering trio known as “New Romantics.” Cinnabar, initially a spin-off (as Soft Youth Dew) of Lauder’s original Youth Dew scent, makes a huge impact as it follows Yves St. Laurent’s Opium along the Oriental fragrance route. Earlier Lauder scents are still selling briskly: Estee is easily the most-worn fragrance by members of my grandmother’s garden club, and then there are Alliage/Aliage (the first “sport fragrance” and a chypre) and Azurée (also a chypre), each of which has its own following. All of the scents that perfume my grandmother’s and my mother’s social networks are American. These perfumes are as de rigueur as the brightly colored Talbot’s leather flats with the big posies on the toes that are worn by my mother and her friends as badges of membership to an exclusive WASP-y club.
“The residue of an evening spent at Studio 54”
I have been given permission to use my mother’s store charge, presumably to purchase a winter coat. Instead, after presenting Mother’s handwritten authorization to the credit department, I offer up her card to buy a bottle of Halston. Halston is the fragrance of the Disco Era. It is a chypre presented in a bottle designed by Elsa Peretti, the jewelry designer whose simple teardrop necklaces have counterparts in Halston’s fluid jersey designs.
And his fragrance! It is bold and bright in a way my grandmother’s and mother’s perfumes are not. It smells a bit metallic to me, like copper. It smells as if flowers have been dipped into copper. There’s a bit of funk at the bottom, the residue of an evening spent at Studio 54. My interest in fragrance will center on Halston until it swings across the Atlantic to the great French brands a couple of years later. I am too young for Halston, but I want nothing to do with Love’s Baby Soft.
My grandmother raises an eyebrow at me when I eventually wander back to the Arden counter where she has just finished engaging in the Great Powder Debate. She says nothing, though, and simply pulls on her kidskin gloves as we whoosh through the doors onto Fifth Avenue. Later, over hot chocolate, she squints at me closely and says that if I am very well behaved and stop calling boys on the telephone she might let me have a bottle of Apple Blossom that my grandfather gave her to celebrate an anniversary and which she has never opened lest it evaporate and the memory be lost.
I am from that day on utterly spoiled by fragrance.