5 Perfumes: Best of the 1990s

Dior Dune

Twice, recently, I have walked past a rack of discount CDs that includes a "Best of the 90s" compilation. The cover features a pair of pouting Material Girls with tousled two-tone hair, red lipstick, neon off-the-shoulder shirts and black vests and leggings. I did not look at the track list, because I was so put out by the photo. I was a teenager in those pre-Y2K times and I think the producers of this album might have missed the last nine years of the decade. When I graduated high school in 1997, that look had already made at least two rounds as a retro Halloween costume. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam were no longer touring and Kurt Cobain had been dead for three years, but my yearbook confirms we were still wearing plenty of jeans and plaid flannel,1 though people had mercifully stopped requesting Nirvana's Heart-shaped Box, possibly the world's least danceable song, at every party. Girls wore straight hair, pixie-cut or long and center-parted. I had a programming geek boyfriend, and after a few years of BBS posting using my family's agonizingly slow dial-up connection, I had decided my future was at a school nicknamed "M.I.T. North". There, my friends traded their jeans for Microserf khakis. Britpop groups and Radiohead were popular, as was genial stoner music of the Dave Matthews Band variety. Everybody seemed to be reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, watching animated shows on TV and going to a lot of violent, angry movies starring Kevin Spacey or Brad Pitt.2 In North America, the Starr report was out and events like Columbine happened, and it felt then like we were living through a very sad, cynical, disaffected era. Looking back after 9/11 and the global recession, however, and a few horrific natural disasters and inconvenient truths later, the nineties seem to me today like oddly sincere, hopeful years. I never expected to be a nostalgic old fool so soon. 

I wasn't obsessed with perfume then. I vaguely recall tropical fruity or citrus-clean skin scents like Calvin Klein ck One and Clinique Happy being very popular. A certain lemony transparency had become linked in my brain to the label "green tea", but I'm pretty sure I was unaware of the Bvlgari brand which introduced the style. Despite the fact I attended a tech university, where an Asian aesthetic sometimes dominated — I drank a lot of bubble tea, lived on noodle soups, learned about anime and gaming — I don't remember smelling the supposedly ubiquitous Issey Miyake L'Eau d'Issey often. In fact, I don't remember green, melon or marine scents making much of an impression on me at this time at all. If I strain, I have a misty and slightly embarrassing memory of being in a department store and coveting, of all things, Perry Ellis 360 Degrees, which I believe was one of those Calone numbers, a salty-metallic watermelon like Aramis New West, and was displayed in a cool spherical fatice. Just down the Shiseido-owned counter from Issey Miyake, though, was Jean Paul Gaultier Classique, which was big with my crowd: I've wondered since if we liked the pink juice and fuzzy floriental structure because it was a subconscious nod towards the fragrances our mothers were wearing at the time, like Lancôme Trésor, Givenchy Organza and Aramis Tuscany Per Donna.  

While they're nice to revisit, I wouldn't wear these fragrances regularly now.3 The trend then was toward linear fragrances, scents that felt like a camera flash. The best ones did have instant impact and an arresting radiance to them, but there was deliberately little plot built in. That's just not a style that interests me anymore. In 2011, I'm grateful that there were perfumers and consumers in those days hungry for something other than a milky or melony floral musk. Some of my favorite fragrances today date from that era and they're all big, strange, abstract wonders that would have confused me when they launched, had I tried them. My list this afternoon is therefore not intended to be a Flashback Friday, a program of the most popular or influential scents of the nineties. Instead, I'd like to think of it as a Greatest Hits collection.

Thierry Mugler Angel: (1992) Love it or loathe it, it's the monument of the decade. By now everybody recognizes it and even a brief review of the actual smell of the thing is very difficult to do, as almost everything you could write about it has already been covered. I will say, though, that it's still full of surprises, even after it has inspired a hundred flankers and imitations. Wearing it today, I suddenly focused on the tartness of the berry notes that balance the ethylmaltol sweetness of the beginning. It's always as heady as I remember, but I tend to forget that it's not at all languorous.

Gucci Rush: (1999) In a way, this seems like a send-up of all those nineties scents that were designed to smell like skin or your aura or whatever. It is an obviously, purposefully synthetic scent, but it is also eerily organic. Luca Turin on Rush's launch: "This thing smells like a person. To be exact, thanks to the milky lactone note, it smells like an infant's breath mixed with his mother's hair spray." (via Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent). It's a bit creepy that his cozy little portrait of maternal intimacy should seem so right to me, as I also find Rush to be an intensely sexy fragrance. Certainly, I find it a much more alluring perfume than all of Tom Ford's subsequent attempts at sweaty seduction

Bvlgari Black: (1998) This proved that a perfectly unisex, modern fragrance didn't need to be about "freshness". Tea notes could be urban, musks could be tough and you could sell perfume in a hockey puck. Like Angel, Black can still shock you with a new facet after years of wear. It is, as Robin wrote, "one of those masterpieces of weird".

Serge Lutens Bois de Violette: (1992) When this launched, I was wholly unaware that niche perfume houses existed. I'm sure I would have been unprepared for this fairy tale of a fragrance, with its dark, airy breath of cedar and violet (leaf and flower).

Dior Dune: (1991) Whoever was responsible for the art direction of Dune is a genius, because it makes a seamless impression, despite a complex development and the strangeness of its fit within the oceanic genre. Like many people, I find the top notes borderline unpleasant, but there is something totally beguiling about the way a tease of salt breeze runs throughout the story and the drydown is one of the most beautiful puzzles in the perfume industry: a bitter chocolate smell, both airy powder and rich butter, appetizing and yet indigestibly gauzy.      

1. Bear in mind that I grew up in Canada, where plaid flannel is a kind of religion.

2. Or both. In 1995, Spacey and Pitt were together in gruesome Se7en, which I went to see in theatres with a guy friend of mine. It was a quasi-date, I guess, and a really terrible movie for it. Despite the inauspicious start, we continued to see movies together off-and-on over the next four years. Eventually, we figured we might as well start dating properly and then a few years later we got married. It was all more romantic than it sounds, apparently.

