Retro, vintage, old-fashioned. These terms, with various nuances, suggest fragrances that smell of another time. Elisa explores some of her favorite perfume examples. What’s dated to one person is a retro classic to another.
What smells old-fashioned or, more positively, “classic” or “retro” to any given nose is bound to change over time. In the near future, I suspect, the berry-and-peony fruity-florals and fruitchoulis that were ubiquitous in the late ‘90s and aughts will smell nostalgically old-fashioned to some, dated to others. Hillary Clinton reportedly wears Angel, and I recently heard a young YouTube star describe Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle as her most “mature” smelling perfume!
The perfumes I’ve been reaching for most this fall aren’t the all-time classics – the Shalimars, the Mitsoukos, the Chanel No. 5’s. But these scents, mostly born in the ‘70s and ‘80s, remind me of the grande dames of my youth, who weren’t in the least intimidated by unforgivingly sharp green chypres, loud and complicated florals, or deeply powdery orientals, all with massive sillage. To me, these are the new retro classics.
When I first encountered Coco on a perfume counter many years ago, I found it confusing. What exactly was this mess, which couldn’t decide whether to be sweet or not? But now it smells complex and incredibly luxurious, especially in the parfum – all spicy, rosy florals and amber with a dry, animalic leather note cutting through. I’ve come to think of Coco as the quintessential, night-at-the-opera floriental.
A fellow perfume lover recently sent me some vintage Poison, and it’s a treat: honey, powder, fruity tuberose, super-raspy jasmine, and something that reminds me of burnt marshmallow. It was in the air, of course, during my childhood, but I never knew anyone who wore it, so I can wear it now with no real associative baggage, and I quite enjoy its drama.
Opium is another scent that passed me by when it originally launched (I was too young; my mom didn’t wear perfume). I never sought it out, but I couldn’t resist picking up the parfum in a supremely classy (if not especially functional) tassel bottle when I recently saw it at a consignment shop. Now I find it very beautiful, saved from the suffocating heaviness you’d expect when you look at the list of notes by a dose of aldehydes (which were seemingly unavoidable in that era, the late ‘70s). Probably more than any other perfume material, aldehydes to me smell like perfume, and Opium smells like perfume and smoke (in Italian parfumare means “to smoke through”) and very expensive tea.
Estée Lauder Cinnabar
It’s probably not as good as Opium and certainly comes in less glamorous packaging, but if I’m honest with myself I think I like Cinnabar just as much – it’s a brighter and more floral version of the same idea, with more cinnamon than clove; like Opium-flavored bubblegum.
The Hermès scents don’t usually call out to me – they’re a little too sheer, a little too refined for my tastes. Maurice Roucel, on the other hand, I love for his excess. In 24 Faubourg, they’ve fought each other’s worst tendencies, creating a perfectly refined but still lush white floral. My favorite thing about it is the merest whisper of galbanum, like an air kiss from a chypre.
Sophia Grojsman’s Paris is yet another classic that I didn’t really get until I smelled an older version. Now I think it’s the perfect honey-rose. There’s violet, and powder, but somehow the impression I get is of a wet rose, like a rose bush dripping after a rain.
More than most perfumes in my collection, Knowing has a changeable character – I always recognize it, but its mood and shape can vary by the day. Lately it smells greener than ever, and bitter in a way that reminds me of classic leather chypres as much as rose.
The name is seemingly a reference to a Paul Verlaine poem: “A vast and tender serenity, seems to descend from the firmament that glows with the light of the moon . . It is the exquisite hour.” I love this name, because Heure Exquise’s combination of green notes, iris, hyacinth, and vanilla comes across as achingly poignant, romantic and yet innocent. (And I just realized this was in my Winter top 10, too – clearly one of my favorites for the year.)
Once a more classical chypre, I believe the current version of Odalisque has been stripped of some of its oakmoss. But it’s still a gorgeous powdery floral, poised between green and white, with a chilliness that reads to me as tuberose.
Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose
Tea Rose is truly dated, the diametrical opposite of cool, and yet, I love it. It’s half fresh pink roses and half potpourri – I always, always think of antique shops when I wear it. Bonuses: The dirt-cheap bottle is huge and doubles as room spray, and layers well with almost anything containing rose.
What perfumes have you been wearing most this fall?
Image 1 by Victoria. Image 2 by Elisa.