Perfumes / Reviews

Whiffs of the Past

Iman for YSL in Vogue Paris, February 1980

When you wear a perfume long enough, the mere suggestion of it brings back a flood of memories like a Proustian madeleine.  As I have progressed in my collecting of scents, I decided that I would revisit the ones I wore when I was a teenager into my early 30’s.  I placed orders for three: Calyx by Prescriptives, Aromatics Elixir by Clinique, and Aromatics Elixir Limited Edition Reserve also by Clinique, formulated to celebrate the original’s 40th anniversary.

Keep in mind that I came of age in the 1980’s, when trends were big, colorful, and loud.  MTV ruled the world, and rubber bracelets, lacey florescent pink gloves, legwarmers, Keds, and penny loafers were the accessories du jour.  Iman was among the supermodels that made it big at the time along with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Claudia Schiffer.  It was all about big brands, brash advertising, and the beginning, I believe, of the wave of luxury marketing aimed at the middle class that we are still reeling from today.  Can’t afford a Chanel suit?  Buy Chanel No. 5.

I went to Stuyvesant High School here in New York, and as many of you know, most of the student body at Stuy is comprised of over-achieving Asian American students, some born in the US and some recently immigrated.  We all tried to keep up with one another, not only with our grades, clubs, and competitive sports, but also with our fashions.  Perfumes became one of the ways we tried to assert identification with a crowd or clique, while trying to remain singular.  Here are the scents I remember from those days: Vanilla from The Body Shop, Colors by Benetton, Calvin Klein’s Escape, Obsession and Eternity.  Even the guys wore scents, like Dior’s Fahrenheit, Chanel’s Egoist, Drakkar Noir.  And we wore these perfumes TO SCHOOL.

Calyx by Prescriptives

Calyx came out in 1986, and was designed by the great Sofia Grojsman (Estée Lauder’s Beautiful, YSL’s Paris, among many other classics).  I don’t recall how it made me feel when I was 16, but as I wear it now, I smell fresh innocence.  The fruity notes of peach, melon, and raspberry remind me of summers spent running around grass and trees, eating at picnics on freshly cut grass.  The rose, jasmine, and lilly smells make me think of the times I would crouch down in my mother’s garden to sniff at the marvelous creations of nature.  The earthy basenotes of moss and patchouli explain to me why I love those accords today as a grownup.  Now, as I smell it on my arm, it is as energizing and uplifting as I could imagine it was for me when I was studying for my SATs and kissed guys for the first time.

Clinique's Aromatics Elixir

When I was a junior in college, I lived in Paris as part of Wesleyan’s program there.  I rented a room from a very nice French widow named Bernadette.  She was big boned and wore her gray hair short, and invited me to dinners with fascinating people that lasted for hours and hours.  There was nothing glamorous about Bernadette or her 12th Arrondissement apartment off the Avenue Daumesnil (land of old ladies and little dogs).  What I loved about her though is how she smelled whenever she left the house.  I was always too shy to ask her what she wore, but I remembered it and for years after I searched and searched for that smell.  I found it in Aromatics Elixir, which I now know is a classic chypre, comprised of a citrus top note, floral middle, and basenotes of moss and musk.  Chypres were among the first class of perfumes created in France by Coty in 1917, and it remains one of the most popular scent formulas in the world.

I wore Aromatics throughout my 20’s and early 30’s as I set out in the world on my own because it made me feel sophisticated and powerful.  I have been a francophile since I was at least 10 years old, and my association of the scent with Bernadette and elegant French ladies allied me with a world that I wanted to be a part of, whether anyone else knew it or not.  And that is the thing I have learned about perfumes: it really doesn’t matter how it smells to others, as long as you aren’t wearing too much of it and you don’t smell like a sweaty plumber.  You wear it for you, and everything it evokes.  The perfumes you love say BE WHO YOU ARE, WALK CONFIDENTLY IN THE WORLD.  And so far, I’m listening.

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2 thoughts on “Whiffs of the Past

  1. What a wonderful memory of Bernadette — and a wonderful lesson. I’m new to your blog, and looking forward to reading more!

    • Thank you so much, Natalie! I just started the blog this week, and I am grateful that a seasoned blogger like you was able to react positively to experiences that are, to me, very intimate and personal memories. But I guess that’s why we love perfumes. Have a great night!

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