3. Well... I am on the hunt for a bottle of Tuscany Per Donna. I told you I'm a nostalgic old fool.

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  1. malijo789 says:

    The Dune model looks like she tripped and fell.

    • Erin says:

      She does! I associate the smell of Dune more with ads like the gauze-blowing or cross-ankles beach-bather here: http://www.imagesdeparfums.fr/Dior/Dune.php. But I did fall down a lot in the nineties – not a graceful teenager, I’m afraid.

    • eminere says:

      HAHA I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw this first comment after the “seriousness” of the article. :D

      • Erin says:

        Yeah, me too, one of my favorite first comments ever :)

  2. helenviolette says:

    Wow Erin! Great article- a pleasure to read. And you managed to hit almost every fragrance I wore in the 90’s- starting with CKOne- then Dune, then Tresor, then JPG, then Angel (which I now can not stomach!). Smelling any of these will whoosh me back in time. I had not had the pleasure of sniffing Bvlgari Black (but I am sure I would have bought it if I had!) or Bois des Violette (which I now think is lovely and I probably would have found it awful).

    • Erin says:

      Thanks! It’s funny how associative a sense smelling is, isn’t it? Just today, in my local coffee shop, the very nice barista leaned over me wearing JPG and I was transfixed by memory for a moment.

    • sheree.s says:

      Apparently, the “memory rush” for scent is because the olfactory system and memory systems in the brain are geographically right next to each other – communication between them is simpler and faster than for sight, sound, etc.
      I find shower gels really hit me, as weird as that is – the smell of a shower gel that I used at a particular time in my life can really take me back (I suppose because I used the same one every day, not like fragrances that I have regularly changed). There is also one spray-on deodorant, which I believe is no longer available, that ALWAYS reminds me of sneaking off from high-school in the afternoons with friends to smoke and mess around, being young and stupid – we used to drench ourselves in the stuff on the way back, simply to drown out the smoky-ness. A horrid smell, but still makes me smile, remembering some of the great times we had :)

      • Erin says:

        The shower gel and deoderant thing makes sense to me. Perhaps this is why people often get a strong memory rish off of other functional products as well, like hair spray. Imagine all the kids now who will one day get sloppy and nostalgic over Axe!

  3. odonata9 says:

    I was in college in the 90’s as well and owned most of the perfumes you listed above as associated with it (Happy, ckOne, Issey, New West) and also Escape, Diamonds & Sapphires, Sunflowers and Byblos, which were all very marine as well – I sure loved those back then. Can’t stand them now, of course. Also wore my share of plaid flannel!

    • Erin says:

      Gotta love the plaid flannel! A lot of Canadian rock acts, like Sam Roberts and (forgive us everyone) Nickelback, still work the plaid.

      I was trying to remember a few days ago whether it was Escape or 360 Degrees I coveted. I think it was an online picture of the Perry Ellis bottle that clinched it. And Sunflowers! I do remember that one, and also Arden Green Tea, which, in my Bvlgari ignorance, I used to think was responsible for that lemon “tea” trend.

  4. malijo789 says:

    My favorite 90s perfume was Tribe, by Coty I think. If I remember right, it was a fruity musk. There’s a few bottles on Ebay for a couple hundred dollars, which is funny because when it was in distribution, it was about twenty bucks a bottle.

    • Erin says:

      I once narrowly avoided paying an obscene price for Jovan’s Fresh Patchouli on eBay. I think of my parent’s bathroom cabinet and how the we could be rich today if we’d kept all the old Emeraude and original Brut, etc. ;)

      • AmyT says:

        I’m not sure I want to admit how much I paid eBay for a bottle of Bonne Bell Friday – my signature scent in grade 8 – only to find that it now smells chemically vile to my nose!

        • Marise says:

          Bonne Bell was an astringent face cleanser wasn’t it? I didn’t know they made a scent.

          • AmyT says:

            They made a few: they originated Skin Musk; there was Friday! in the late 80s; and in the mid-90s they came out with a large range in cute little bottles called “Bottled Emotion.”

            Mind you, the smell of Ten-O-Six would definitely evoke memories of my awkward, acne-ridden adolescence. :(

        • Erin says:

          I feel nostalgic for Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth and sometimes feel like looking it up on eBay. I laughed when I saw Tania Sanchez’s comment on it in the Turin & Sanchez Guide, and her disappointment at the time at not owning a bottle – I was the same way in junior high, so we must be about the same age, her and I.

  5. Addicted2Pretty says:

    Wow, good write up. I chuckle as I vividly recall falling in love with Bvlgari Black at the Bloomies counter in Sherman Oaks, CA. I was shopping with a friend and neither she nor the SA there understood why I enjoyed the scent so much. Both felt like it was better suited for a man. Haha! I loved that it was different and unexpected. I get a kick out of the “masterpiece of weird” comment. Since I loved it, I guess then so am I :-)

    • Erin says:

      It still smells edgy and unexpected, I think – so ahead of its time! I wish I had been sophisticated and smart enough to be drawn to it when I first encountered it.

  6. Filomena says:

    Very well written Erin!

    • Erin says:

      Thanks, that’s kind!

  7. Abyss says:

    Ahem…I wore L’Eau D’Issey *blush*. In fact, I got though several bottles of it despite my mother making gagging noises about it even then. Ha!

    Then I moved on YSL In Love Again. To my despair it was discontinued pretty quickly and it was only years later I realised that it was a JCE creation and that it had a living relation in the guise of Hermessence Rose Ikebana.

    I discovered Bois de Violette last summer and it was love at first sniff. It’s the only Lutens that I own and it’s become a real staple in my collection.

    • Erin says:

      Love Rose Ikebana. And I still like the spare Japanese aesthetic of Issey Miyake, and I own Feu d’Issey. I actually like melon, too, and airy scents, yet the thing I always notice now about L’Eau d’Issey is it’s so much stronger than I remember it. But I used up almost an ENTIRE BOTTLE of Angel in my first six months of interest in perfume, so no more blushing for you. I think I nearly knocked my brother out with my sillage in the car once.

