Something Borrowed

I can’t take credit for the idea for this post. I borrowed it (because borrowing, like imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery) from Yesterday’s Perfume, one of my favorite vintage perfume blogs. Yesterday’s Perfume recently wrote a post called What Would Your Life Look Like Measured Out in Perfume. It prompted me to take my own trip down memory lane. Since I continually buy perfumes that I grew up with in an almost-obsessive attempt to recapture the happiness of earlier times, I created an olefactory timeline of the important perfumes in my life.

Pink and Pretty by Avon – The first of many figural perfume bottles I owned from Avon, and my first fragrance memory. I got it for Christmas when I was in kindergarten. The bottle was shaped like a girl brushing her hair. Pink and Pretty didn’t seem to be around very long before it was discontinued. This bottle was the only one I had of P&P. Most of the other Avon figural bottles I had were filled with Sweet Honesty. I had them all lined up on my radiator cover in my bedroom, which was also Pink and Pretty (I had pink walls, a pink bedspread, and a pink canopy). P&P reminds me of the magic of my childhood Christmases. Today I keep trying to find it on eBay, where a reasonably full bottle continues to elude me.

Aliage by Estee Lauder – One of the fragrances that my mother owned. My mother had a lot of perfume bottles on her dresser, but I don’t remember her wearing any of them. I don’t think she was really into perfumes. These bottles must have been gifts from other people. My mother had the solid perfume compact of Aliage. It was shaped like a button, and therein lay the appeal. I used to open it up and sniff it. Once I put a tiny little dent in it when I wanted to try it, but except for that, I never helped myself to the perfume. I still have that compact. Although the solid perfume has shrunk and dried up, the dent is still in it.

Arpege – by Lanvin. Another bottle on my mother’s dresser that she never used, I did help myself to this one. A lot. My mother actually had two bottles, vintage from the 1950s or 1960s (though they weren’t vintage when she bought them), that I frequently dabbed myself with. Somewhere over time, these bottles got lost, or perhaps were discarded. I wish she still had them. When I purchased a new bottle of Arpege to recapture those memories, I was shocked to discover that new Arpege is nothing like vintage Arpege. It lacks the (animal-derived) aldehydes and ambers of the original. Although the new fragrance is more politically correct, it’s nothing like the original. It’s not even an acceptable substitute. Needless to say I don’t wear new Arpege, although I found a “designer imposter” fragrance oil from a high-end fragrance oil store that more closely resembles vintage Arpege than new Arpege does. If this fragrance oil can clone the original formula, why can’t Lanvin?

Love’s Baby Soft – by Love’s. This was the first fragrance I chose for myself, rather than receiving it as a gift. I was in 7th grade. My friends and I used to go “downtown” (what we called the main thoroughfare in our town) on Saturday afternoons and “hang out.” We always stopped at the 5 and 10. I bought my first bottle of Love’s Baby Soft there. From that time on, my mother gave me Love’s Baby Soft for Christmas instead of Avon perfume in the figural bottles, because I was much too grown-up for them now. She always gave me a boxed set, sometimes containing a rollerball perfume, or the powdered bath mitt. Shaped like an oven mitt, you hit yourself with it – hard – to get the powder to dispense. Love’s Baby Soft was my signature scent throughout 7th and 8th grade. I still remember the jingle from the commercial: “You can love hard, or you can love soft. Soft will get him every time.”

Jontue – by Revlon. My first “grown-up” perfume when I moved on from Love’s Baby Soft. I bought it during a school trip to New York City during Christmastime (I lived on Long Island). I bought a boxed gift set containing a purse-sized bottle of Jontue and a soft-sculpture angel ornament. Though I used up the bottle of perfume rather quickly, I still have the ornament. Jontue was my signature fragrance in high school. I bought a bottle of Jontue a few years ago out of nostalgia after not wearing it for 25 years. The fragrance still takes me back to my bedroom (the pink one), reminding me of how I would apply it in front of my dresser before leaving for school each day.

Anais Anais – by Cacharel. This is the first fragrance that I remember my mother actually wearing. I was in high school, and we had stopped by the perfume counter of our local department store one day. She tried it on and liked it, but she didn’t buy it for herself. So when the wife of one of my parents’ friends called, needing recommendations for a gift for my mother, I told her she liked Anais Anais. Sure enough, this lady gave my mother a bottle of it. I used to spray myself with that too. That bottle still sits on my mother’s dresser. It’s the only bottle of perfume from my childhood that she still has.

Charlie – by Revlon. I didn’t wear Charlie growing up, though I was very familiar with the sassy commercials featuring the Charlie Girl. Who wasn’t? This was yet another perfume that my mother owned, and only the second one that I remember her wearing. And she wore it a lot. Though she didn’t start wearing it until I was in high school or college, she really loved it. It got to the point where everyone in my family would give her a bottle of it for Christmas or her birthday, and she didn’t mind. One year someone bought her the Charlie powder shaker. Though she doesn’t really wear it anymore, I bought a bottle for myself a few years ago. Now I wear it a lot.

