classics: 3 posts

The Beauty of The Old-Fashioned

Lately I’ve become fascinated by perfumes that I’d characterize as old-fashioned. Or if you don’t like the word, vintage or retro. Despite the cliches of timeless and unchangeable, many perfumery styles become associated with the time and place that gave rise to them. The aldehydic floral perfumery exemplified by Chanel No 5 echoes the early decades of the 20th century. Bold green chypres scream the 1970s, and I dare anyone to spritz on Dior Poison and not think of the glitz and glam of the 1980s. Decades later, these styles read as evocative of another time, and yet that’s part of their appeal. If I want some escapist fun, I reach for powdery carnations, shimmering aldehydes and creamy tea roses.

There are many reasons why calling some of my favorites old-fashioned doesn’t trouble me. For one thing, working in a perfume lab, I’m so used to hearing styles described as “old” or ”new” that I don’t ascribe value judgments to these terms. Perfumers don’t usually intend it. Some styles are older than others such as chypres, and they still retain their appeal. Some new styles lose their novelty after a few seasons like the savory gourmands.

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My Three Classics : Introduction to Classical Perfumery

Who is afraid of perfume classics? Classical perfumery often elicits two different reactions. There are those who worship at the altar of Guerlain Mitsouko and define the tastes of others by their reactions to Jean Patou Joy or Chanel No 5. Frankly, if Joy were the last perfume available in this world, I wouldn’t wear it, and I enjoy No 5 more on others than on myself. But this is not the point. Classics weren’t created the way perfumes are today–they weren’t meant to be crowd pleasers, they weren’t tested on groups of women from New Jersey* to determine their appeal. They reflect their time and place, and it’s perfectly fine to decide that one doesn’t care for Mitsouko or Hermès Calèche.

And then there are those who think that classics are old-fashioned, outdated or simply too difficult to wear. I agree that classics mirror their time and fashion bubble, but that can be their very appeal to some. Dismissing classics altogether is also a mistake, because this style of fragrance is still current and exploring it can be enjoyable. For instance, expensive niche lines like Tom Ford are known to be inspired–and strongly at that–by classics.  So, one could pay  niche prices or find a similar perfume among the more affordably priced lines.

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A Classical Experiment : How to Learn to Smell Better

In my September 2018 newsletter, I shared an experiment with three perfume classics. While re-reading the Odyssey (see my fall reading list), I was inspired to turn to another favorite book, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I lingered over the scene when the sultry red-haired witch enticed women with the promise of “Guerlain, Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, evening gowns, cocktail dresses...”  Why not revisit them, I thought?

I decided to devote a few days to each perfume, wearing it every day and studying it closely. I also applied the three perfumes on blotters and kept them within reach to smell as often as I remembered, noting down the changes in scent and its intensity. In my newsletter, I proposed that you also do the experiment with these perfumes, but on reflection, you can repeat it with any fragrance you like. I recommend classics, because they are usually complex and they have elements that you’ll find in modern fragrances. It’s like reading The Odyssey to understand the famous tropes of Western literature.

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