4 Historical Perfumes You Need To Know And Try

Hundreds of fragrances are launched each year, but there are classics that will sell year after year due to a dedicated following and the allure of wearing something storied and legendary.
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Hundreds of fragrances are launched each year, but there are classics that will sell year after year due to a dedicated following and the allure of wearing something storied and legendary.

If you don’t know by now, I’m a perfume junkie. I can’t stop buying bottles, and I get them from everywhere: Marshall’s to eBay to Neiman Marcus. I wear all sorts of fragrances, from cheap thrills to well-known classics. 

I’m super-interested in learning about perfume--its history and development, identifying notes and classifications like chypres, gourmands and florientals, etc. The world of perfumery is fascinating to say the least.

Though hundreds of perfumes are launched each year, there are the classics that will sell year after year due to a dedicated following and the allure of wearing something storied and legendary. 

Here's short history lesson on a few of my favorites.

SHALIMAR

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Shalimar dates back to 1921 and has been in production by the house of Guerlain ever since. 

Jacques Guerlain created some of the most famous fragrances ever, including L’Heure Bleue and Jicky, Bardot’s signature scent. One day, he decided to pour a whole bottle of vanillin into Jicky, and Shalimar was born. 

It’s an oriental fragrance with notes of bergamot, jasmine and iris with a vanilla base. The word "Shalimar” translates loosely to “temple of love” in Sanskrit. Guerlain wanted to capitalize on the '20s fascination with the East; silent film stars were being touted as exotic vamps, women were wearing kohl on their eyes and Art-Deco style was taking off. So he took some inspiration from the Taj Mahal and a mythical garden and created his most legendary, oft-referenced perfume.

The fragrance is warm and sensual, especially as it dries down. To our modern palate, shaped by squeaky-clean florals, it might seem “old lady” at first, but trust me: try it out, let it develop and work its magic on you. (I tend to get the most compliments from older men when I wear classic fragrances like Shalimar.)

Over the years, Guerlain has fiddled with the original formula due to technology and ingredients that have become hard to acquire, but essentially, this classic retains its original spirit. Guerlain also released Shalimar Light, a fresher, more modern version with a lemon cream note, in 2004. It was replaced by Eau de Shalimar in 2008, and now both are off the market; I am on a constant thrift store hunt for Shalimar Light and hoard my tiny sample bottle. 

Another flanker is Shalimar Parfum Initial, which is rosy pink instead of amber and plays up the powdery note.

CHANEL NO. 5

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No. 5 is so famous and widely worn that you can probably name several people who wear it. My mom has worn it since I was a child and so does our “office Bubbe” where I work. (“I only smell like two things,” she often says, “garlic and Chanel No. 5.”) It’s arguably the most famous perfume of all time.

When No. 5 was created in the '20s, women typically wore single-note perfumes like rose or lily. Coco Chanel thought this was boring and wanted her fragrance to smell like a real, complex woman. 

Chanel’s perfumer, Ernest Beaux, gave her a handful of vials to test. She chose the fifth, which was serendipitous because five had always been her lucky number. She chose a magical, intoxicating blend of rose and jasmine with a splash of aldehydes. Aldehydes are compounds used to “lift up” a fragrance and make it sparkle. They helped take No. 5 from a floral bouquet into something modern, almost icy. 

Not much has changed since the original formulation; Chanel spends a great deal of money on its natural resources, including real, fresh roses.

To promote it in the early years, Chanel sprayed her shop’s dressing rooms with No. 5 and also gave out small bottles to her friends. Chanel kept the advertising, like the bottle, simple. Since its inception, Chanel No. 5 has had tons of memorable ad campaigns and spokesmodels, including Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tautou and even Brad Pitt. Marilyn Monroe made the perfume even more famous when she claimed all she wore to bed was a few drops of No. 5.

I wear its slightly younger-leaning Eau Premiere version, and each time I spray it, I’m enchanted by its place in fragrance history.

ESTÉE LAUDER YOUTH DEW

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We know Estée Lauder as a formidable cosmetics dynasty. They have their own line and the super-luxe Aerin, but also own Aveda, MAC, Clinique and more.

Estée Lauder wouldn’t have become the monolith it is today without the aid of Youth Dew, its first fragrance. You’ve definitely smelled this on someone in your life, and perhaps you find it old-fashioned; plenty of grandmas wear it. I’ve found it works really well on a certain body chemistry, including mine.

In 1953, Estée created Youth Dew as a bath oil to also be used as perfume. To get department stores to stock it, she “accidentally” dropped a bottle on the floor of one retailer. Women were instantly hooked and demanded to know where they could purchase it. Done!

Estée was smart in marketing Youth Dew as a bath oil; in the ‘50s, women didn’t buy perfume for themselves. It was given as a gift from a lover or husband. Bath oil was something a woman could buy for herself, and soon they were dumping it by the bottle into their water.

Youth Dew is also remarkable for its price point. To this day, a bottle retails for about $30, keeping it accessible. Its packaging remains adorably retro. 

Youth Dew paved the way for Estée Lauder to launch many, many more famous and influential fragrances, including Aliage, the gorgeous Private Collections, and Beautiful. (Andy Warhol loved Beautiful so much, he was buried with a bottle.)

When he created a collection for Estée in 2005, Tom Ford fiddled with Youth Dew and launched Youth Dew Amber Nude, which is less a leathery, spicy clove/chypre and more spicy, sexy sandalwood. This has since been discontinued, but it’s on eBay.

THIERRY MUGLER ANGEL

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Oh, Angel. I love you to bits, but many others hate you. You’re the most polarizing fragrance I own. One boyfriend loved it, the other loathed. It doesn’t matter, because I LOVE YOU. You were a lightning bolt in the fragrance world when you were launched.

Fashion designer Thierry Mugler launched Angel in 1992. It was groundbreaking for marrying a sweet, gourmand note of chocolate and praline with a giant bomb of patchouli, which simply wasn’t done. Mugler, whose designs were never typical or boring, didn’t care. 

Angel is sexy, sweet, loud and most importantly, infinitely wearable. A teenager can wear it, but so can an older woman. To some, it is vulgar. To others, it’s pure perfection. Part of Angel’s eternal allure is its “love it or hate it” personality.

The bottle is special too; it’s a (refillable!) star shape, and Mugler was told his idea would never work. It took two years to get it right. Apparently, a fortune teller had told Mugler that designing something in a star shape would make him a fortune, so he did. 

She was right. Angel was a massive success. It has since spawned a handful of flankers, a cologne version that’s equally delicious and even a hair mist.

Does your favorite perfume have a history lesson inside it? Do you wear any of these? Do you hate Angel?