Saturday, August 4, 2012

"[That perfume] reminds me of my great aunt and so cannot be seductive to me"

In the ever fascinating way people translate things into words that mean something else entirely, the popular topic of "old lady perfume" vs "older woman scent" has occupied these pages before with wonderfully thought-provoking comments from the readers. A belated comment however sheds a new light and I wanted to share it with you anew, alongside some thoughts of mine. See if you agree or disagree, feel free to drop a line in the comments with your own analysis, there can never be too many. So....what was it?
via, photo by Unseencenser
Cheryl Quimbly said: 
"Just stumbled on this topic a bit late. I always cringe at the term “old-lady perfume,” not because I see any problem with an individual’s association of a certain perfume to a given age group (younger or older). What bothers me is that in everyday speech “old lady” is *only* used condescendingly (oh! What a sweet little old lady!), or disparagingly: one would never refer to a colleague as an “old lady” (unless to ridicule her, etc.). As you pointed out, “older woman” is quite a different story--and probably far from people mean when they refer to old-lady perfume. If it is about a perfume that is not the latest trend, as others have pointed out, there’s a spectrum of more precise words to use, depending on the intention : old fashioned (not so interesting); retro (cool); classic ( highly respected); etc. As for an alternative to “old-lady perfume.” Hmmm. “Displeasingly old-fashioned/ Displeasingly out of style”? But I suspect people mean something else like "stuffy" or "too rich and complicated" or something with deep memory ties that is harder to encapsulate: "reminds-me-of-my-great-aunt-and-so-cannot-be-seductive-to-me." 

 To which I replied:

 Well, as you say, it's a term that is either condescending or disparaging, hence the trouble and sensitivity with it. If we used "old fashioned" (which does denote what most benign people mean) then we'd be far more comfortable. I'm sure "stuffy" does go into the equation too, as "fresh" (even when brandished for things which do not smell fresh per se!) is considered a positive term, uniformly in my experience when perfume consulting.

 Basically "fresh" is whatever is not "stuffy" (LOL) and by those terms we're not describing the actual literal meaning of the words but different "styles" and "trends" of perfumes over the decades (what was fresh 30 years ago is stuffy now and what is fresh now will become stuffy 30 years from now and so on...). It makes for one hell of confusion, especially among general folks who don't have the necessary vocabulary to analyse what they smell and what they feel (NB: I consider everyone's smell perception and feeling as 100% valid, I just think that some are more verbal-inclined or trained than others).

 But again as you point out perhaps there is something deeper than just "out of fashion" involved, which is why the term hasn't caught on. Most people buying perfume are still hooked by the whole seduction kit & caboodle and believe that perfume should be something to attract sexual partners (or at least be pleasant to potential sexual partners, even if there is no intention of actually making them partners in the act) so the association with something an auntie or grandmother wore all her life is too strong to break out from. I think you're definitely on to something with that remark you made! It makes total sense and explains the denial with which "positive" perfume (i.e. sex thang) is NOT associated with old people (i.e. for whom the generally held immature point of view is that their having sex at all is eww).

 It all boils down to sex again, doesn't it, which might also explain why the enmity towards women in particular! (classical target)


  1. E, if you need to delete this please do, but I wanted to show how "old lady" is super cool and this website which promotes women of a certain age in beautiful light!

  2. I think you hit the target as negativity towards women! Especially older women which at least in my culture once you go beyond your sexual attractiveness era are considered obsolete and invisible (which is total bullshit). Where as fresh=youth=ultimate sexual attractiveness time period for women in this culture and why does it always come down to this crap.

    On a bizarre note I think it is always interesting when a young woman shows a preference for a fragrances that is considered by some as "old lady-ish" (I don't support this perjorative term). I wonder if it is ever an unspoken signal of wanting to show some maturity in sexuality and person, well an undercurrent of it anyways. Let's face it our youth is not when we are our most sexually most mature in knowledge, wisdom, or satisfaction at least for wisdom I think this holds very true.

