Some perfumes the minute you put them on feel like you've slipped into a pair of black satin slingbacks or a silk peignoir in ivory. Oscar by Oscar de la Renta had felt that way to me for the better bulk of my adult life. In fact I used to adore the way it smelled on my mother, no stranger to spectacular perfumes, such as her favorites Cabochard and Dioressence.
The original Oscar (1977) is a remarkably complex perfume, quite attenuated in its current formula compared to the grand dame that was the vintage juice from the 1970s and 1980s, which shows a remarkable kinship (and debt) to Coty's L'Origan and Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue. For this reason, but also for the way it extrapolates past and fuses it into the future, beyond mere nostalgia, it is of great historical value to see what makes it tick.
Oscar de la Renta's original perfume: a complex composition
In many ways the introduction of Oscar by Oscar de la Renta on the market in 1977 meant a revival of the floriental bittersweet genre that the two classics had paved after many years of inertia. Despite L'Origan being formulated around perfumer's bases (i.e. ready made blocks of "smells" composed for perfumers skirting the issue of reinventing the wheel each time), both the Coty and the La Renta perfumes are resting on a basic chord of carnation (the spicy constituent eugenol is a key component of the perfume), orris, violet (methyl ionone), orange blossom and ambreine, all ingredients in about equal measure but for the ionone (which is doubly dosaged compared to the rest). Jean Louis Sieuzac, the perfumer of Opium (YSL), Farenheit, Bel Ami and Dune (Dior), sure knew a thing or fifty about how to create a frisson of excitement!
The floral heart however is particularly complex in Oscar de la Renta: the jasmine core (resting on both hedione and Jessemal), with rose, hyacinth and ylang-ylang included as well, produce a particularly sweet floralcy. The tuberose fragrance note is the mule's kick; purposeful, corrupt, expansive, can't miss it. Accessorizing notes of heliotrope, coumarin (the tonka bean note), musk ketone, benzoin and opoponax give a resinous, powdery and sweetish character that veers both compositions into the floriental genre (In fact L'Origan can be claimed to have historically introduced the genre in the first place!). The heliotrope and "powder" with a contrasting top (anisic in L'Heure Bleue, spicy in Oscar) are the basis of the tension that is so compelling in the Guerlain perfume as well. It's not hard to see how both can be memorable.
The addition of Vertofix (woody note close to cedar) in Oscar provides the woody background, with a small footnote of sandalwood and a mossy base reminiscent of the famous Mousse de Saxe "base" popularized by Caron. The powdery character is further reinforced through the resinous orris note and the mossiness. This contracts with the fresh top note comprising citruses (orange, bergamot and mandarin), basil, linalool and a fruity accord.
The above review pertains to the original composition which was prevalent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, somewhat attenuated due to "corrective surgery" (aka reformulation), Oscar is less smooth, with a harsher feel that doesn't lure in the way the vintage did, and less of its tuberose kick; in a sea of fruity floral sameness it retains some of its retro vibe, but it can come across as somewhat dated rather than wow, though the drydown phase is pretty good still. Lately the Oscar de la Renta house shows encouraging signs of picking up with its Esprit d'Oscar fragrance and its more "exclusive" collection of Luxuries fragrances, so I'm hopeful that where the botox failed the new generation fillers might prove successful. It remains to be seen.
The perfume's imprint
The progeny of Oscar de la Renta itself isn't without merit: Loulou by Cacharel (1987) owes a debt to the development of its tuberose and oriental notes to Oscar's floriental formula. The side by side testing of both gives an interesting glimpse into the intertextuality that is perfume creation; quotes of past things are happening in later perfumes all the time. Vanderbilt (an American classic from 1981) is also influenced, a sweet floral with white flowers in the heat (honeyed orange blossom, jasmine), heliotrope, vanillin, abstract woods (provided by aromachemical Iso-E Super) and musk in the base and a contrasting citrus and green fruity top note, but with no spice and very little coumarin or ylang-ylang to speak of. The contrasting nuances help make the perfume memorable.