  8. Bear says:

    ckOne is really a great scent, a floral aquatic scent that is seamlessly blended. I remember seeing an ad in the Sunday
    Inquirer “Come to the Calvin Klein counter for your free sample of ckOne.” When I took my 3 nieces shopping at the mall later that afternoon, the SA gave each of us a grey aluminum 4ml sample, and I fell hard for it. It was a preview sample and the scent wouldn’t be in store for another 3 weeks.
    When I went back to purchase, CK had hired an amateur drama club to advertise the launch, 30 grunge-clad youngsters spraying away. I STILL like and wear it, but all this seems like it happened two weeks ago- it was 1994! Time flies……………;)

    • Erin says:

      It *is* great, still. It’s just not the sort of greatness that interests me much anymore. Like you, I think, I love Ubar and tend to gravitate towards that sort of great now, although my collection is varied in style. CK One had some really amazing, innovative marketing, though: thanks for the great launch story!

      • Bear says:

        Yep, Ubar is fantastic, in fact I was thinking of wearing it yesterday but is just too hot and humid here.
        SO hot and humid, I didn’t wear any scent, a rarity for me! ;)

        • Erin says:

          It was 101 degrees F here yesterday, and I went without perfume, too, until 10:00 at night.

  9. I love this topic, Erin! But the Serge I remember discovering in the early 90s wasn’t Bois de Violette, but Féminité du Bois for Shiseido. I remember thinking the FdB edp was WAY too “unwashed intimate parts”-smelling (I actually gagged on it…how young and green I was back then!), and opted to wear the “eau timide” version. I was lucky enough to score a bottle of the Shiseido edp a few years ago from Heathrow duty free when the SA there tipped me off that it was being discontinued.

    My other big 90s perfume association (aside from cK One, which I wore and loved) was the now-discontinued SheerScent by Ultima II. Oh how I loved its leathery-violet-musk amplifed skin smell. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dramatically positive response to any perfume I’ve worn since. It resembled a feminized Dior Fahrenheit, and it really was a man-slayer.

    • Erin says:

      I think I ultimately prefer the Violette version to FdB, just because it seems more mysterious and sylph-like to me, the perfect scent to conjure a nighttime forest. I always forget until I smell it just how plummy and velvety rich FdB is: it’s a lovely technicolor, but the cedar gets a bit lost for me.

      I don’t remember Ultima II SheerScent, but I LOVE vintage Fahrenheit. It was the first scent I bought with my own money, I think.

      • If you love vintage Fahrenheit, you’d have been the ideal mark for SheerScent.

        • Erin says:

          Is it available anymore at any of the discounters for a sane price?

  10. kaos.geo says:

    I was 17 in 1990, 22 in 1995 and 27 in 2000
    (I am not being redundant, I am making a point here! :-) )

    In 1990 my scent was good ol “eau sauvage extreme”.
    In 1995 I was trying to get into the corporate world and my scent was heritage de Guerlain
    By 2000 I was desperately trying to get OUT of the corporate world and I was wearing L’eau par kenzo imagining I was at a beach while on those day-long corporate meetings.

    In the meantime, and thanks to the favorable exchange rate Argentina had on those days, I was able to try some of the following.

    1993 – Minotaure by paloma picasso.. lovely. It was copied afterwards many times.
    1994- H2O+ Waves for men… great scent, marine by way of camphor.
    1996- yes yes L´eau d´Issey, I fell head over heels over this one, got a bottle and then a guy at work “copied” it and wore it every day to the office.. I gave it away after 2 weeks to a friend.
    1998- Jil Sander Feeling Man..wonderfully weird scent
    1999- yes yes again.. Clinique Happy for men.. still being copied. I smelled Armani Code Sport yesterday and my first thought was “Clinique Happy For Men!” :-)

    • Erin says:

      I love your timeline! And Minotaure, too, what a great scent. Heritage was sort of unexpectedly fertile, also – you can see it’s lineage in a lot of feminine fragrances today as well as the a few of the handsome, well-groomed male niches lately. (I’m thinking specifically of Penhaglion’s Sartorial, although they smell quite different – more of a style thing.)

  11. Merlin says:

    Erin, you seem MUCH more aware of what is going on around you than I have ever been, but that album cover, even to me, sounds more 80s than 90s. The nineties, as I remember them were all about grunge, looking as though you were paying no attention to how you looked, being unkempt, etc, and yet STILL being devestatingly sexy. Kind of like, look I just cant help it!

    • Erin says:

      You know, I actually deleted a sentence from the beginning of this article about my long term memory being notoriously poor. I deleted not because my memory isn’t – it’s very poor – but because the sentence read awkwardly. One of the reasons I love perfume and music is that they are two of the few experiences in my life that allow me to access my past clearly.

    • ggperfume says:

      I thought so too: that art director confused the 90’s with the 80’s.

      • Erin says:

        If you look at some pictures from 1990-91 – pictures of the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, for example – you see that some of the neon was still around. And the black lace and vests and leggings. But mercifully those trends died in 1992. Madonna, of course, had moved on.

    • sheree.s says:

      I’m just a touch too young to have really enjoyed the grunge era :( I was busy with The Spice Girls. It’s one of my greatest regrets in life – that I wasn’t born earlier. I still managed to go through a Cobain phase though – I wore baggy t-shirts and listened to Pennyroyal Tea on repeat for longer than I care to remember.

      • Erin says:

        I think you must be about the age of one of my younger brothers, who started high school when I was in Grade twelve. (My other brother is almost 11 years younger and thinks of Chris Cornell as the lead singer of Audioslave, and not Soundgarden…) And don’t mourn your age! You must have been the perfect age when Wilco, the White Stripes, etc. were peaking…

        • sheree.s says:

          Actually, I spent most of my teen years listening to Dad’s Beatles anthology and Pink Floyd CDs I got from the discount rack lol. I always just seem to miss the new best-thing-ever in music, distracted by other discoveries, only to come back to the new stuff later once everyone else is bored of it. :)

          • Erin says:

            You can never get bored of Pink Floyd! Actually, one of the other quasi-dates my now-husband and I had when we were teens was a Pink Floyd concert during the Division Bell tour. Good times.