    Carol love the website

  3. Thanks Jena - I would love to know what perfumes the Advanced Style women (and men) wear!

  4. brie17:58

    The fragrances I wore in my youth (many chypres made with now restricted materials such as oakmoss and mysore sandalwood) always smelled fresh to me back then. Nowadays these "vintage" beauties are often met with disdain from non-perfume lovers (my co-worker who is the same age as I and hates perfume always tells me with much contempt in her voice that I smell like an "old lady" and she is "gagging on my perfume" when I wear anything that resembles vintage (even something contemporary like SSS Forest Walk or Nostalgie). However this same co-worker loves anything from Banana Republic, Hollister, etc who cater their scents to the younger crowd and all smell the same (clean and unisex,like CK One). I would be curious as to what will be "in style" thirty years from now :). I suppose it may depend upon the materials that are available given all of the IFRA restrictions in current years.

  5. Anonymous19:54

    I could care less what is in style, or on trend. I care about what smells good on my skin, and feels like me.

  6. Anonymous19:54

    I could care less what is in style, or on trend. I care about what smells good on my skin, and feels like me.

  7. Anonymous19:54

    I could care less what is in style, or on trend. I care about what smells good on my skin, and feels like me.

  8. Elena, thanks so much for your initial insightful post on this topic, and also for engaging so thoughtfully with my response!
    I’m going to have a look at the Advanced Style women and give everyone else a chance to speak!

  9. Anonymous20:58

    Since that's my photo, of my great-grandmother, my great-great-aunt, and my Diorissimo, I feel I should weigh in!

    I think there's two separate channels going on and you put your finger on both of them. One is that men who grew up smelling these fragrances on their mother or grandmother can't possibly find them sexy. If you think about it, that's got to be OK; pretty much any other answer would be rather disturbing, wouldn't it? :-)

    So many of us who are women smelled these classic perfumes on our mothers and grandmothers and absorbed, as if by osmosis, a love of the glamour and maturity they represented to us then. Why shouldn't the men associate those same smells with maturity and authority - and isn't it understandable that they might not find that sexy?

    At the very same time, however, there is something not at all respectful in the "old lady" designation. As if an old lady were the least desirable type of human on the face of the planet, in fact by definition repugnant. Oy there! Plenty of old ladies are pretty hot. While it's understandable if you don't want to have sex with your mom, you probably DID grow up wanting to have sex with her hot best friend, and don't pretend that the perfume that woman wore was repulsive to you then or would be now, either.

    There we're falling into society's general disregard for a woman who is no longer, to use the show business term, "fuckable". It reflects our society's tendency to disregard any woman no longer nubile and available. That's unfortunate, as many non-nubile, non-available women are plenty hot, and perhaps more importantly, they are intellectually appealing as well. They also have the resources and the developed tastes to be far more fashionable, more visually and aurally as well as olfactorily appealing, than a younger woman. So it's unfortunate to slap "old lady" as a label on all such women and try to shove them into the background of existence.

    Fortunately, an extremely good "old lady" perfume would make it very difficult to erase such a woman from life's stage!

  10. Carol,

    thanks for the rec,this is EXACTLY what I consider aging with sprits up! (OK, Zandra look-alikes excluded, as Zandra is one of a kind). I see many beautiful ladies and gents there and it's inspiring.

    (BTW, one of my friends is a woman who is 80. She is rather wrinkled in the face as a 80 year old should be, but she is slim, able-bodied, dynamic really, going about her business, maintaining good health, wearing smart clothes and very up to the minute with an eye for detail and appropriateness to occasion, has a lovely dyed do that isn't mannish or neglected, always wears a bit of makeup to give a polished appearance and the most important of all: she ACTS young. She doesn't dwell on the "good old days", saying how everything is ruined nowadays and how young people don't know shit. She actually loves getting company of the young, reads contemporary stuff, is informed and has a generally progressive open-minded outlook on life.
    I sincerely hope to grow up being like her! I admire her, I really really do.)

  11. Jen,

    yeah, it's astounding how much negativity is thrown on women, especially from other women it seems!! What happened to live and let live? You can't have a group of women in a room and not have half of them discussing the other half of them, often with some criticism included. :-(

    In my own culture we had two different sayings as pertaining to age and sexual attraction, the more interesting of which was (translating very loosely here): "The old hen is the juiciest!" (sounds wittier in Greek, I swear!) Women were considered a prime target sexually if they "maintained" themselves sexually (and plenty did from all accounts), regardless of maintaining procreation ability or not. But the globalization and Americanization of everything has brought with it a certain disregard for a real older woman, unless she "maintains" herself in a more glossy-page-standard image now. This is manifested of course more obviously on lifestyle magazines, but it happens a bit in real life as well, from what I witness, certainly to a larger degree than before based on what I saw as a small kid or got told from older women in my entourage.

