Perfume: on smelling your age

Yves Saint Laurent Paris advert

Are certain perfumes better for people of certain ages? Short answer: no. Aside from toddlers smelling like they’ve emerged from a bordello (and I believe Pampers has avoided this faux pas so far), no. 

That said, some fragrances definitely ring the bell of a particular time in life, and it pays to be aware of the vibe your fragrance puts out. Since trends have buffeted perfume just as they have hairstyles and hemlines, women who hit their stride during a certain era might still cling to a scent that was fashionable then, even if they’re otherwise up to date on style.

For instance, aquatic fragrances were all the rage in the early 1990s. Women who still wear Issey Miyake Eau d’Issey smell squarely middle-aged to me. A waft of Yves Saint Laurent Paris is a tip-off, too, that its wearer came of age in the late 1980s, early 1990s (I know Paris launched in 1983, but am I wrong to think it became more popular later?). Estée Lauder Youth Dew, so popular in the 1950s, says “I get the honored citizen discount.” Chanel Coco Mademoiselle is the mark of a woman at the age when she’s stopped getting all her furniture at Ikea and is getting ready to buy her own condo.

Then, of course, certain notes don’t so much tie to an era, but seem to read as a particular time in life. Powder equals youth — or extreme age. Lily of the valley and orange flower feel young. Gardenia and tuberose smell lush and more experienced. Sharply aldehydic florals hover in the “mother” stage of the classic “maid, mother, and crone.” On a man, tobacco smells older. But, really, does any of this matter?

One of my coworkers has a tee shirt that reads “Authenticity is always in style.” That saying applies to perfume, too. Be true to yourself. If you love Youth Dew, and you’re 15 years old, run with it. (Look at what dressing as a senior citizen did for the Style Rookie.) If you’re a full-grown adult who masterminds corporate takeovers for a living, but you adore girly girl, pre-teen types of perfumes, then wear your Love’s Baby Soft proudly (or upgrade it to Lorenzo Villoresi Teint de Neige — heck, you have the money) and keep them guessing. If my perfume were an accurate indicator of my age, I'd be pushing 90 years old. In fact, I've been 29 for several years now.

What do you think? Do particular perfumes remind you of certain ages? Do you wear fragrances that might be considered favorites of people of another generation than yours?

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81 Comments

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  1. galbanumgal says:

    The ones you point out are right on the money. Today there was a woman at the gym, late middle age, wafting a strong laundry musk scent that I couldn’t place.
    Though I know different-aged people like Tresor, that’s another middle-aged corporate scent to me (a former boss wore it often).

    • Angela says:

      Oh yes–those laundry-musk-heavy fragrances like Clean scream “2004” to me.

  2. juicejones says:

    I wore Youth Dew in High school and loved it. The whole youth market thing that took off with Charlie and Baby was still a few years off. Even Yardley”s Oh! de London, sponsoring The Monkees, was marketed toward the youth market, but the juice wasn’t particularly young.
    I liked the old days when scent aspired to many things, none of them youth.
    To quote the late, great (make that fabulous! ) Marcia Wallace: “Don’t look back, we’re not going that way! “

    • Aparatchick says:

      Love that quote! Reminds me of Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

      • Angela says:

        …which in turn reminds of Lao Tsu’s saying (and I’m going to get it wrong, but here’s the idea) “We’ll end up where we’re headed.”

    • Angela says:

      That quote is terrific! But I do think the past can be used well, too, when you’re conscious of what you’re doing.

    • juicejones says:

      All great quotes! I guess my point was lost to my pith. I think it is fine to chase your own youth, just don’t chase someone else’s

      • Angela says:

        Now THAT’s a definite quotable line in and of itself!

    • AnnS says:

      juicejones: I do occasionally think about this also – when I was young, I was aspiring to be “older”, eg., Joan Severance, Isabella Rossellini, Jacqueline Smith, etc etc. 70 & 80s beauty icons. Or even a magnificent plder “worldly” woman like Sophia Loren. I was not aspiring to be 16! I find it sad that the way things are going, to quote Absolutely Fabulous: if the models get any younger, pretty soon they’ll be chucking fetuses down the catwalk.

      • Angela says:

        Someone should do a book of Ab Fab quotes. I’d buy it.

      • juicejones says:

        How I love that! Thank you.

  3. stinker_kit says:

    “nothing will kill you faster then living in the past” Andrei Codrescu

    • Angela says:

      Great quote! I think the key is to be aware of what you’re doing. I love old things, but I know they’re old, and I try to appropriate their wit, beauty, and usefulness, without taking them for granted.

