Coming of Age : An American Perfume Story

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.

Enjoyed this? Get blog posts via email:

Or, stay updated via:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • RSS

55 Comments

  • yomi: What a lovely article, Victoria! Well done. July 2, 2012 at 9:29am Reply

    • Suzanna: Yomi, this is Suzanna. I’m glad you liked my post! July 2, 2012 at 9:34am Reply

      • yomi: Suzanna – definitely love it. very much on point . Very encouraging as I am building my own fragrance and cosmetic company in Nigeria – Parfums Lambo industries. And I definitely love chypres! July 2, 2012 at 10:44am Reply

        • Suzanna: Yomi, best of luck to you with your enterprise! Please let me know how things go for you. July 2, 2012 at 11:55am Reply

  • D: Ahh, ,memories. Oh that Halston bottle, I think I had a tiny one. I have no memory of the fragrance, but the bottle seemed so elegent (particularily compared to the other “scandalous” marketing campaigns of the era).

    But, even more, the mere name “Moondrops” brings back such memories, through far less exalted ones than yours.

    When I was a child, my mother had a bottle of Moondrops body lotion. The name alone fascinated me. I was young enough to imagine (in those Apollo days) that this stuff was linked to the NASA missions.

    One time my family went on some ski trip and shared a chalet with a colleague of my father. The colleague’s son (with whom I usually argued since (1) he was a boy; (2) he was my age and that’s how boys and girls under the age of 12 behaved back then) spent a cheerful evening as “scientist” creating a secret formula*. Lacking any idea of actual chemistry, or lab techniques, our scientific endeavors consisted of mixing everything we could find a bottle of into the sink.

    Naturally the entire bottle of my mother’s “Moon drops” which HAD to have been somehow be samples from the moon, (just like the boring rock at the museum), was the major “ingredient.”

    Years later, my mom told me she had been horrified that her entire bottle of fine lotion had been poured down the sink. However, she said, the adults had been perfectly aware of that us kids were pouring stuff down the sink. They decided that it such a relief that we were not screaming at each other and allowing the adults to have a quiet dinner without childhood interruption that it was worth the loss of cosmetics.

    Is Moon Drops still on the market in any form?

    *This was the deadball era of Disney films, when it put a series of really bad movies for kids, most of which consisted of a young good looking scientist discovering a miracle plastic, which made everyone have incredible memory or bounce 20 feet in the air, for forty eight hours straight, after which the scientist listened to his sensible perky drag of a girlfriend and threw the stuff away. July 2, 2012 at 9:33am Reply

    • Suzanna: D-I think you can find vintage Moondrops (what a name, yes!) on eBay. I have found vintage Aquamarine (another chypre) on there, and it was in great condition for something from the age of the space race.

      I’m laughing about the Disney reference and I have three words for you: Son of Flubber. July 2, 2012 at 9:38am Reply

  • yomi: Oops! Mistake – thought it was Vic who wrote this. Sounds so much like her. So , lovely article Suzanna! A master piece. July 2, 2012 at 9:41am Reply

    • Suzanna: Yomi, easy mistake to make! In any event, I’m flattered to be mistaken for V.

      Thanks for your kind words. July 2, 2012 at 9:44am Reply

  • Nancy: Suzanna,

    So many fragrances from the past bring back memories. Bonwit Teller, no less! Norell was and still is a beautiful fragrance and the bold black letters on this contemporary bottle to replicate the fashion icon that was Norell. And Wind Song preceded my days prior to Shalimar. Moon Drops — who knows if it’s off the marketplace untless it may have metamorphed into La Mer (?) So, thanks for sharing the charming story and the memories! July 2, 2012 at 10:28am Reply

    • Suzanna: Nancy, I haven’t smelled Norell in years and now will seek it out once more. July 2, 2012 at 11:06am Reply

  • Queen Cupcake: Lovely story! When I was a teen, my mother despaired of my “un-ladylike” behavior (while never actually defining it), and frowned on my using makeup and perfume. My older, married sister, however (and she was very proper), gave me my first real perfumes: Halston, Jolie Madame, Emeraude, Y, Cabochard! July 2, 2012 at 11:03am Reply

    • Suzanna: Queen Cupcake, that’s quite an array of first perfumes you had! (I never heard of Jolie Madame until much, much later.)