    It's perfectly natural that anthropologically speaking beauty as a sexual compass is equated with some optimum child-bearing characteristics and it's proven through international/intercultural experimentation showing charts of "types" to men from other cultures/places etc. But man is a far more complex being than one that is intent on just spreading his genes, right? I think men are given such a short end of the stick in this, as if they only think with their gonads, when in fact I do know quite a few men in their 30s and 40s in real life who are discerning and would rather "bang" (pardon the expression) a smart, knowing, sexually confident woman in her 50s who knows what she wants and knows how to get it than a nubile 20 year old that is totally silly and nagging like a brat all the time ending up being tiresome. Emphasis on personality rather than age, I mean. ;-)

    I also believe that the advent of droves of gays in lifestyle & fashion press (and in designing in general) has lately taken a turn in a negative direction: I feel like some of these people hate women and want to ridicule them deep down. It didn't use to be like that in the past (look at how beautiful YSL dressed women and he was gay too, to name but one!) and don't know what changed in the interim. Maybe it's the stylists and fashion editors, rather than the designers accounting for that? Really don't know....

    In the end, I believe the whole "standard" of beauty/attractiveness sadly boils down to MONEY!!! There's money to be made by several in dictating to women (and men) what they SHOULD be wanting (As in articles "10 types of women you should bang before you hit 50" or "10 things men lust after in a woman's appearance") and in the products promising to accomplish them.

    I mean, it's fine to want to be beautiful, nay attractive (I'm of the classical ideal of "good in image, good in brains"), but we have to ask ourselves; Does this quest define us? Does there come a moment when it's all we're ever thinking about? Is it something which makes us feel good or ends up making us feel bad about ourselves? If the latter happens, then something is really wrong....hence all the botched-up plastic surgeries, the money down the drain on creams promising miracles etc. instead of a sane, logical, exhilarating, healthy regimen to make one feel good about themselves.

    As to perfume choice, as you succinctly put it yourself Jen, since it's a sort of a precious accessory that speaks louder than words and it can impart a mantle of something desired, why should the "more mature" mantle be considered a negative thing? Why should a woman (and a man too) only project her air-headedness to the world??? I just don't get it.

  12. Carol,

    as a dedicated reader, I think we should ask them to include that info in the future! *there's an idea!*

  13. Brie,

    I grew up thinking chypres are fresh too. They do smell fresh in our climate, swear to God! It's only natural that they were conceived in this part of the world, eh?

    I kinda feel your co-worker is acting on a bit of passive-agressiveness on your choices. Does she have other unresolved issues with you? If she has voiced the concern once and twice and three times and you haven't changed, to insist is not going to bring on change and going about it like that rather points to a general ennui rather than just distaste with someone's tastes. (sorry for the armchair psychology attempt!)
    Why don't you confront her with a shopping tour at the department store one day, as a camaraderie touch? Though I have to admit she sounds like JUST the person to profit of Burr's "blind test exercise" right now...

    In 30 years time we will be lucky if we have maintained any sort of olfactory sensory feedback from the environment. It's getting so sterilized that I am very much afraid. That, or conversely, as times are cyclical and possess a wicked sense of humor, we're going to have olfactory assault of the kind one can imagine when Googling "filthy India" (I dare you to do it!)

  14. Anon,

    spoken like a self-confident and smart perfumista. Well done!

    I guess as we grow older we stop giving so much attention to what other people think about what we're doing. I consider this a good thing. :-)

  15. Quimbly,

    thank you for responding and for making that thought-provoking comment you posted the springboard for even more thoughts on everyone's part!
    It's very interesting to see what's the line we cross or not cross on what pleases us (without hurting anyone else in the process of course) and how people respond to that trajectory we take.

    Thanks again for reading! (and the Advanced Style blog is good, inspirational even for when we get to be that age).