  12. Dilana says:

    No decade is ever has simple as the “VH1- Remember the__” cliche which pop culture assigns to the decade. The 1970’s, for instance, was not just the era of DISCO, it was also the era in which a republican President issued price controls over the U.S. economy. In the 1980’s.

    I remember a couple of trips to a Nordstrom in the 90’s. Oh, heaven, a store that actually carried shoes in my size! However, I also had been told that they put extra padding beneath the flooring in the shoe department, so I would walk over to the beauty department to make sure the shoes were fitting properly. There I picked out The Vert to be my signature scent. I am rather proud, that as a fume-know nothing, I managed to select a Jean Claude Ellana scent.
    I know that a lot of perfumers do not like this sort of sheer, low key scent. However, after the 80’s decade of aggressive scents, usually given “shocking” names with negative associations. (Opium, Poison) it was so refreshing to find something without those “big shoulders” and which had an upbeat images.

    • Dilana says:

      Ooops. I failed to edit that properly. Ignore my sentence fragment relating to the 1980’s. This forum is not the right place for a lengthy cultural history. (Nixon really did try price controls in 1970’s though.)

      I also meant to say a lot of perfume lovers do not like sheer, low key scents.

      • Merlin says:

        Actually, i thought it was a really good point: there are probably circles of awareness, from ones inner circle, to the culture, to the broader political picture and to the zeitgeist. And, perfume has its place in all of this! I think I was just saying that my awareness did not go much further than my own nose. Actually, it didn’t even reach my nose – I only got into perfume a year or two ago, in my 30s.

    • Erin says:

      I’m all for a little cultural history, and appreciated your point about Nixon. He’s a fascinating figure to me. Did you read Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland”? Great book. I also love Robert Coover’s madcap fictionalized Nixon in “The Public Burning”. Despite the disco, I think the 70s were a very serious, adult decade.

  13. egabbert says:

    I love Angel, Rush, and Black. Rush is what I wore in college. Now I own all three.

    I revisited some of those big ’90s scents a while back for review, and most of them disgusted me, Clinique Happy and L’Eau d’Issey (both of which I wore in high school) in particular. *shudder*

    Sunflowers was really big for a while when I was in 7th or 8th grade. It was battling CK One with ubiquity. At the time I thought it was lame, but now I kind of remember it fondly.

    • Erin says:

      Rush would be a *perfect* sweaty dance club scent for the college years. I’m sad I missed it then. My husband loves it now, and maybe it’s because it reminds him of our bar star days (long over..) ;)

      I see Sunflowers getting a lot of play here. I don’t remember the smell of it well. Need to find an Elizabeth Arden counter…

  14. AmyT says:

    I first discovered Dune in 1994. I was 16, on a school trip to Europe and one of our stops was at Galimard in Eze. My friends and I decided to share a box of their versions of various scents, and I basically chose one at random, which turned out to be their version of Dune. I found it really intriguing but hard to wear (at the time I was more into EA Sunflowers and Oceanus from the Body Shop). Still, every so often I’d dab some on and enjoy its stark, sunbaked beauty. To this day Dune reminds me of that trip.

    • Erin says:

      Eze – beautiful little place. Wish I had gone there when I was 16 (also in 1994!) When I visited Nice, Grasse and environs four years ago, we did a few of the -ards and there was a nice little Fragonard boutique in Eze, but I didn’t see Galimard. And “stark, sunbaked beauty” is a perfect description. What a lovely, appropriate memory to associate with the Cote d’Azur.

  15. Jill says:

    I truly enjoyed this article, Erin, and love the picture you paint of 1997 (which, for me, was my mid twenties) and the ’90s in general. I was not at all obsessed with perfume then, either, although I will say that I, not my mother, wore Tuscany per Donna in the ’90s! I just loved it back then, but when I got nostalgic for it last year and bought a bottle for old timesake, I found it didn’t smell the way I remembered. I love your list — Black and Bois de Violette are two of my favorites, though I discovered them much later.

    • Erin says:

      I notice Estee Lauder in the US is making Tuscany Per Donna again, after a hiatus of some years. Maybe they reformulated it? I hope not, they’re usually pretty good about that sort of thing. I should say, also, that my mom is fairly trendy and current perfume-wise – she wore Classique, too, at the time – so maybe everybody else’s mother was still wearing Youth Dew or something. In any case, I wasn’t making a comment on the appropriateness of Tuscany et al for the age group or something. Heck, I love Youth Dew! ;)

  16. RuthW says:

    I would have cringed at the album cover as well – graduated in 1995 wearing Sunflowers listening to No Doubt and Blues Traveler (first concert) and then drowned myself in Aqua Di Gio for the later half of the 90’s.
    Through it all I wanted to be WInona Ryder in Reality Bites so bad . . . though I am 5’11 and hardly gamine.

    • Erin says:

      I wanted to be Janeane Garofalo. I still do, actually. Why isn’t she on TV anymore? I miss Larry Sanders. And the nineties were apparently good years for Steve Zahn in bit parts (Out of Sight, Reality Bites, SubUrbia). Blues Traveler! I hear the harmonicas now…

      • misschips says:

        Me too-o!
        ‘Don’t bugger the can, man’

        • Erin says:

          Love that scene! BTW, though I hate to imply I have any knowledge of drug lingo at all (I don’t!)… is it not “Bogart the can”? I *hope* it’s not buggering. ;)

  17. AgentBetty says:

    Beautiful article, Erin, thank you. You are a great writer! And I totally agree with your top five, though I didn’t discover the amazing Bois de Violette until I fell seriously in love with perfume, about three years ago. I suppose I’m a late bloomer.

    • Erin says:

      Thanks, that’s so nice. Oh, and I’m a late bloomer, too. It took me a few tries to “get” the magic of BdV when I first became interested in perfume in the mid-2000s.