  4. Aparatchick says:

    Diorella will always say 1974 to me because that’s when I bought my first bottle. It was probably “too old” for me at the time (I was barely a teenager), but I loved it then and love it now (though that devil, reformulation, has certainly changed it). I think there are many scents that are both of their time and timeless – good for any age!

    • Angela says:

      Diorella is such an oddball, that to me it’s timeless–but then, there’s not a particular time in my own life that it points to.

  5. AnnS says:

    It’s a fun essay on fragrance and age. I suppose my own feelings about it are peculiar. I see the age of about 21 or 23 to be the mark for getting an idea of what kind of woman you want to be (and trying a lot of smells out). However, I fell in love with Coco when I was 18, so there you go. I wanted a bottle of Je Reviens when I was about 14 (because it just seemed so French and so elegant, as it was/is!, to my European bent mind. And it smelled good!). My mom said no, too mature, and I’ve finally just scored my first vintage bottle of Je Reviens this year.

    I agree that if you like it, you should wear it. There are just so many reasons why we like a smell. I like to think of fragrance as more of an invisible fashion statement. It’s more of how and when and where you wear it, than what you are actually wearing. Perhaps that’s why we all think of our frags as part of a broader, personal “wardrobe”.

    I think the most “mature” fragrance I wear must be No 5 or Habanita. My most “not mature” fragrance I own is Skin Musk. I *actually* wore Perfumers Workshop Tea Rose during the bulk of my teens, and I still wear rose solifores to this day. I don’t like sweet fragrances, and I never have. I wear fragrance for apsirational reasons, and if right now I’m shooting for a 40-ish (proud of my age!) lady who would live in Europe, quiety, with lots of good art and food and quality people around (and not a frazzled working mom who get’s to play My Little Pony in the evenings), then that’s what I’m shooting for.

    • Angela says:

      I love the sound of your aspirational perfume! So, what are they? I could stand to smell like that.

      (As for My Little Pony, there are plenty of fruity florals on the market to fill that niche.)

      • AnnS says:

        Right now, aspirational to me would be something composed, elegant, owning up to the life led. Anything not chaotic or fly by night. I’m wearing No 5 a lot these days, but Coco always fits my bill. Amouage Memoir woman, which I’m wearing in the winter; Mitsouko, always; anything like No 19, Safari, Chamade and any of the old Guerlains, etc.Things that seem to have stood the test of time and come from a more composed, reflective, thoughtful age. I suppose really well composed orientals, and classic chypres. My aspirational “want” right now is Amouage Beloved, which I think straddles, remarkably, chypre, oriental, and green. I wear small bits from my decant when I need proping up.

        And, speaking of MLPies… I’m looking at the pony/unicorn whatever figures my daughter has and I’m wondering why MLP has *not* developed a kid fragrance/bath line yet….

        • Angela says:

          I’d love a bottle of Beloved, too! A very kind person sent me a few mls, and I greedily used them up pronto. So lovely.

          You’re right about the My Little Pony bath line. A real missed opportunity!

  6. Cybele says:

    I have always worn perfumes that were much older than me. I started with No 5 when I was 11. With 20 I wore Opium and then for the longest time Halston and Cristalle of course I loved the era and fashion they reflected. Recently I had the thought that it would be very chic and contemporary to wear Paris and moreover original Poison again. On the other hand, I do find a certain chypres somewhat “old lady” although I do love the genre. What confines me to an age group I guess is that fruits in general are tough for me but I had already entirely skipped the 90ties aquatics as well and only became interested again with appearance of Gucci Envy, Rush and the Comme des Garcons.

    • Angela says:

      Oh, I can see it–the time for Poison has come again. Worn just a touch tongue in cheek, it would be a great one.

    • AnnS says:

      I do like Envy – it smells so fresh and green, like a cooling rain. But I’ve never got into the aquatic fragrances either.

  7. Laurels says:

    I tend to associate scents with people, rather than demographics. (That may be because I came of age in the ’80s, in a cloud of Tabu, and later Opium, so that I didn’t much notice the smells of the hoi polloi.) For instance, lily of the valley is my mother, and ladylike florals (i.e. EL Private Collection) are my great-grandmother. (The stench of B vitamins is another great-grandmother, from whom I first inherited the Tabu, and now the B vitamin smell as well.) Lavender used to be my great-grandfather, but I’ve been losing that association as I smell more lavender perfumes.

    • Angela says:

      It’s so nice to associate scents with people–especially when they bring thoughts of someone you love. And you’re right that Tabu is the great hoi polloi crusher!

