Smells like teens spirit…

…or, a very rough guide to vintage perfume.

Lady Cherry did a lovely post recently about signature scents, and I was a little surprised to find myself the only person to name vintage scents, so I thought I'd try to do some speedy posts on perfume for people who want to get the scent, as well as the look, of their favourite era. However, first I'd like to get a couple of brief things about perfume out of the way.

Doesn't it go off quickly?
Not as quickly as people in the scent-selling business would have you believe! Over the years the 'top notes' - the freshest bits, such as citrus notes - will go first, but kept COOL and IN THE DARK a scent can stay wearable for quite some time. I put cool and in the dark in capitals because these are the critical things in prolonging a perfume's longevity. If you have a scent you value, keep it in the box, out of the sun and away from the radiator. Perfumistas are swapping scents bottled in the 1960s and earlier as I type this, and I myself own bottles bought in the late 1980s that are still good. Increased regulation of ingredients and reformulation of some classics means that some scents are actively sought-after in older formulations, especially Rochas Femme, Guerlain Mitsouko and classic Chanels.

I don't want to smell like an old lady
Get off my blog!

Seriously, it really gets me down when I see some of the finest perfumes ever made dismissed simply as 'smells like an old lady' by people for whom the height of sophistication is whatever mass-market syntho-scent is being shoved onto high street shelves. Some of the finest contain oakmoss, an ingredient that adds a certain 'dampness', and nowadays it's heavily regulated and so an unfamiliar quality. Some contain tiny quantities of 'dirty' smelling ingredients, completely at odds with the current trend for cleanliness in scent. There's nothing wrong with not liking vintage scents, but at least find the words to describe why you don't like them.

How will I know what I like?
Where possible, sample. You'll be surprised how many classic scents are still around in Boots or your local department store, so it's easy to pop in and try Miss Dior, Chanel no. 5, Lanvin Arpege, the classic Guerlains, Estee Lauder Youth Dew and so on. Because of current ingredient rulings (which are being tightened all the time) some of these are ghosts of their vintage selves, but you should still get an idea of what you might or might not like.

Perfumes are often divided into 'families': for ladies, chypre, floral and oriental are the classic divisions. However, I personally find that just as fashion falls into eras, so too do perfumes, and I'm happiest with fragrances from any family from the teens to the late 1930s, rather than going for a particular family. You may be the same. You may find one 'house' - Guerlain, Caron, Balmain etc. - has a style you particularly appreciate. Sampling will help you work out what you especially like.

Just as you can't usually find good vintage clothing on the high street, perfumes from some houses can be harder to find than others. In that case, try buying samples online. My favourite perfume shop is Les Senteurs in Belgravia; they stock a couple of Molinards, including the ultra-foxy Habanita from 1924 in a Lalique-designed deco bottle (I own a bottle of pure parfum; ay caramba!), the Isabey fragrances recreated from the 1920s, all the current Carons, which I will talk more about in another post, Robert Piguet perfumes, Creed fragrances (not available to purchase as samples, but you can go into the shop and try them on) and, oh the excitement, the Grossmiths, which have been relaunched this year from vintage recipes. For the gents there are the Creeds, Knize and D'Orsay - deco gents, do not miss the opportunity to try D'Orsay Le Dandy from the mid-20s.

A good, although pricy, source of samples and decants (larger-volume samples) is The Perfumed Court. I bought a sample of all the Jean Patou Ma Collection scents from them, and have spent the years following desperately trying to track down bottles of my own! This is definitely a good option if you're keen to try, say, a really broad selection of fragrances by Dior or Chanel, including some of the rarer ones which are still made but might require a trip to a boutique to buy. Be warned, though, if you do choose ones from the Vintage/discontinued list, you may fall in love with something you'll never find again.

Hmm, that wasn't so brief after all. In my next post, I'll try to cover perfumes from the pre-1920s, by decade, to the 1980s, focussing on ones that are still available so you can find them if you want to.

NOTE: I don't get free perfume from anyone. The chance would be a fine thing…


  1. Great post!! I have never really thought about not only looking, but smelling like the era. I will be interested to read your upcoming posts!
    ps) Sewing and Knitting show was MENTAL. I am absolutely KNACKERED!! but have already decided to go back next year. Oddest thing I bought? Not one but TWO vintage dresses?! Where camden let me down - Ally Pally delivered!


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