  18. Kathryn says:

    Erin, we have something in common in that I would like to be Janeane Garafalo, too. However, I’m older than you are, so perhaps that’s why my favorite scent from the 1990’s is L’Arte di Gucci which must have seemed pretty retro even when it was created. At the time, the perfumes of the ’90’s didn’t interest me much, so I kept on wearing old school Diors and Guerlains, fashion be damned. I really appreciate the diversity of perfumes available now. Although I suppose fruitchoulis are commercially dominant, it’s so much easier than it used to be to find interesting non-mainstream scents.

    • Erin says:

      It *is* much easier – the glories of the internet! And, see, you must really be closer in temperment to Janeane Garafalo than me. I can see Janeane saying damn the torpedoes and wearing whatever perfume she pleased, probably something classic. I wish I’d even known about the classic Guerlains, Diors etc. during that time period.

  19. I adored reading this article. =) I’m a bit younger than you, being born in the late ’80s, but I remember so many of the things you mentioned as well. It is actually really funny how quiet and hopeful the ’90s seem in comparison to everything that has happened in the 2000s. Every so often I’ll catch myself thinking … but 10 years ago things weren’t like this – the news wasn’t as trashy, the pundits weren’t as obnoxious, people weren’t as illiterate, I wasn’t as stupid as the youth of today (and I’m 23, and way too young to be thinking like this hahaha). I suppose that’s nostalgia too. Funny how fast time flies, huh?

    I don’t really remember perfume from the ’90s. Except for Tresor and Red Door and whatever other Chanels and Diors that my mom had little samples of from the GWPs. I think a couple of them spilled and it permanently ruined those fragrances for me because I can’t smell them without thinking PERFUME. I did wear Ralph though, in the ’90s. One of our neighbors was an SA at the counter at Macy’s and would give me rollerball samples of it. =)

    • Erin says:

      Lauren or Ralph? Ralph is the apples-and-white-flowers one, right? They both used to be very nice, and perfect for younger women. Of course, the brand ruined Lauren, the finks. I like the one that smells like french toast, too – Ralph Hot, maybe? The purple one, I think it is. Hopefully, the hopeless, illiterate youth of today still appreciate those and wear them ;)

  20. moore says:

    Uhuh!!! What a great travelling to that era!!! Miss the crazy Nirvana, that dark and very well done suspense movies and that 80’s residue of terror movies, all so nicely done! Dune is really fine!!! Good memories of it. What a perfume list!!! When you’re talking about Clinique Happy poppularity, are you talking about the feminine or the masculine version????

    • Erin says:

      I meant the feminine version, but the maculine version was everywhere, too, I think, and still is. My brother wears it.

      • moore says:

        Me too!! It’s such some good stuff….

  21. Luminous Phenomena says:

    I was 14 in 1990. Here is my scent timeline, to the best of my recollection.

    1990-91: Anais, Anais, LouLou — Carcharel
    1992-93: Red Door, Sunflowers — Elizabeth Arden; HeavenSent Musk –Dana. I got the HeavenSent Musk from my aunt and my mother forbade me to wear it. It sat unopened for months until I got my nerve up. I splashed minimally, and while I’m sure it was synthetic and drugstore-ish, I fell in love with musk. I still love musk.
    1993-94: Beautiful — Estee Lauder
    1994-2000: Champagne (now Yvresse) — YSL; Pleasures — Estee Lauder

    From ’95 to ’00 I was poor as a church mouse and my perfume purchases were next to nothing. So, I just went back through and used up the bottles I owned, except for Champagne, it was just too wonderful to use up. I’ve still got my original bottle and it smells just as delightful.

    • ggperfume says:

      Anais Anais – of course! That was one of mine in the mid-90’s.

    • nozknoz says:

      I think EL Pleasures may be the only scent developed in the 1990s that I actually wore at that time.

      • Erin says:

        I like Pleasures *now* and was trying to search my memory to think if I knew anybody who wore it then and came up blank. It’s so bright and cheerful.

    • odonata9 says:

      Oh, Pleasures. I had a bottle of that too. And a friend had LouLou.

    • Erin says:

      So, you’re one of those lucky people who still had some original Champagne! (I have a buch of friends scouring eBay for a bottle…) And I love many musk perfumes, as well. I’m not particularly fond of the ultra-clean or linear ones, but I love the glow musks give to perfumes, and particularly florals.

  22. misschips says:

    Thank you Erin, a wonderful read. I graduated high school in 1998 and you’ve really brought on the nostalgia.

    I had a bottle of Gaultier Classique that made me feel so sophisticated and glamourous, like a movie star – everything from its sunset pink to the bottle itself and that ginger note, so good (remember Madonna in the Mainbocher in the Vogue clip?). I loved Gaultier so much I even bought a summer-release flanker, which I barely wore and have no recollection of its scent. After that I had a bottle of Sunflowers which I adored. In my early teens there were Body Shop perfume oils, Dewberry and Oceanus, both turned terrifyingly sweet on my skin, but I wore them anyway. I eked out miniatures of Tresor, Tuscany per Donna (still love this), Tribu (United Colors of Benetton), Salvador Dali’s Laguna, Guerlain’s Champs Elysees, and Dior’s Dolce Vita (yum! I really miss this, I haven’t found a bottle that smelled the same since). I seem to remember that a few of these came attached to magazines, so things were a bit more generous in the 90s it would seem. At school, all the cool girls wore either Exclamation! or CKOne and to this day I can’t stand either.

    • Erin says:

      Yeah, I can’t believe they reformulated Dolce Vita! So annoying. It was always a bit velvety for me for regular wear, but it was lovely. Glad to hear you still like Tuscany Per Donna, I’m looking forward to tracking some down. And one of the few other smells I remember from early high school/90s was The Body Shop White Musk. I almost mentioned it, but wasn’t sure if I got the right oil, because I smelled White Musks recently and it didn’t seem right (reformulation, too?!) So thanks for bringing up The Body Shop…

  23. samberg says:

    Why all the hate for Perry Ellis’ 360? Even Turin & Sanchez snubbed the massively popular 90s perfume that went on to spawn a dozen awful flankers.