  16. Unseencenser,

    thanks for chiming in, I really think you SHOULD!!
    Perhaps I should have invited you to offer your view on this immediately, but I welcome your readiness to jump on the chance.

    Lovely photo by the way and lovely relatives. They must have been very pretty women.

    Your comment is encompassing so many aspects I would love to discuss in detail.

    Some thoughts/springboards:

    It's understandable that bonding a deep association between a certain perfume with one's mother/great-aunt/grandmother might render the perfume "non sexy" as in incestuous-leaning to a man's mind.
    But surely, that would be restricted to those few particular perfumes rather than a whole genre?? I get it hearing "I don't find No.5 sexy because I associate it with my mother who wore it all the time" but what is the fault of all the aldehydics on the planet to garner the same lumped response? Does a man's nose work by generalizing so accurately and so widely? (That would create a fascinating experimental scientific hypothesis!)

    Secondly, authority and maturity are classic sex triggers for many men (and women too; just think of all the professor-pupil scenarios play-acted for thrills or the officer-deliquent ones for the same reason). Authority in particular (and it's often accompanied by maturity in either mind outlook or age) is classically considered a powerful aphrodisiac.
    Why doesn't that click with perfume? It clicks with so many other fashion/design things.

    Thirdly, I delineated my thoughts on the "fuckable" status of women above. Suffice to say, I agree with your point of view 100% and consider this a scheme to rob people of their self-confidence & money. A non-self-confident human being is easier manipulated (Just try selling a used family car to a preening middle-aged man in search of "fuckability" points by using the terms "safe", "dependable", "perfect for your needs"). People end up viewing the products as an extension of who they want to be! I might be sounding like a Mad Men protagonist by now, but I think there's some truth in this.

  17. brie00:40

    E- you are right on the mark in that my co-worker has unresolved issues with many others aside myself (family/co-workers). Because we share a room as soon as she complains about something I won't wear it again and usually gift away the offensive scent. Hence, I have relinquished full bottles of vintage Cristalle, Pandora, AG Eau de Camille, etc,etc. I kind of know already what she likes/tolerates (no chypres,leather, orientals or anything too floral) so I try to stick with those fresher/cleaner/citrus/light scents but every once in a while I would like to wear my "old lady" stuff to work :)

  18. You've tapped into something that has very deep roots in Western culture and is related to the three stages of womanhood as sexual object, mother/madonna and crone. The last, or crone stage is the most problemmatic in that it has evoked fear and revulsion throughout the ages (think "wicked witch"). There is, however, another way to approach this stage, that of the wise woman as espoused by other traditional cultures. Time to rethink those fragrances! Great article.

  19. solanace18:27


    Please, stop giving your great perfumes away! Just tell your passive-agressive co-worker you've "barely dabbed", no matter how much Shalimar you have sprayed. Seriously, she will complain anyway...

    My husband always says the perfumes I like (usuallly the ones I love) remind him of his grandmother. It used to bug me. I was always searching for something else, in vain, as I like classical compositions, such as Joy or Amouage Gold. Until I realized it is good to have his grandmother's taste. She was an elegant woman. I relaxed, and today I'm very happy with my old-ladish ways.

  20. Anonymous22:15

    My favorite perfume is Pretexte by Lavin. They stopped producing this wonderful fragrance in the 1950's, so all I have are vintage, still the scent is perfect. I have been so inspired by this lovely fragrance that my own perfumes creations take on the old fashipon quality, such as my Tallulah B and Epione. Like any classic they last throughout the ages and like classic women they are just as elegant as Pretexte. Janelc

  21. Merlin23:21

    I find myself wanting to defend the term because it conveys something to me that I cant think how else to communicate.

    I have two friends in their 70s which is more than double my age. The one wears Malone's Lime, Basil and Mandarin, the other Lieu Ambree. To me, both are the antithesis of 'pld lady', they are both wonderful, kind, energetic and creative - and above all open.

    The term 'old lady', however, reminds me of Sylvia Plath's poem 'Widow'. One of the paragraphs goes like this

    'Widow. The dead syllable, with its shadow
    Of an echo, exposes the panel in the wall
    Behind which the secret passages lies—stale air,
    Fusty remembrances, the coiled-spring stair
    That opens at the top onto nothing at all….'