Norell by Norman Norell. When I was eighteen years old I had no idea who Norman Norell was. But I was gifted with a bottle of his classic Norell fragrance by my mother’s first cousin. Her name was Eleanor, but we all called her “Toke,” a nickname given to her by her husband. It was short for “Tokyo,” because Eleanor was so beautiful and exotic. It’s not politically correct these days, I know. But really, she was beautiful, the Norell woman personified. Even in her Seventies, when she gave me that bottle of my first really chic perfume. It might have been too fancy for me at the time, because I never wore it. But, as is my history of perfumes, I would often take off the cap just to smell it. Sadly, I probably threw my bottle of it away at some point in my life, most likely during a house move when I purged my bedroom of stuff I couldn’t be bothered to take with me. When I bought a bottle of it last year, it didn’t smell as good as I remembered it. Like many other classic perfumes, it was probably reformulated at some point. But I still think of Toke, who has since passed on, whenever I wear it.

Laura Ashley No. 1 – by Laura Ashley. There was a Laura Ashley boutique in my town growing up. When I was in high school I had to attend a wedding. My mother took me to the Laura Ashley store and bought me a dress. Knowing now how expensive Laura Ashley dresses were, I feel so fortunate that she got me a dress from that store (it was pink – can you tell I really loved pink growing up?). While we were in the Laura Ashley boutique, I sprayed myself with Laura Ashley No. 1 and immediately fell in love. The whole store smelled like it. Years later, the girl who lived next door to me worked in that shop while she was in high school. She said part of her job was to go around the whole store and spray LA#1. But I didn’t buy LA#1 for myself until my freshman year of college. With a little disposable income and a lot of new-found freedom, I treated myself to the smallest purse-sized spray bottle of LA#1. I wore it in college and beyond. It’s long since been discontinued, and bottles of it are selling on eBay for over $100. But I still have two bottles of the parfum that I bought in the early Nineties, when I could finally afford to buy LA#1 for myself. But I’m being really miserly with them. Like I did when I was a child with my mother’s perfumes, I take the caps off and smell them, but rarely spray myself with them.

Paloma – by Paloma Picasso. This was my signature scent during my last year or two of college. It was the Eighties, and Paloma was a relative newcomer to the world of fragrance. In high school I would see ads for it in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which I eagerly perused each week for beauty and fashion articles (I LOVED their annual Fall fashion edition). Paloma was more exotic and sophisticated than any perfume I wore before. Even the bottle was chic. Now when I smell it, I have flashbacks to 1987.

Chanel No. 5 – by Chanel. Chanel No. 5 was yet another fragrance my mother owned by never wore. I’ve never purchased it for myself, but one Christmas, my late father had given me and my sister each a bottle of Chanel No. 5. He was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and was living in a nursing home. Yet he was able to buy my sister and me a present. It’s a testament to how classic a fragrance Chanel No. 5 is that my father, who like most men didn’t know anything about perfumes, knew Chanel No. 5. Perhaps he remembered my mother had it. I wore Chanel No. 5 until the bottle was empty, and I never wore it again. Smelling Chanel No. 5 evokes in me a mixture of nostalgia and sadness, because it reminds me of the time when my father was ill. It’s simultaneously beautiful and depressing. I can’t wear it anymore, but I’ll always keep the empty bottle as a reminder of the last gift my father was able to give me. And when I take off the cap, I still detect a faint trace of Chanel No. 5.

Amazing Grace by Philosophy. One of the first fragrances that I tried from the new “niche” beauty companies that sprung up in the mid-Nineties, Amazing Grace is the only one that I still wear. It’s fresh and light, which is what made it so unique when it was first launched. It makes me feel good when I wear it. If I’m feeling down, it’s strangely comforting. I can’t put my finger on exactly why that is. This is the only perfume that I’ve worn as an adult that I’ve gone through several bottles of. It’s the “youngest” of the perfumes that I still wear on a regular basis. Although I’ve purchased more recently launched perfumes, none of them have made enough of an impact on me to become a regular part of my fragrance repertoire.

There are many other fragrances that remind me of the past that weren’t as definitive as the ones I listed above, many of which I’ve also bought for myself as an adult. I have memories of buying a boxed gift set of Heaven Sent by Helena Rubinstein for my mother. I also bought her a bottle of White Shoulders by Shalimar because she had mentioned she liked it. When I tried it for the first time, I was appalled at how heavy and sickeningly sweet it was. It’s one of the few perfumes my mother had that I didn’t like, and I still don’t like it. Every Christmas for years when I was in junior and senior high school I bought some form of Chantilly by Houbigant for my aunt. I can’t remember if it was because she really liked it, or because I did. My aunt had her own fabulous collection of mini perfume bottles from the Sixties, such as Chanel No. 5, Joy (“the costliest perfume in the world”), and Patou, all neatly arranged on the mirrored perfume tray on her dresser. I once spied an unopened, still shrink-wrapped bottle of Tigress by Faberge in her linen closet. I’ve never tried Tigress. I wonder if my aunt still has that bottle?

I feel fortunate to have grown up with some of the truly classic fragrances, given to me by the important women in my life. It gave me my love of perfume. So what if young women today might consider them to be “old lady perfumes”? Sadly, many of these perfumes have been reformulated, and not for the better. And the new perfumes being launched these days are a dime a dozen. I would give all of my still-nearly-full bottles of Juicy Couture, JLo, Moschino, Aqualina, and Victoria Beckham for just one half-empty bottle of vintage Arpege. The memories they evoke, not just of my life, but the people in it, are invaluable.

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