    I loved it then, and I like it well enough now. Can’t say it’s aged much better than Beautiful or Sunflowers, but those at least get some retro love.

    • Erin says:

      You know, when I was doing some research, I found out 360 Degrees was by none other than Sophia Grojsman. And I found a positive review at I Smell Therefore I Am blog, so maybe I needn’t 2be embarrassed after all!

  24. nancyg says:

    In the ’90s I wore Calyx ( and had been since it first came out), Barney’s Route du The and a scent from L’Occitane called simply “L’ de Occitane.” I got it in Toronto at a shop near Yonge & Eglinton. I went through 2 or 3 bottles – it smelled like fig fruit. I never saw it anywhere else and no one seems to remember it. It has an ungoogleable name…

    • Erin says:

      Hey, Yonge and Eg! I work not too far from there – come visit if you’re back in the area, we’ll have lunch and smell like Calyx together. And yes, I hate those un-googable names, like “a scent by issey miyake”. Arg.

  25. Marjorie Rose says:

    Well, I was WAAaay too cool and anti-establishment to have anything to do with fragrance in the 90’s (graduated high school in ’96), and yet I can still recognize Angel from across the room!

    Actually, when I think about it, the only scent I remember my friends discussing (and I think this was much earlier) was Stetson! The girls would spray themselves with it to help them imagine the smell of being near a man, I think!

    I’ve yet to sniff Bois de Violette. . .I guess I’m behind the times!

    • Marjorie Rose says:

      Oh, and other than the ubiquitous grunge, my other association with 90’s fashion were the heroin-look models, with really thick black make-up around their eyes and super-skinny bodies! Ugh!

    • Erin says:

      That’s interesting about the Stetson. I wore a lot of men’s fragrances as a teenager – wonder if that was my motivation?! I don’t *think* it was. I always assumed it was because women’s scents were so often so sweet.

  26. nozknoz says:

    Interesting! This post is making me realize how chronically far behind I’ve usually been. For example, I love Bois de Violette and Gucci Rush but only discovered them in the last year or two.

    In the 1990s, I mostly wore perfume from the late 1980s or much earlier; for example, AG Hadrien and Heure Exquise – and what I wouldn’t give for the tiny rectangular bottles of Caron Tabac Blond and En Avion I had then!

    The perfume that launched in the 1990s that I’m sure I wore at the time was the emblematic EL Pleasures. I also bought some of the annual summer Escadas, but no idea which. I purchased Hermes Hiris and Dior J’Adore when they came out in 1999 or soon thereafter, but wore them mostly in the 2000s. I think I discovered Fresh Index Cucumber Baies and Pomegranate Anise in the 1990s. I still cherish a bottle of the late lamented Pomegranate Anise.

    • Erin says:

      Well, speaking of chronically behind, I’m answering my comments two weeks late. And there seems to be a bit of progression there: I was thinking when I was doing this post that EL Pleasures was in some ways the predecessor for J’Adore. They don’t actually smell similar, but they both have that incredibly radiant glow.

  27. mals86 says:

    I graduated college in 1990, got married in ’92, and promptly dropped *completely* out of the scent world until about 2008. I missed most of the 90s scents – I did smell cKOne and Sunflowers on friends, and my (younger) sister wore Dune, but that was pretty much it.

    So thanks for the walk through your 90s, Erin. I enjoyed it.

    • Erin says:

      Sunflowers does seem to be coming up a lot!

  28. bellemoon says:

    What a fun post! Let’s see, I was ten when the decade started…at that point it was whatever I could filch from Mom’s collection, generally My Sin, No 5, or a lavendar scent. Mid decade was middle school, I wasn’t too into perfume but I did wear Jean Nate. A LOT. 1997-2000, high school & college…..Tribu by Bennetton, Jean Paul Gaultier classique, the original Body Shop musk (this was in Denmark and either they sold and still sell a different version in the US than in Europe or they changed it because GAH its god-awful now), Obsession, Pleasures, Angel, Cartier So Pretty, Tresor, Organza, Allure….and the list goes on. About 1997 was when I really got into perfume, lol

    • Erin says:

      You don’t hear Cartier So Pretty mentioned that often, but it’s a lovely fragrance – and quite tasteful and unique on a high school student, I would imagine!

  29. eminere says:

    What a great article Erin, and that intro is nothing short of epic.

    • Erin says:

      LOL! Robin was surprised when I told her the other day that my M.A. thesis was one of the shortest my university/department had ever accepted. I’m so long-winded here. I guess I have more to say about perfume than about anything else ;)

  30. Subhuman says:

    LOL at Heart-Shaped Box being the “least danceable song of the decade”. The cool kids really, REALLY didn’t want to dance back then, did they? Nowadays you can’t turn on the radio without hearing the latest dance/R&B anthem with Euro synths and a pounding house beat straight out of Technotronic’s back catalogue.

    Great article, Erin, and you named three of my favorite scents (Angel, Black, and Rush), all of which I’ve discovered in the last year and a half. I wasn’t sniffing around fragrance counters as a preteen in the ’90s, so I’m late to the party with most of the decade’s hits, and what an exploration it’s been. The toned-down fragrance aesthetic of the ’90s is frequently disparaged, but there were some gems hidden amongst the mountains of bland, and you picked out some of the shiniest. (Mind you, I do suspect reformulation has made many of the ’90s bestsellers seem even paler and quieter than they did at the time. No proof, just a hunch. I’m almost positive that CK One smelled more interesting, and I’d bet that Dune had more fleshy countours as well.)

    • Subhuman says:

      Er, “world’s least danceable song”.

    • Erin says:

      Pump Up the Jam! Ah, the flood of memories. Imagine how much music like that must have pissed Kurt Cobain off. I see the jamming janitor from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in my mind…

      I would be completely unsurprised if Dune, just like the rest of the Diors, had not undergone a lot of trimming over the years.

