In Defense Of Old-Lady Perfumes

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I've never had the nose for most perfumes. Florals tend to give me migraines, I think citrus scents are better suited for candles, and anything herby makes me think of salad. So, when I come across a scent that I like, I dive in headfirst. This is what happened when I first took a whiff of Chanel No. 5.

I was enamored. Part of the reason was because this little, glass bottle held so much history. Along with the amber liquid that swirled inside, there was the story of Coco Chanel and her decision to break into the perfume biz. I'd also fallen instantly in love with the actual fragrance. I didn't know it then, but Chanel No. 5 housed some notes that would eventually become my favorites: jasmine, mayrose, sandalwood, and vetiver. I was totally hooked.

Long after I peeled myself away from the glass perfume counter, the fragrance was all I could talk about. I talked about it so much, in fact, that my aunt and uncle gifted me a set for Christmas — a lotion, a body wash, and a teeny bottle of perfume. I'd layer the scents on and wear them proudly, loving how the fragrance made me feel like a classy lady.

That was until a friend of mine looked at me with a sour face one day and sneered, "You smell like an old lady." My Chanel No. 5 had turned on me — and it was making my friends think I stunk. I went home, showered, and put the bottle back in the box, never to spritz it on again. I'd steal a sniff here and there, enjoy it for a moment, but I would never actually wear it. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to think I smelled like a grandma, right?

As I got older, I started noticing the telltale signs of an "old-lady perfume." They'd usually have basenotes of sandalwood or tobacco — two scents I love to this day. Citrus was never on the radar, unless it was bergamot. But, the biggest indicators of these types of fragrances were the looks of disgust they tended to garner from people in my age group.

Anyone who grew up between the late '80s and '90s can attest to the fact that the perfume industry underwent a seismic shift. These scents took on sweeter, food-based qualities, and teenagers everywhere were scrambling to pick up the latest tangerine-grapefruit body mists. Suddenly, the bottles our grandmothers adored — the ones filled with classic notes, like rosewood and patchouli — were labeled "old-lady perfumes." Juicy fruits, creamy vanilla, and sweet desserts were the notes the cool kids were wearing, so my beloved, classic scents got the shaft.

But, I was not swayed, and I conducted my nose-wrinkling love affair of old-lady perfumes in secret, clandestinely sniffing bottles here and there and loving them, but never throwing down the cash to buy them.

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Then, one day, I had a whiff of Kilian's Back to Black — and I instantly fell in love. But, I soon realized it had the fragrance makeup of an old-lady perfume. It could be considered too strong, a little too tobacco-y, and rife with bergamot. Instead of turning away like I had in the past, though, something about the bottle made me hang on to it. I smelled it throughout the day and realized I liked it more with every sniff.

Then, I took it home. Then, I spritzed it on my wrists. And, that was the end of it.

Back to Black has completely done away with my neurosis of smelling like an old lady. The first time I wore it, I didn't even care what people thought — the scent made me feel beautiful and sexy. And, that's when I realized: That's what fragrance is about. It's about how the perfume makes you feel. Old-lady perfumes never made me feel like a grandma. Chanel No. 5 made me feel classy, and Kilian's Back to Black makes me feel self-assured and alluring.

Perfume is incredibly personal; one woman's sour stench may be another's refreshing scent. So, you may call my preferred fragrance "old lady," but I call it classic — for me, it's a callback to an era when pulling out your bottle and spritzing was a ritual. Sure, some may turn up their nose when they smell me walking by, but I no longer care. Grandmas, you're definitely on to something.



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