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If you’ve ever deployed the wrinkled nose of disgust over a fragrance that elicits the ‘old-lady-perfume’ proclamation, you might be surprised by some of the factors that drive your response. This article attempts to shed some light on the modern relationship between smell and the living human body.

From an evolutionary perspective, smell has always been a profoundly vital tool in our survival kit. Our ability to smell has enabled us to detect the presence of others (friend and foe), to detect predators and prey, identify fire, water, sickness, infection, rot, blood, familiar landscape and viable food sources. Our sense of smell equips us with the ability to recognise family and tribe. Our ability to smell is part of our inbuilt GPS, our internal navigator. Smell has assisted sailors to detect land, healers to detect disease, babies to identify mothers, and conversely, mothers to locate their offspring. Mates crave the smell of their beloved, and hunters, tracking other humans or animals in the wild read much from the pungency of excrement and bodily wastes. Hormones. In nature, fertility cycles are marked by biochemical changes that occur within the body that are signified by fairly overt changes on the outside: a wide variety of body odours (some alluring, some repellent) skin texture changes, mood changes, food cravings, bowel and urinary changes, in fact a whole range of physiological symptoms that scream ‘fertile now’, premenstrual now’, ‘menstrual now’, ‘pregnant now’, ‘breastfeeding now’, and definitely ‘menopausal now’. Additional aspects of the fertility cycle also signify sexual arousal, sexual activity and even sexual illnesses such as inflammation, discharge and disease. All of which is fascinating and in need of a much bigger conversation, but it brings us to a familiar trope… yes, the “Old Lady Perfume” tag.

So what is that? Review of Aromatics Elixir: ‘while this is “a classic ‘Old Lady in a Bottle’ scent,” some readers say the fragrance is “something even my grandmother would have snubbed.” – Review of YSL’s Parisienne “Readers say this perfume “screams old lady,” is “not youthful at all,” and has a “dated fragrance.” The “musky” and “woody” scent also has a touch of “floral” to it, which reminded one reader of a combination of her “grandmother and trees.” and White Diamonds – “granny perfume that has been sitting on the dresser for 40 years.” Another reader who worked at Macy’s says the salespeople called it “the old lady scent.” “If you needed a gift for a much older woman, we sold you this!”

The derogatory ‘old lady perfume’ comment creates the impression that ‘old ladies’ were never quite as glamorous, as hip, as sexy or as beautiful as the current crop of pretty young things. This naive (and let’s face it, fairly arrogant) assumption astounds me. Old ladies know some stuff about fashion, about seduction, about love and life…. believe me. ‘In fact, a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour suggests millennials (1982-2004) are the least promiscuous generation since the 1920s, with an average of eight sexual partners in their lifetimes. The prize for the most promiscuous generation unsurprisingly goes to the baby boomers (1946-1964) with an average of 11 sexual partners, followed closely by Gen X (1965-1984) with an average of 10.’ (Hard, K, 2016).
So what does ‘old lady perfume’ smell like? Well, not usually so much like bubble gum, vanilla pudding and fruit salad, and usually a lot more like the sophisticated classic perfumes such as Chanel’s monster – the endlessly successful No 5, like Guerlain’s Shalimar, like Dior’s Diorissimo and Dioressence et al, like Patou’s Joy, Lauder’s Private Collection, YSL’s Opium and Ysatis, and the list goes on.
As economic rationalism clawed its fiscal agenda to the top of all our priorities, commercial perfumes and their precious ingredients became degraded, down-sized, diluted and just about all natural ingredients substituted with synthetic chemicals. It was no longer the inspired ‘noses’ designing our fragrances, it was the accounts departments boosting their bottom lines.
So…Old Lady Perfume? it’s merely marketing hype to snare the next generation of consumers into believing they need a fragrance that speaks to the here and now – so fast, so glitzy, so snap!. Sadly it’s usually a cheaper, nastier and more hazardous chemical concoction that, when whiffed, makes old ladies smile to themselves through the steam of their own hot-bod memories, with the elegance and humour of earned wisdom and maturity. Personally, I want old lady perfume to live on…. provocatively, stylishly, seductively, naturally, and, …by golly, I think I need a little nap. – TR November 2016 ©