    • Carolyn says:

      I have mentioned this here before, hopefully not to the same person: an old friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, wore Tabu when we were all young, free & single in the mid 1970s – one of our group christened it ‘instant brothel’ (in a good way!) & I never see it mentioned or sitting on a shelf with it bringing memories of my friend Diane flooding back. At that point I was wearing Fidji, Opium & Miss Dior, while the other friend in our triumvirate wore Dorothy Gray’s Midnight – given we were denim clad rock chicks, & from my more knowledgeable viewpoint today, our fragrance choices were extraordinary!

      • Angela says:

        Oh, wow! You three were something fabulous.

  8. Uday Parfoom says:

    Great article. Suffice to say, if I elaborated any further on this subject, I’d only elicit comments such as: ‘you cretinous youth, you wear *that* to class??’

    • Angela says:

      Now you’re making me think of Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School,” when he said, “I’ll see you when I got no class.”

  9. Coumarin says:

    I have a lot of fun being an early 20’s man who loves perfume. Though my mom doesn’t like me smelling of L’Heure Bleue (“You smell like an old lady!”), it’s a lot of fun.

    I guess because vintage clothing is a lot more expressive for women than men, I like finding vintage perfumes and making it part of the outfit. It’s a rare day I feel like using a rare drop of My Sin, but I love it. I also get loads of compliments on Mitsouko and Aromatics Elixir. I think my more conservative self would live in something Jean Claude Ellena.

    • Angela says:

      I bet My Sin smells fabulous on you! I didn’t discover My Sin for myself until I was a lot older than you are now. And Mitsouko and Aromatics Elixir! Nice.

    • AnnS says:

      I think it’s great that you wear Mitsouko. There are a lot of richer women’s fragrances, esp. the classics, that would totally work for a man. Even the reverse can be true: some mens fragrances are good for women even, more restrained. I particularly like the Parfums de Rosine Rose d’Homme and Amouage Gold for Men.

      • Angela says:

        Lots of the Hermes scents are great, too.

  10. JolieFleurs says:

    Well, I started on Joy when I was three, and the first perfume I bought with my own money was Opium at 19; I am now 50 and Love’s Baby Soft and Baby Soft Jasmine are still in my rotation. I guess I am just a hot Southern mess! :P

    Tabu is one of my faves, for its scent ( which I adore) as well as the memories it blesses me with. So many dearly loved women in my family wore it, and memories are all I have left of them; thank God for a powerhouse that can do that!

    Awhile back, the Posse had a sort of Frankenfume post, daring us to wear a bunch of Titans at once and report back. I wore Tabu, Party in Manhattan, Secretions Magnifigue, Opium and I think Mitsy all at once.

    Tabu whooped all they butts. Handily. That is serious PER-fume right there. Yes ma’am.

    • Angela says:

      That’s hilarious! Maybe when the Love’s Baby Soft runs out you’ll start your way up the ladder, again.

      I am so not surprised about Tabu. Not one bit.

    • poodle says:

      Love’s Baby Soft rocks. I still love that stuff too.

      • Angela says:

        The jasmine one is nice, too.

      • bookwyrmsmith says:

        Me too.

  11. 100mlEDP says:

    Jovan musk is one of my guilty little secrets ! (34yo male) and I also love Aramis and the original Polo for men . My collection is extensive with many reformulated classics both male and female , old and new . There is nothing like a squirt of something from yesteryear to make you feel like you are a member of the most exclusive club on the planet . I fact it’s kind of a running (serious) joke I play with myself, I’m like…. hey did u know I’m rocking No 22 today and I smell fantastic . I don’t care one little bit, I know that someone out there will enjoy my glorious trail of aldehydes, incense and powder. The only person I aim to please with my fragrance is me.
    Great post , thank you .

    • AnnS says:

      I was recently at a reception and lucky to be talking with an interesting executive woman in banking who lives in Manhattan. I almost could swear that she was wearing Tauer’s Une Rose Chypree, but I was too embarassed to ask a total stranger. It is a wonderful thing for a perfumista/ister to smell something great on someone else out in the world. It gives me hope for others and their noses! That’s great you wore No 22!!

      • 100mlEDP says:

        Ohhh, I would have just asked with a sincere compliment added. If you had guessed correctly I bet you would have made her day. I love it when u guess someone’s SOTD and there totally amazed that you would even know, them not even realising the amount of perfumes that have been past our noses.
        I have a 200 ml of 22 so it sure gets plenty of skin time, it’s highly complimented. It just blows my mind that I can wear a fragrance that was released in 1922, as I said above a member of an exclusive club !

        • AnnS says:

          That’s one of the reasons I love classic fragrances too – there is such a history there to wear something so enduring. I am always sad that 22 never quite works for me, though I’ve tried over and over. I *almost* can wear the new edt, but it’s never become FBW. That’s great is suits you so well – it’s not common at all! It is a very exclusive club!

