As a beauty writer, Grace Timothy is sent a lot of new perfumes as they launch. She interviews the industry’s top noses on their latest innovation, and each year she brushes up on which notes are set to be en vogue, yet the ones she actually buys for herself are nearly always old.
Like fashion, perfumery is always evolving, pioneering new trends and the niche antidotes that buck those trends with something unexpected. And yet, surrounded by all these exciting new fragrances, the ones I actually buy for myself are nearly always old.
Because for me to get stuck into a scent, it doesn’t matter how rare the blend or how fashionable its base notes are, it’s got to make me feel something. And that usually happens when it’s connected to a loved person or memory.
Maybe it’s because my mum was an aromatherapist when I was young, and taught me to seek comfort with my nose. We inhaled lavender essential oil when we felt nervous, dotting it onto our pulse points during tension headaches, adding in frankincense for stress or geranium for the blues. It was a first aid kit for better mental health, shared in a safe huddle of soothing aromas, just us two.
But it’s old perfumes that I take comfort in now. Familiar scents come with an associated superpower, whether it’s renewed confidence or a sexy sophistication that belies the fact I still don’t actually own a set of matching undies. Perfumes can make me feel like I’m home, even in the most remote, hostile places.
Researchers call this the ‘Proustian memory effect’ – because Proust wrote in his book, Remembrance of Things Past that smells could bring childhood memories flooding back in a flash – and recent studies have shown that this comes into play when we go perfume shopping.
“Fragrances that are associated with a memory or person are more meaningful to us and more emotionally salient,” explains Dr. Rachel Herz, professor at Brown University and author of The Scent of Desire, “Therefore we like them more because they connect more to our lives.”
It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you felt safe and protected in your mother’s arms, her perfume will give you a similar sense of armour. You can feel grown up and capable wearing something you associate with someone who is grown up and capable.
My mum always chose perfumes that were a bit flashy and flamboyant. Even when the trend for clean minimalism dominated the 1990s, her vibe was still: the richer, the better.
First there was YSL Paris – heady and vivacious – which launched the year I was born, 1983, and even looks like my mum back then, dressed in coral-pink and black with gold accessories. There was always Chanel No.5, which doesn’t just summon up my mum but so many of the strong, glamorous women I knew as a child, and of course, Marilyn Monroe. It’s now what I reach for when I need to ace a meeting or face a fear. Then there was Miss Dior in the summer, Fracas for the theatre, and my dad’s Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet. That one’s special because it’s about both of them, together, and knowing he’d arrived home in the middle of the night after months working away, because I’d woken up to that woody scent.
My favourite though, was YSL Rive Gauche - hip and bohemian in the 1970s and kind of nostalgic by 1990, but no less chic. It’s still laced with the buzz of waking up on Christmas morning and wondering why Santa wears the same perfume as my mum. It takes me straight back to her frothy auburn perm, her oversized Joseph cardigans and an armful of thick bangles jangling, as she bounced me gently on her lap. I can see mascara tubes softening up in a sink of hot water, puffs of perfume scenting the bathroom’s steam, her almond-shaped fingernails tapping on the pine dresser as she picked out a lipstick. It’s the promise of something glamorous about to happen. Wearing it makes me feel as sophisticated and excited as she looked on those Friday nights.
Today, that collection of bottles on my dressing table is like a little chess set of supportive players, each one standing ready to help me make my next move. And even though many older perfumes have been subtly altered over the years, often to replace ingredients that have been restricted, they still hold more magic for me than the most ground-breaking perfumes of today.
Beyond the memories attached to them, the scents themselves have an innate sense of style and amped-up glamour. My favourites are mostly full of sparkling aldehydes, a synthetic ingredient discovered in the early 20th century, most famously showcased in Chanel No.5. Maybe it’s them, the ‘diamonds of the perfume world’ – that have me rapt. “Aldehydes seem to make other ingredients shimmer or vibrate, so that it sits high up in the nose when it is inhaled,” says perfumer and perfume historian, Roja Dove, “It quite literally lifts your nose up.” Aldehydes are used less nowadays in perfumery, “Perhaps,” says Roja, “because more interesting synthetics continued to be discovered and perfumers like to experiment and take things in new directions.”
Ultimately, that’s what I love about these perfumes – they don’t try to fit in or to be cool, they’re just perfect little relics that have definitely still got it.
OK, so sometimes I’ll smell like your Gran. And the bottles aren’t necessarily #shelfie friendly, they’re a bit last century. But I’m happy in that century, with my mum, Marilyn and the old-school classics.
Main image: Getty