  31. thenoseknows says:

    Best Fragrances of the 90’s…. That’s SO HARD! but i have a list of my own that i think makes some sense!

    5. Kenzo Parfum D’Ete…. Because in the storm of Sexy yet multisexual scents that came down the pike after the Tsunami that was Ck One… this fragrance stepped gingerly aside and paid homage to Sweet Greenness and Freshness and Sap like Delicay to be something that was ahead of it’s time and totally of it’s time… in no other time could a fragrance so light and lithe and blithe and breezy have made sense, but also because it did not ride the train of Multisexuality that Ck and Bvlgari Started rolling down the tracks… it got lost… i remember smelling it first in a scent strip in W magazine and Just… SIGHING… it was just bliss, Lemony but not Citric, Fresh but not Vague, Breezy but yet Musky… A Composition of Absolute BRILLIANCE and one that should be rediscovered by the Fragrance Cognoscenti Tout De Suite!

    4. Angel… Love It… Hate It… Burn it in Effigy… It set the world on Fire right from the Start and Created a Cult of Devotion worthy of and Old Guerlain scent! The First “Gourmand” scent with it’s notes of Chocolate and Caramel and Coffee and THAT PATCHOULI…. URGH it’s Sickeningly Cloying one minute, Disturbingly Delicious and Erotic the next… the Apotheosis of a Study in Contrasts it delivers an almost Visceral reaction from those who are caught in it’s mounumental Wake! Some run away from it in Sugar Shock Nausea while others are drawn to it like moths to the ever Immolating Flame, Heedless of what others think they only hear the siren call of Mr. Mugler’s Hypnotic creation And Crash Lustily onto it’s Disorienting, Doesn’t-Exist-In-Nature Purple-Bleu Shores!

    3. L’Eau De Issey…. How could a decade that gave us Tom Ford’s SEXBOMB Fragrances… Calvin Klein’s Neutering of Sexuality Fragrances… Mugler’s Assault on Good Taste… and Gaultier’s Tacky, Wacky Juxtapositions (Rice Powder, Vanilla, Nail Polish Remover and Orange in “Classique” and the Magical Elixir of Vanilla, Cocoa AND LAVENDER in “Le Male”) have also given us this Bottecelli-Like Venus-On-The-Half-Shell of a fragrance that seems like it emerged from the water fully formed and ready to conquer without any thought of if it would succeed or not… in fact, composition-wise it should have been doomed from the START! you have firstly, Quirkmeister Extraordinaire Issey Miyake wanting a fragrance bearing his name… then it’s called L’Eau De Issey, or The Water Of Issey… then with all that in mind, he usurps CK who proabably thought he cornered the market on Watery/Ozony/Aquatic Fragrances at the beginning of the Decade with “Escape” On No, Calvin…. Issey One-Ups you in a fragrance that would destroy all sense of convention and create a MASTERPIECE that is still a Holy Grail to some… Eau De Rose, Neroli, Cucumber, Water Notes, Peony… It shouldn’t have worked… With a little known name like Miyake behind it, It was DESTINED not to work, But… Oh How It Did! It proves the fact purely and truly, even with a little known name outside of fashion circles…. If You Build It… They Will Come!

    2. Tresor… Oh How I remember Isabella Rosselini Running down steps with her black tunic wafting behind her in those Lovely Peach-Hued Commercials of way back when… before Lancome Slapped us with any old face for an Ad (Remember Uma for Poeme… URHGH!!!!) although Anne Hathaway was DEVASTATING for Magnifique… the juice just wasn’t there… sadly… But Tresor… the Jewel of 1990… who would have thought after 20 years such a Unashamedly, Unabashedly, Unappologetically Romantic floral would stil captivate as it does through all the Vagaries and Vacillations of the Fragrance Industry! No Pink Pepper Here People… This is Old-Fashioned ROMANCE, Peach, Apricot, Spices, Amber, Osmanthus, Jasmine, all in a very EXQUISITE Art Deco Objet D’Art Bottle that was as Magical as the Scent! no matter what face shills this Deep Honeyed Peach Coloured Juice… it will Always Be Isabella in my heart and soul! and that this fragrance still sells as powerfully as it did in it’s blockbuster early days is a testament to that if the juice is TRULY Good… then nothing can stop it, and this people. is some of the best juice Around, if you’ve never let yourself be swept away or the Tart-Sweetness of this Elixir… then you don’t know what you’re Missing!

    1. Gucci Envy… Somtimes… Sometimes, A fragrance can be Ahead of it’s time… and other times it can be Behind it’s time… but then… just Rarely, as the saying goes, Like Lightning In A Bottle… A fragrance is Sublimely, Perfectly, ABSOLUTELY of it’s Moment In Time! and that my dears is Gucci Envy! When Everything was saying NO, Tom Ford said YES! and Tom was the DAMN KING OF YES, LOL, but when Calvin and Miuccia had us denying sex and Sorrenti and Kate Moss had us loving soft porn Heroin chic. TF came along and Delivered Us TO SIN! On a Lavishly Polished, Perfectly Chic Silver Platter Wrapped Up in Satin Shirts unbuttoned to the Navel and Red Velvet “Le Smokings” and Psychedelic Fox Chubbies! the whole of the fragrance world dismissed SEX until Tom made us all Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” for his Lush/Lusty Creations… Envy smelled Like Sex! But New, RICH, YOUNG Sex! and that was and IS the Genius of Envy… where when one thought of a Sexy Fragrance at that time it was Fusty, Spicy, Oppressive, Heavy, OLD! Certainly not, Fresh, Louche, Decadent, Rich, Fun, FABULOUS! But Envy is All that and More… it is a composition that really had Ford’s Sensually Smutty fingerprints all over it! and it WOWED! AND WOWED Some more… it is SEX IN A BOTTLE! it Just Feels Sexy, with just that Perfectly Polished Shine of Clincal Detachment that made that decade so Perverse! It in my mind is one of the top 10 fragrances EVER and i am putting it up there with Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, Scandal, Joy and others….