          • 100mlEDP says:

            Thankyou AnnS, I enjoyed hearing your experience and well done for repeat attempts.
            She is not always easy to get along with. I always apply with my arm as far away from me as I can, and I hold my breath ;)

          • AnnS says:

            ;-) good tip! There are a few frags I have that I can only apply on my wrist, and then “run away” as it’s drying. ;-)

    • Angela says:

      I love Jovan Musk for Women. (Jovan did a knock-up job, really. Too bad you don’t see much of them these days.)

      And now I’m craving some No. 22…

      • Waldina80 says:

        Jovan Musk for Women is the signature scent for our office accountant. I trail behind her sniffing away !! Smells divine.

        • Angela says:

          How terrific! Somehow I don’t think of it as an accountant’s scent, but that makes it twice as alluring.

    • sweetgrass says:

      I have a little bottle of Jovan Musk that I picked up for next to nothing at Walgreen’s. I found it on a clearance shelf and thought it was $5. Turns out that was the pre-discount price, so it was only $2.50!

      • Angela says:

        Don’t you love deals like that? The Alyssa Musk oil is good, too, if you ever stumble across that one.

        • sweetgrass says:

          I don’t know if I’ve seen that one, but I’ll definitely check it out if I come across it.

  12. sweetgrass says:

    I’m going to be 35 in September, and my collection is kind of all over the place, so I’m not really sure what it would even mean to “smell my age”. My age smells like L’Ombre dans L’Eau today, FWIW.

    I graduated from high school and started college in the late ’90s, but I skipped the whole ’90s aquatic thing. The one real scent memory from high school that I have is this absolutely vile apple lotion from Bath & Body Works that it seemed like every girl had. It had sillage to rival the grandest monstrosity the ’80s could’ve thrown at us.

    • Angela says:

      The BB&W apple thing reminds me of how much I loved Victoria’s Secret Tranquil Breezes–an aquatic, if I remember right–back in the day. Man, I thought that stuff was the cat’s meow.

    • Kelly says:

      Haha – we’re the same age! Yes – Country Apple I believe! also – BBW’s Sun-Ripened Raspberry and VS’s Pear Glace were all the rage amongst our high school kinfolk along with Gap’s Om, Heaven, and Dream (I still have a soft spot for GAP Grass to this day, but I digress….)

      • Angela says:

        So much fruit! (I used to love Grass, too. And who wouldn’t after all that fruit?)

      • sweetgrass says:

        YES! Country Apple! That seemed to be the one everybody had. I don’t really remember smelling a lot of perfume in my high school otherwise.

    • Kelly says:

      Lastly – I remember the scent of 1998 being overwhelmed Clinique Happy – a sillage monster as well, but a rather cheerful one. I still like it on others, although my taste is running closer to Calyx now.

      • Angela says:

        Oh yes, Happy was big. I see a lot of it in thrift shops now.

    • AmyT says:

      I’m of a similar age to you. We didn’t have BBW in Canada back then, but Oceanus and Satsuma from the Body Shop were everywhere. And cK One. For my part, I was wearing CK Eternity and Escape.

      • Angela says:

        You can tell Oceanus and Satsuma are ’90s scents from the names alone!

  13. My Mom, (62) wears Paris and it doesn’t to me smell dated at all… smells Like something a Woman her age and with her life experience would wear with utmost Ease and Confidence… the fragrance for a woman that no scent can overshadow for she has lived so much a life that her presence is what is noticed first and not her scent. I think Paris is Exceptionally Beautiful and in it’s own way, still very Modern.

    • Angela says:

      I’d like to meet your mother! She sounds wonderful (and certainly smells that way(.

  14. rtenbrink1 says:

    Now that I am turning 40, I love the fact that I am wearing perfumes like Paris and Poison that I remember my mom wearing her 40’s- makes me feel like I may finally get to be as much of wonderful lady as she is.

    If you just remember the classics, give them a try again…

    • 100mlEDP says:

      Beautifully said .

    • Angela says:

      Perfume can often be more successfully resurrected than fashion. That’s for sure.

  15. Nile Goddess says:

    It is also a matter of the women in our lives and what they wore.

    For me L’Air de Temps and Anais Anais = women in their 80s and older, namely my Gran, may she rest in peace.

    Women in their 70’s = Opium, Rive Gauche, Je Reviens etc which is what Mom wore when I was growing up. Eau de Soir, La Prairie, Poison and – sorry Angela – No. 5 have a similar vibe to me.