      Yes, “unladylike” behavior seemed impossible for mothers to define. My mother frowned on my having enthusiasm for social activities and would always remind me to sit quietly with my legs crossed and my hands folded. July 2, 2012 at 11:07am Reply

      • Queen Cupcake: I know, right? It’s almost as if my sister was secretly encouraging my “un-ladylike” self. 😀 July 2, 2012 at 11:51am Reply

        • Suzanna: QC, I’m glad you were encouraged! July 2, 2012 at 11:54am Reply

  • Judith DM: Absolutely exquisite memories are those of our first brush with fragrance! My first scent was Heaven Sent! My mother wafted Bellodgia. You have told a beautiful story and one we all can relate to, and we recall our own firsts. Thank you! July 2, 2012 at 11:26am Reply

    • Suzanna: Judith, you’re welcome!

      I now want to smell vintage Bellodgia. July 2, 2012 at 11:49am Reply

  • Judith DM: In my job as assistant to the publicity director of I. Magnin, the late, glorious Marina Than, I met Mr. Norell many times. I was there at the launch of Norell. He was a tiny man of impeccable taste, he dressed Ladies. And if they were not, they became one in his fashions! July 2, 2012 at 11:28am Reply

    • Suzanna: What a marvelous story, Judith! And what an exciting job you held at I. Magnin.

      Norell is on my radar now for a revisit. I recall it being a very “New York” scent, citified, but absolutely worn out in the suburbs. July 2, 2012 at 11:51am Reply

  • silverdust: Oh, Suzanna! What memories, indeed! We are close in age because Halston was one of the earliest perfumes I can remember in my scent-tinged existence, too.

    While my mother and grandmother wore perfume, I have no idea from whence my addiction comes from.

    My best friend in high school had to get married shortly before we graduated. She had a big wedding and was quite stylish. She and I doused ourselves with Halston for the day. When I got married six years later, I doused myself in Beautiful. Now, both of those gag me. I still have fond memories of Azuree, though, one of my first purchases.

    Those who don’t understand the allure of fragrance think it’s a waste of money and all too frivolous. I think they don’t know what they’re missing. Fragrance is one of His greatest gifts to us. Imagine my surprise when I came upon Biblical passages proscribing the specific ingredients of fine perfume to make incense for use in the temple! July 2, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

    • Suzanna: silverdust, that is quite a surprise, and fine perfumes have a long history indeed!

      I cannot find my bottle of Halston and will now have to spend the afternoon digging through my “archives.” That’s prob. a frivolous way to spend an afternoon, but better than cleaning windows. July 2, 2012 at 11:53am Reply

  • Nikki: Hello Suzanna!
    Great article! Always love when time periods, memories and perfumes overlap-this is what I like to read! Very interesting to me as European immigrant who is not familiar with the 70s and 80s in the USA. A culture is defined by these memories. Great writing…looking forward to more! Thank you! July 2, 2012 at 12:00pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Nikki, I can tell you that we in America were not familiar with fragrances popular in Europe, either. For instance, LouLou was not available where I lived and I didn’t hear of it until much later.

      For younger American women, I suppose we cut our teeth not just on the big dept. store brands but also on things like Bonne Bell Musk and the Love’s scents mentioned in the post. July 2, 2012 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Reese: Absolutely lovely Suzanna! I can see how your work could be mistaken for Victoria’s; your writing is as beautiful and evocative as hers is. Wonderful story; thank you for sharing it. July 2, 2012 at 12:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think the world of Suzanna, Reese, so your kind comment is a big compliment to me as well. Suzanna is a wonderful writer, with such a generous, warm voice. And of course, she’s also very passionate about perfume. I already have more fragrances and red lipsticks thanks to her. 🙂 July 2, 2012 at 1:02pm Reply

      • Suzanna: …and I am trying to steer you to more lipsticks still, dear V.!

        This blog has opened my eyes to the world of perfume and that’s an experience I am sure I share with many readers. July 2, 2012 at 2:10pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Reese, this is quite a compliment to me. Thanks so very much. I’ve admired V’s beautiful perfume prose for years. July 2, 2012 at 2:08pm Reply

  • OperaFan: I will echo Reese’s comment. When I started reading this post I thought it was Victoria, then I scrolled back up to the top and saw that it was Suzanna. Either case, you give me reasons to keep coming back for more.

    Bravo on this piece, Suzanna, and thank you for the bits of history to go with the restospective! I remember Halston being the signature scent of my highschool rival in the music department. My focus was music but she was multitalented in music, drama, and dance. Halston, although beautiful, was too big (spicy and bold) for me – I was an Avon girl in those days but also owned a bottle of Babe, some Coty Sweet Earth fragrances, and treasured my tiny vials of First and Chloe perfumes. One of my music teachers wore Tatiana, and I loved Norell so much that years later bought a large bottle of cologne to gift my mother, who also loved it, and I’m sure I’d recognize them all if I were to smell them again – the memories being that strong.