    So that’s my ideas on the subject… Thank You! :-D

    • sacre bleu says:

      re Gucci Envy: yes.

    • Erin says:

      Great list! And laughing at the “Burn it in Effigy” and the Damn King of Yes. I love Envy, too, glad it came up a few times.

  32. kizzers says:

    Nice post Erin!

    I often forget to look back on the 90’s, as it still seems like last week to me – but, wow! – sooooo long ago.
    The 90’s took me from age 19 to 29 – my years of having a disposable income, and this was when my addiction to perfume buying really got hold.

    Looking back, some of it wasn’t pretty !

    Safari, Polo Sport, Tommy Girl, CK One, Escape, Issey Miyake, Aqua di Gio, Happy, Tendre Poison, Dune, Sun Moon Stars, Baby Doll, Amarige, Organza

    Some 80’s behemoths got in there too : Lou Lou, Joop! Femme, Obsession, Tocade, Paris, Poison, Ysatis

    Now, I needs me some vintage Poison, and I’m going to go find Joop! Femme again (its a dupe for ELPC Amber Ylang Ylang).

    As for the men in my life at that time (only two!) – Kouros, Safari, Drakkar Noir – thankfully the one I married now has much better taste in man-fumes !

    • moore says:

      I don’t like Kouros, Safari and Drakkar Noir either,nor the fragrances that follows the same line (Azzaro, Animale, Santos…) but I like Dune, Happy, Oraganza, Amarige (for me, one of the best feminines ever) and Acqua di Gio.

    • Erin says:

      I love Korous! It’s so hard to pull off, though, and especially for men. There’s something very kitschy about it. Funnily enough, I think Tocade came out in the 90s (because I considered it for this list). But you’re right that it *seems* like an 80s perfume – it’s one of those throwbackers.

  33. Tom Smith says:

    God I LOVE your vignette of 90s teen culture in Canada. I was there too and, man, does this ‘review’ sound right.

    I remember my first “french kiss” was with a girl absolutely doused in CK One, and we listened to Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream.


    • moore says:

      I’m a Smashing Pumpkins fan!!! I have almost all their b-sides that are as numerous or more than the official discography and as much good!!!! I miss the original band, with D’Arcy and James Iha. It was like Pink Floyd, that only work with the full band… D’Arcy seems to be smelly, hahahah.

    • Erin says:

      Tom, I’m so glad you mentioned the Pumpkins, because almost the entire time I was writing this, the ice cream truck music of “Today” from Siamese Dream was playing in my head.

  34. Rappleyea says:

    I’m late reading this, but I wanted to say what a wonderfully written cultural and scent tour of the ’90’s! I loved it, but I always love your stuff. I have to admit that I haven’t smelled even one of the scents you listed. In the ’90’s I was already 20 years past college and wearing many of the same things that I had worn for years: classic Guerlains, Femme (pre-cumin), Givenchy III, Bal a Versailles, Je Reviens extrait, etc.

    And I agree with the comment you made above re the ’70’s – it *was* a serious time and I think disco was the release from the weight of flag burnings, bra burnings, and protests against the Vietnam war, not to mention the still smoldering race relations and Watergate!

    • Erin says:

      Thanks very much for your kind comments. Whenever anybody brings up disco, I feel bad for the 70s: com’on, people, every decade has its share of embarrasing silliness.

      And you had a much more beautiful smelling pre-millenium than me. Je Reviens extrait? Original Femme? Real taste never goes out of style.

  35. SmokeyToes says:

    I loved and wore Angel and Dune in the 90’s, Dune especially got a lot of love-I really liked the broom/amber note.
    I probably over-sprayed Angel but I was just out of college and had no idea what restraint was…..

    • Erin says:

      I sometimes have trouble picking the broom out because I kind of forget what it smells like. It’s an unusual note. I sometimes spray Dune side-by-side with L’Artisan Cote d’Amour, and it’s always an interesting experiment: they have some real similarities, but telling differences, too.

  36. fleurdelys says:

    The 90s was the Age of Calone, and although I wore Escape then, I can’t bear that aromachemical now. The real classic to emerge was Dune, which I only fell for a couple of years ago. It’s not characteristic of that or any decade – it’s timeless in its originality.

  37. Cindy says:

    CK one is still my favourite to go perfume. I was born in 90’s.

    • Erin says:

      Well, beyond all the clever marketing and trendiness, it was (and still is) just really well-crafted juice.

  38. niche says:

    I was a teenager in the late 90s and I started out with Clinique Happy and “borrowing” my mom’s Estee Lauder Pleasures. I loved Gucci Rush and it was the one of two perfumes I actually bought (other is RL Romance) but a teenage boy in one of my classes said it smelled like a Grandma perfume. In retrospect, Tom Ford would be crushed to hear that.

    >Did you go to UofT or Waterloo? Somehow your uni experience really really paralleled mine. I would add in really late at night chinese food delivery but the bbt, gaming and anime really hit the mark.

    • Erin says:

      But don’t you think Tom Ford might have a sexy grandma?! ;)

      Good call, I was at Waterloo – is that where you were? Though as my best friend (who went to U of T) once said: “We’re the same, it’s just you guys get away with wearing hospital pants everywhere.”

  39. barbara8 says:

    I am turning 33 next month so I was a teenager during the 90’s. My signature fragrance was Tuscany per Donna. I wore it since it was launch until 2002. Now it is discontinued, it brings a lot of memories so I don’t think I could wear it again, but i feel this perfume is part of my history, my mom and dad would give a 100ml bottle every christmas and birthdays…..Ahhh nostalgia…I remember the CK one madness, and remember when Angel and New west were launched. I also remember my cousin who is 9 years older than me falling in love with Feminite du Bois, she wore spellbound the time. In the early 90’s everybody( in my country, Portugal) was obsessed by vanderbilt….I liked Dune but because I was faithfull to my Tuscany I bought the shower gel…I have so many 90’s fragrant memories, I could go on forever…

    • Erin says:

      I like the idea of Dune shower gel! I might have to go out and get myself some.

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