    Yeah, there are perfumes that remind me of that.

  22. Miss Heliotrope01:43

    Agree with the fact that "old lady" is shorthand for so many hang ups on sex & the value of women that it's silly.

    But I think it also shows the mainstream obsession with new. Whilst vintage & retro a big, they are still minority styles, and many people go for new versions thereof even while claiming to like vintage. As with homewares, shops sell new but old-looking stuff rather than people actually having to buy old.

    Saying a scent is old lady is also saying that something that has been around for so long is bad merely bc of that (which seems to be upside down thinking, but there you go). Instead of thinking it's a classic, bc people have loved it forever, they think it's ancient & should go (obviously, this happens in many other spheres too).

    In some ways this is how the Miss Dior cherie fiasco works: the name is classic, but old at the same time, so they try to make it new but keep the prestige & end up with a horrible mess.

    I do love how you discuss these things & let us play too.

  23. annemariec12:00

    I have enjoyed reading Elena's post and all the comments and don't have anything to add except that I love unseencenser's image of the two women and the Diorissimo. Is there a connection between the three? That bottle looks gorgeous.

  24. brie12:17

    thanks for your great advice-I do regret some of the bottles I gifted away :( Unfortunately my hubby also barks at some of my perfume choices as he has severe seasonal allergies and some of the classics can trigger migraines/nausea in him. To date I have been able to get away with essential oils to fragrance my world when he is at his worst.

    A few weeks ago I did "dab" instead of spray at work. And you are correct, my passive-aggressive co-worker complained anyway. I finally got fed up so I told her if she was that sensitive she might want to go to the doctor to figure out why, as one would literally have to have pressed their nose up against my wrist to smell what I was wearing!

    Don't listen to your husband-keep wearing those classic scents if you love them! When I was 15 I was wearing "old lady" fragrances because I loved them. One day in a ballet class another student who was in her mid twenties said to me "aren't you a bit too young for chanel no 5?" Made me uncomfortable at first but didn't stop me from wearing whatever I wanted in my teens and early 20s. If it makes you feel good. sexy. classy,youthful (whatever!) then wear it!

  25. I saw that many people linked the rose to the old lady perfume.
    And a lot of them say, I don't like this, it smells of old lady, 90% with rose perfume.
    But I think it is linked to a particular category of rose perfume that our grandmother wear, more similar to rose water than to a rose oil or rose absolute.
    An other thing that I think is that it is very difficult to remember smelling the actual all synth perfume the beautiful natural perfume of our grandmother.
    And if I have to think to the old lady of these days I only see that the wear horrible perfume.

  26. Anonymous22:59

    Thanks for the photo credit, and the compliment to my family! One interesting thing to me is that my great-grandmother (on the right) was considered the "beauty" in the family (in fact if I recall correctly she won some sort of a contest), but my great-great-aunt, on the left, looks like a lot more fun to me. I think she looks prettier, with that great smile!

    And to your great point:
    I bet for all the men who say "shudder, that cannot be sexy to me" because they equate the scent with their mothers and by extension authority, you could probably find at least as many men to whom it IS sexy for just the reason you say. I've met a lot of young men who are extremely turned on by older women/women of authority, and I suspect many of them would report a vast leaning towards whatever classic perfume was worn by *ahem* women of their mother's generation. (Keep in mind that nowadays, though, those young men's mothers wore Charlie. So does time pass for all of us!)

    To the same point though, I think you're assuming too much to think that men can distinguish that much between perfumes. I bet most men (let's say my age, fortyish), could differentiate (even if they didn't know the names) between something very aldehydish, which might remind them of Chanel No. 5 or whoever they know who wore it; something classic chypre-ish like classic Miss Dior; and perhaps one of the green perfumes of the 70s, some descendant of Vent Vert; and a modern clean fruitchouli. That's it. That's actually a lot of differentiation, if you think about it. So "like mother's perfume" or "like grandmother's perfume" covers a LOOOOOT of territory! Since you show my Diorissimo, it doesn't take much to look up reviews of classic Diorissimo and find responses that vary from "clean and fresh" to "too musky and dirty for me". I think perfumes that straddle lines among these broad categories cause confusion; but to the extent that a man (or a woman) who doesn't think much about perfume can differentiate, they're differentiating between categories, but associating those categories very broadly with generations, because that's what it occurs to them to do.