    I did not know Estee Lauder fragrances until I was much older but my mother used to buy cosmetics from their counter and split her gwps with me.

    Happy memories – thanks for the trip back in time! July 2, 2012 at 1:35pm Reply

    • Suzanna: OperaFan, I was just thinking about Babe the other day, and couldn’t quite recall what it smelled like–musky/soapy floral? What a huge success it was.

      Tatiana was lovely,too. I recall a Christmas was it dominated the counters and was in the air everywhere. July 2, 2012 at 2:12pm Reply

      • OperaFan: Suzanna – Babe was a spicy floral chypre and very sophisticated for a drugstore perfume. I was a teenager when I acquired a 1oz cologne in the iconic bottle. I loved wearing it, but eventually grew tired, stopped wearing, and gave it away. Silly me because I’ve longed to re-experience its aura.
        I acquired a partial bottle about a year ago, but I think it was one from a much later period and although it was still recognizable, there were also aspects unfamiliar. I don’t know if it was due to a formula change or my nose has become more sophicated that I’ve grown more sensitive to synthetic ingredients.
        In any case I do not know anything comparable today. I saved a tiny bit prior to giving it away and would be glad to send you a dab to try if you’d like. Victoria has my permission to provide my contact info.
        a:) July 2, 2012 at 9:15pm Reply

        • Suzanna: OperaFan, that would be great! I will ask V.

          I see a lot of Babe on eBay and I was wondering about it and if there had been a change. The plastic bottles of cologne are not what I recall.

          It is always interesting to revisit scents from one’s past. Formulation changes aside, they nearly always seem like strangers, or like strangers with familiar faces. You had a relationship that you have turned, over time, into a great romance. I have a list of scents like this. July 3, 2012 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Suzanna and I are a good team! 🙂

      The other day I was browsing through the fragrance advertisements in one of my perfume books, and I kept stopping to look at the old Arden and Lauder ads. And there were so many other perfumes mentioned that I have never tried. Now, I want to find Tatiana! What did it smell like? July 2, 2012 at 3:15pm Reply

      • Suzanna: As I recall this was a big white floral, a sweet and powdery one with a hint of green. DVF was all over the society pages in those days, and she had recently revolutionized dressing with her wrap dresses.

        It was sold in department stores alongside the original Lauren, Geoffrey Beene Red, KL, and the like. July 2, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

        • OperaFan: I agree it was a fresh, white floral and would go well equally with a flow-y dress for garden strolls or a feminine suit at the office. The powdery part I don’t recall because I never wore it myself. I know it mainly from smelling it worn by others. July 2, 2012 at 9:19pm Reply

        • Andrea: I wore it while in high school, along with many others! It was very sweet, as I recall, but I liked it and would love to smell it again… July 3, 2012 at 11:49pm Reply

          • Victoria: I like the sound of Tatiana. Always happy to discover more BWF (big white florals!) July 5, 2012 at 8:39am Reply

            • Suzanna: It’s my fave category! July 5, 2012 at 9:05am Reply

  • Ariadne: What a fun post Suzanna!! My daughter was a precocious toddler in the ’80’s and collected every scratch & sniff perfume advert she could rip out and stuff in her mini purse. Friends & relatives used to mail them to her too! Those were some potent scents and my house fumed! I’ll always recall her demanding exclamation when she thought she’d found another prize; “WHAT”S THAT SMELL!?” July 2, 2012 at 1:50pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Thanks for sharing that fun story, Ariadne! I wonder when the scented advertisements started. Anyone? July 2, 2012 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Rose D: This post has given me something to think about! My mother used to wear Babe years before I was born, so I do not remember actually smelling it on her; but I do remember she owned a bottle of Halston. Maybe it is still in the back of a drawer, I will definitely look for it.

    Personally, these fragrances came out a bit too early for me. I adore Youth Dew, but am unsure about how it would actually wear on me. The only Estee Lauder I own is Pure White Linen, a new take on the original that was an instant success since I first sprayed it on my wrist. My mother says it reminds her of Guy Laroche Fidji… July 2, 2012 at 3:42pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Rose D., I forgot about Fidji! Oh, it was lovely! This was sold in department stores. Fidji was not a tropical scent but a green-ish one. It was very striking and elegant.

      Pure White Linen is very well done.

      Babe can be had inexpensively on eBay.

