Perfume, like fashion, changes in style from decade to decade. We’re not encouraged to think of perfume this way, but our noses, like our eyes, need novelty. Perfumers, like fashion designers but working in an invisible medium, can decide to use perfume ingredients (that's “notes,” in perfume lingo) not only to create something beautiful, but also to convey meaning and reflect a culture’s zeitgeist.
In the 1920s, when flappers’ loose silhouettes reflected a freer, more liberated view of femininity, tobacco and leather perfumes like Caron’s Tabac Blond and Chanel’s Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather) — scents that even today are considered more more masculine than feminine — were all the rage.
In the 1950s, bullet bras combined with flouncy skirts and rounded shoulders, and the good girl/bad girl dichotomy was represented by stars like squeaky-clean Sandra Dee and va-va-va voom Marilyn Monroe. All this reflected a conflicted view of women’s liberation, and perfumes participated, too. For each Givenchy L’Interdit, the perfume Hubert de Givenchy created for the ladylike gamine of the day, Audrey Hepburn, there was a Max Factor Primitif, which offered to express what was still not entirely socially acceptable for women to express publically: their sexuality. “Why not let your perfume say the things you would not dare to?” a sultry Primitif ad cheekily asks. Why not, indeed?
By the 1980s, post-Women’s Movement, as more women were in the boardroom as well as the bedroom, perfumes got as big as the shoulder pads, jackets, and hair of that era. (So much so that restaurant owners were forced to put up signs saying, “Please. No wearers of Passion, Giorgio, Poison,” the most popular — and nose-and room-clearing — scents of that decade.)
And yet, “This smells like an old lady" and “This reminds me of my grandmother” are the most common disparaging responses when people sniff vintage perfume for the first time. Once you become familiar with vintage perfumes, you might be as open to wearing one — or at least appreciating it — as you are donning a '90s crop top or '80s acid-washed jeans.
Intrigued yet? Dabbling in the world of vintage perfume will not only help to deepen your appreciation of this artistic medium from the past, but also to appreciate the work that perfume artists, composers, or “noses” as they’re referred to in the biz, are doing right now. (And, it might make you think of your grandmother differently.) Here, five ways to enter the intoxicating world of vintage perfume.
Start small. Pick five vintage fragrances you want to start with. It can be your mother’s or grandmother’s fragrance, a perfume you associate with childhood, a perfume whose evocative perfume ad made you curious, or iconic perfumes plucked from several decades. (Suggestions: Molinard’s Habanita, Lanvin’s My Sin, Jean Patou’s Joy, Robert Piguet’s Bandit, Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, Guy Laroche’s Fidji, Chanel No 19, or Christian Dior’s Poison.) You can start at the perfume counter, as many vintage perfumes are still out there in reformulated incarnations.
Shop smart. If you want to invest a few bucks, hit up flea markets and estate sales and buy a perfume that looks intriguing. There are also reasonable decanting sites out there that will sell you 1-ml. vials of true vintage, say, if you want to compare the modern with the vintage reformulation. Or, bid on minis on eBay. One caveat: This is how I fell down the perfume rabbit hole, and I clearly have not gotten out of it.
Check the freshness. “How do I know if vintage perfume is still fresh?” No vintage perfume is truly fresh. If it’s been stored properly — away from heat and light, preferably sealed and in its original box — you can still get a great sense of what it smelled like originally. (I have several intact perfumes from the 1920s that still smell amazing.) Also, check the color of the liquid. Some vintage juices were dark to begin with, but dark and syrupy-looking is often a sign the perfume has oxidized beyond recognition. The lighter top notes usually fall apart first, but in the same way a painting with worn edges can still be appreciated, a perfume with some missing notes can still give you a good sense of the original.
Get nippy. Perfume nips — precursors of modern vials — can be a great way of trying vintage because the scent was sealed in, and is only exposed to air when you crack it open. The downside, obviously, is that you have only one shot with it: Crack open the long, plastene tube, and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Sites like Etsy and eBay have a seemingly endless number of these nips or “bottlettes” for perfumes such as Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Bourjois’s Evening in Paris, just to name a couple.
Read, read, read. There are many perfume blogs, including mine, that review vintage perfumes and provide historical information about the brands, the perfume notes, and sometimes even who wore the perfume. (Robert Piguet’s Bandit was said to have been Marlene Dietrich’s signature scent, but I think many perfumes have wanted to claim her as their fan.) Sites like Basenotes and Fragrantica also provide useful information, and their reader comment forums can be addictive.
Books like Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent and Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The Guide will stoke your perfume lust, and Avery Gilbert’s book about the science and culture of scent, What The Nose Knows, throws science and psychology into it too. And, my book Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, out this November, is chock full of vintage perfume ads, reviews of hundreds of vintage perfumes, and essays on scent appreciation.
Now that you've taken a glimpse into the world of vintage perfume, don't be surprised if you find yourself sniffing it out — and loving it.
Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Herman.