  27. Anonymous23:03


    I mention in my comment about the women (my great-grandmother and her sister); the Diorissimo was a vintage bottle I bought for myself for a special birthday, and the photo was to accompany something I wrote about investigating these vintage perfumes as a connection to these women who went before me, to whom I am incredibly attached. (I have no evidence anyone in the family wore Diorissimo - but I sort of hope they did!)

  28. annemariec12:07

    Thanks unseen, I have been enjoying browsing your blog. Those women look as if Diorissimo would suit them wonderfully.

  29. Brie,



  30. Maggie,


    You got a very important thing there: the "sage older woman", the savant. There's disregard for that nowadays. I wonder whether there ever was respect for that in western cultures anyway. As you say...

  31. Solanace,

    that's great actually, having an elegant grandmother is a blessing! Enjoy your lovely fumes!!

  32. Janelc,

    they don't make them like Pretexte they? Though there are a few very elegant fragrances that approximate that sort of ambience, that sort of glamour. I should review Pretexte sometime, it's a pity it's not more well known as it's such a gem.

  33. Merlin,

    there's definitely something powerful in the use of that term, hence it's so loaded.

    I hadn't thought of Plath to be honest and I don't think I had read that particular poem either. It does bring on a very powerful imagery.

    Old ladies (rather, older ladies) can be such lovely people when they don't forsake their spirit; that's the important garden to cultivate. ;-)

  34. C,

    that's a refreshing way of thinking about it actually and it makes perfect sense: Old is bad, new is good, let's bring on the new. Yup, makes sense especially in a fragrance market that renews itself every six months entirely! I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's perfectly logical.

    It's a shame that it makes old favorites of younger people (things they might have smelled on their older peers/relatives) harder to track...

  35. A,

    it's a lovely photo, hence my borrowing it.

  36. B,

    "aren't you a bit too young for X?" That line used to mean something else entirely. That X was the forbidden, the mature mystifying thing, the one which was reserved for those in the know, the seal of growing up, like whiskey, lipstick, sex adventures etc. Now seems to have evaporated in thin air along with many of the "glamorized" things of maturity.

  37. Giovanni,

    there is definitely a specific "rose" version that smells "older" rather than young. It;s pot-pourri like to my nose which makes it seem dusty and musty and like it hasn't had an airing for too long, like someone's house who isn't able to clean it thoroughly, so maybe that's the connection? There are for sure rose perfumes which are very youngish (Cinabre by MCG for instance! Or Nahema!)

    I don't get what you're saying about older women wearing horrible perfume nowadays (as opposed to before?). Specific examples to cite maybe?

  38. Unseen,

    you're welcome, it is a good looking family! (the right one looks more conventionally pretty, though the left one seems full of life and positive energy too while being pretty too).

    Thanks for getting my point. Yup, I think those men aren't too vocal about their liking, perhaps. Maybe it's considered a sort of pussy-whipping if they do? Who knows.

    It's interesting to think that men distinguish scents that way. Perhaps it's true for most men, need to put this into an experiment. But there's a valid point there.
    In regards to Diorissimo especially, the old version and the parfum especially did exhibit dirtier notes (civet) so it's not far off the truth, though I can see that the "translation" to the wearer/tester has more to do with associations than actual perception of ingredients. (If one is extra sensitive to any hint of "dirt" or not, I mean)

  39. A and Unseen,

    it does look like these women would enjoy Diorissimo a lot, though perhaps they're from a slightly older generation who in their youth wore something more daring and flapperish?

    Just a guess. :-)

  40. Giovanni/ fragrancescout22:53

    oh yes, you probably have found the right connection. I think rose is one of the youngish and also of the more masculine scent. but many people link rose with the grandma.
    about horrible perfumes i say this about the very sad reformulation trend. the woman have to wear perfumes that are only shadows of originals.

  41. Anonymous04:48

    It's true. Great-grandma turned 20 before 1920, so goodness knows what she wore while setting her cap for beaux!


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