    Women in their mid-50’s 60’s = Eden by Cahcarel, D&G Femme, Poeme de Lancome, Tresor, Samsara, Beautiful, Envy.

    Women in their 40’s – Obsession, Contradiction, Truth (cK golden era) Gucci Rush, the original Gucci, newer Poisons, Calyx, Chanel Allure.

    Women in their 30’s – Infusion D’Iris, Palazzo, Theorema, Light Blue, Coco, Lolita Lempicka, Chanel Chance, Les Jardins d’Hermes

    Women in their 20’s – Flowerbomb and its spawn, Diesel, La Vie est Belle, Juicy Couture.

    Fragrances that no one around us ever wore are more difficult to place, ageless sometimes.

    • Angela says:

      Nice list, and thoughtfully put together! I had lots of “ahas” when I read through it.

    • Merlin says:

      Well judged. I’m in my mid 30s and I have 3 of the perfumes mentioned for women in their 30s – and none of the others!

    • Oakland Fresca says:

      Then I am one for the ages–specifically in my 30s, 50s, 60s and 80s. Strangely satisfying. Thanks for your post!

      • Angela says:

        I bet quite a few of us fit that category–or lack of category!

  16. annemarie says:

    I wore Paris is the late 80s and that feels to me like the peak of it popularity. I used to save the magazine ads. How I loved those beautifully groomed women and their bunches of pink roses. I thought of myself as a serious girl but Paris must have satisfied a romantic streak I did not know I had. Looking at those ads again it strikes me that there was something a bit retro in the models’ styling, a throwback to the 1940s almost. That would fit with the rose violet accord that referenced cosmetics of an earlier era.

    Great post, thanks!

    • Angela says:

      I loved the ads, too. They really were romantic–almost with a touch of Moulin Rouge (the movie) about them.

  17. james1051 says:

    One of the (few) advantages to being new to fragrance is that it all is new. Its pretty rare for me to recognize a fragrance on others, and so the only reaction I have to it is whether I like it or not, and most often, I do.

    • Angela says:

      So you can come at perfume fresh! That really is a gift.

  18. AmyT says:

    Funny story re: YSL Paris: I wore it in the classroom one day a couple of years ago, and as I walked in, a large, tattooed football player type caught a whiff and insisted I tell him what perfume I was wearing so he could get some for his girlfriend!

    • Angela says:

      He had good taste, that football player! A romantic at heart, no doubt.

    • AnnS says:

      About 10 years ago, I had a librarian colleague who would go mad and nearly sprial-cartoon-like-cross-eyed, tongue waggin’ crazy if he smelled Paris on someone. If you even teased him that you’d wear it (to work, etc), he would nearly cry from the agony of it. He said there was just something in Paris that made him mad with desire for whoever was wearing it. I’ve never seen anything like it!

      • Angela says:

        That’s such a hilarious image! I’m laughing. (Also, I don’t have any Paris in my perfume cabinet, but I did put on some Eau Suave for the roses, at least.)

  19. Carolyn says:

    I posted a comment in response to ‘Laurels’ mentioning Tabu – I should have read further down the page to get further mention of this iconic perfume, so I hope anyone interested will have a look.

    I seem to remember wearing Diorissimo (leftovers from a dear aunt) when I was 19, then Miss Dior, the original Oscar de la Renta, Fidji, Opium & Bal a Versailles by my early 20s. I’m now a huge fan of ‘green’ fragrances, having worn Fresh’s Enact/Cucumber Baie, AG’s Eau de Camille (still my favourite of all time, now sadly discontinued) & Penhaligon’s Bluebell (despite Turin & Sanchez’s scathing one word review!) over the past 15 years.

    • Angela says:

      Wow. Bal a Versailles in your early 20s shows that you were olfactorally precocious, for sure.

      Don’t worry about the Turin & Sanchez review. I’m sure they’d cheer you on for loving Bluebell. One of my favorites, Alamut, they give a two-word review to: Hideous Oriental. So don’t feel bad.

      • Carolyn says:

        Thank you for the compliment, Angela – don’t know about being precocious just think I wanted to smell different to everyone else, which I succeeded in doing then & still do, amongst my group. Believe Turin/Sanchez used the word ‘repellent’ about my beloved Bluebell!

  20. AnnieA says:

    Might be too late to ask on this thread, but the Paris references reminded me that a colleague wanted a rose perfume suggestion, since her old favourite, Paris, seemed dated to her now. Any nice, big roses out there as a replacement?

    • Angela says:

      Oh, Jessica knows her rose fragrances inside and out. Have you looked at the “25 rose perfumes every perfumista should try” post? It’s on the right hand column of the page. It might have some good suggestions.

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