      (I have spent the afternoon combing through boxes looking for my vintage Halston, with no luck!) July 2, 2012 at 5:38pm Reply

  • Lynda Siegel: Enjoyed reading this so much. Took me back….. Thank you for sharing. July 2, 2012 at 4:04pm Reply

    • Suzanna: You’re welcome, Lynda, and I’m glad you left a comment. I’m so happy when readers enjoy something I’ve contributed to BdJ. July 2, 2012 at 5:40pm Reply

  • Andy: Just lovely! I loved your mention of Norell, a fragrance which I associate with many memories of my grandmother. I still have a little vial of it that was her’s, with a few precious drops remaining to keep my memories alive! It is so rich and sweet, like some sort of pure flower nectar. July 2, 2012 at 4:06pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Andy, of all the frags I talk about here, Norell has been the most mentioned by readers. I’m fascinated by that; I think it had a big impact on our mothers and grandmothers, far more so than any other scent I introduced into the discussion.

      And I agree it was like a nectar. It was very rich and seemed the epitome of elegance; it wasn’t for kids but for grown women. It smelled rich in that American way, the same way the Lauder scents do. July 2, 2012 at 5:40pm Reply

    • annemariec: Norell sounds lovely. I have a vintage-ish bottle but it has turned too much for me to appreciate. But your nectar comment reminded me of the perfume I wore today, Ginestet Botrytis, which is honey, dried fruit and, to me, a pronounced tobacco note. Its honey is considerably moderated by the tobacco, but it is still a rich nectary fragrance, tho’ probably not as assertive as Norell. July 3, 2012 at 5:07am Reply

      • Suzanna: annemariec, I adore Botrytis and think I will wear it today (despite the heat). I have been wearing it for years as a replacement for Escada Collection. Glad you brought it up! July 3, 2012 at 10:06am Reply

  • Natalie: Wonderful post, Suzanna! I am too young (don’t get to say that often! 😉 ) to have experienced many of these perfumes (at least, the ones that aren’t readily available anymore), but I did so enjoy going back to that time in your memories. July 2, 2012 at 8:21pm Reply

  • Suzanna: No doubt, Natalie, you will have a story of your own! And which perfumes will it involve? July 2, 2012 at 9:10pm Reply

  • Mimi: I love to read histories of how a person became a perfume lover. A great article with wonderful responses.

    I like Norell, too. I worked with a couple of women in the 80s and we all loved perfumes. Mornings were always a treat to smell what each wore. That was my first exposure to Norell.

    From an earlier time, I love and miss Fidji and Farouche (sp?) dreadfully (Farouche is available, but very expensive). I love green florals.

    Jumping Subjects: I was watching Starting Point on CNN this morning. They were discussing the ban on fragrances that several companies and a city hall, I think, had instituted for the sake of those allergic to perfumes. One of the commentators was saying she thought perfumes were a vestige of the Middle Ages when they were necessary to cover body odor. And now that we all bathe they are no longer necessary.

    I am so thankful I am not allergic to perfumes/smells nor think them unnecessary. What a wonderful world fragrances are; they add so much to life, July 3, 2012 at 2:27pm Reply

    • Suzanna: I second that, Mimi!

      It seems to me that personal fragrance is far less noticeable now than it was in the past, likely due to the “clean” generation of perfumes. The wearer simply blends into the environment and it is not possible to distinguish a proper fragrance from the smell of laundry or the synthetics that get piped around malls or various candles or wall plugs with fragrance oils.

      That’s why I delight in noticing someone who is wearing Diorissimo, or even Angel! July 4, 2012 at 10:49am Reply

      • Mimi: You are so right. I just hate the “clean” generation, as you say, and the watery scents. They aren’t fragrances to me. I also love to smell something with some heft to it. July 4, 2012 at 11:54am Reply

  • Kerrie: What a wonderful post! It made me think of my mother’s White Shoulders perfume that she wore for years. Do you remember that one? July 4, 2012 at 6:56pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Kerrie, White Shoulders was very popular in my high school! It will be included in a future post. July 4, 2012 at 7:57pm Reply

      • Kerrie: I will look forward to that Suzanna. I never saw why she loved it so much when her other perfumes were Arpege and Channel No. 5. Thanks for the lovely post. July 5, 2012 at 11:38am Reply

        • Suzanna: Thanks, Kerrie! I love to hear when readers enjoy something I’ve written.

          White Shoulders will appear in a future post. It always reminds me of a high school friend who wore it with–get this–a white, off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and white Levi cords. July 5, 2012 at 6:47pm Reply

What do you think?

From the Archives

Latest Comments

Latest Tweets

Design by cre8d
© Copyright 2005-2016 Bois de Jasmin. All rights reserved.