Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Estee Lauder White Linen: fragrance review & history

Would you appreciate a fragrance that projected around the way knitting needles would stick inside your nostrils, the equivalent of a scent porcupine? The "needles up the nose" characterization has never found a more apt bond than the one spontaneously created in the mind of one perfume lover on the board of Perfume of Life years ago regarding White Linen. The phrase has since entered the online perfume lingo as a casual but evocative definition for the painfully sharp, supremely stinging feeling that certain perfumes heavy in aldehydes (i.e. synthesized molecules with a "bright", soapy and fizzy aspect), such as this particular Lauder perfume, produce in those who smell them.

White Linen is possibly among the most distinctly aldehydic floral fragrances of all time, an honor it shares with Chanel No.22, but whereas No.22 goes for the snuffed out candle waxiness and smokiness (which recalls incense if you glint your head just this way), White Linen, its American counterpart and about 50 years its junior, goes for the steam of an iron pressing on a crisp, starched shirt which has been washed with the harshest lye soap on earth. In short, memorable! (You'd never mistake it for "white noise fragrance")

White Linen was launched alongside Lauder's Celadon and Pavilion in 1978 as part of the makeup and scents collection "New Romantics" (in itself influenced by the music trend that was just emerging). Composed by Sophia Grojsman, White Linen bears her signature style of impressive cleanness projected via loudspeakers fit for a Guns n'Roses concert. For a Russian emigre Grojsman has acquired throughout her career a particularly American ideal of femininity, no doubt thanks to the exigencies of the American giant of aromatics who employs her, International Flavors and Fragrances; well scrubbed, athletic, spick & span, Athenian rather than Venereal.

1993 print ad
Coming on the heels of the sporty leathery Azuree, the bitterish chypre perfume Private Collection and the bright and soapy-smelling aldehydic Estee, it's not difficult to see how White Linen also fits in the canon of Lauder and in the zeitgeist of the late 70s, when women began to make a career of executive positions and started in earnest to 'bring home the bacon, fry it in a pan' as one commercial* of the times claimed.

Although ubiquitous and always in production since its launch, without any detectable changes in its formula, it's one of those fragrances that fly under the radar, so I am archiving White Linen in my Underrated Perfume Day feature. Its monolithic structure (built on huge single blocks of materials, much like later Grojsman oeuvres such as Tresor by Lancome) White Linen packs a punch.
But the aldehydic knock-out comes with an astounding discovery: the aldehydes contribute just 1% to the formula, with equal parts of Galaxolide (synthetic clean musk, garlanded by at least 3 other synth musks) and Vertofix (giving a cedar wood note) accounting for almost half of the ingredients! The secret is that unlike most other aldehydic floral fragrances it lacks the modifying, mollifying caress of bergamot and ylang ylang.

late 1990s print ad

1986 print ad
A fresh rose core, so fresh that it borders on cleaned-up orange blossom, bring a kinship of White Linen to Calandre, while the overall genealogy brings it as a modern classic that derives from Madame Rochas and Chanel No.5. The sheen of squeaky green lily of the valley boosts the sharp cleanness, the sparkle of hedione brings luminosity and vetiver gives its own freshness and subtle woodiness alongside a powerful amber note. The latter two elements give White Linen a touch of sophistication which could tilt it into unisex territory.

White Linen is a powerful, titanic Aurora and although it is removed from what I (and many other people) find comfortable, I can't fail but to admire its guts and its blinding brightness, white-washed like a house directly carved out of white volcanic rock in the Aegean.

*that's actually the slogan for Enjoli. 

The advertising photos are all so charmingly appealing that I decided to include them all. 

1978 print ad


  1. White Linen is a perfume I've considered purchasing more than once, especially when considering something new for spring, but I always talk myself out of it. It's just too much for me, although I do like it and have tried it on at the a Lauder counter many times. It makes me think of a woman who lunches at the country club and wears lots of gold jewelry - image culled from the late 70s ladies who lunch - just not me at all. And yet, it is appealing.

  2. With its brilliantly soapy-clean character and sharp vetiver (it seemed to be composed almost entirely of vetiver and roses), I always thought White Linen was entirely unisex, and I unhesitatingly wore it, a lot, in the mid-eighties. I have no idea what it smells like now, but back then it was amazing.

  3. Miss Heliotrope00:04

    Advertising people dont spend much time in farm yards in reality, do they? Geese? In perfume?

    Mind you, the earlier hair styles & outfits are scarier than a gaggle of geese, which is a wonder.

  4. Ingeborg01:12

    My sister has been wearing both White Linen an White Linen Breeze. It is strange to see your take on White Linen, since I often associate my sister's chioices with something slightly muted and with moderate sillage. Given that we both entered higher education in the 80s and actually liked many of the loud perfumes back then (I still do, apart from vintage Opium) perhaps it is not so strange after all? Skin scents are an alien concept to me, somehow.

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  6. My mother used to wear White Linen and I remember getting her a bottle of it for her birthday was the first time I bought a proper perfume. I think it was when I first started to appreciate what perfumes can bring. After that I started to wear Estée Lauder's Pleasures and remember feeling very sophisticated!

  7. Maria10:27

    Funny, I'b never think of White Linen as an underrated thing, but then it's my aunt's all-time favorite, so I'm probably biased. I gave her a flanker on her birthday once, it was a big date and I was a classic penniless student - that was my first proper perfume purchase. White Linen suits my aunt perfectly, though she's not as-picture-glamorous... She and perfume definitely share something, strong but refined and polished personality, probably. There's also a nice play between rather sharp perfume and her soft voice and manners... Perfect match. Words don't do justice to both of them.

  8. Wow! Visual blast... from the past! The ad copies with the colonial vibe are really cool and convey the feeling of this fragrance very well but in an unexpected and intriguing setting. They almost make you think there is a scenario behind them. The blue picture on the other hand while nice, seems empty of any meaning or feeling and features the worse specimen of postmodern balustrade I have ever encountered. The architect's point of view is sometimes filled with horrors invisible to normal eyes. Postmodernism really was a trashy movement...

  9. Rosarita,

    your words sound very much like how I feel: I really admire this sort of thing, though it doesn't feel "me" at all. (In the context of soapy aldehydics I prefer Estee the way it used to be and also the darker My Sin). WL is just too sharp for me. And yet, I can't deny that it's a very impressive and very appealing concept.

  10. P,

    brave man, but then so many of the perfume loving ones are (and that's such a good thing for all of us).
    I find it very proper in a sense but it could lose some of this "starched" propriety on a man, so even better!!

  11. MH,

    good point, but then the concept is one of "a comfortable fragrance you can live in year round" as one of the ads claims.

    The geese and white casual outfit serves to stress that everyday aspect of the fragrance. It's not meant to be worn at the ball, but while playing ball (preferably not with geese!). I kinda prefer that ad (which hid Paulina Porizkova under that hat) to the others you know. It looks "fresh". Fresher than the colonial style white manors and the ladies with the old coifs. Hmmm….but I do.

    I totally get how it can look like it is demystifying to people who like fragrance ads that speak of glamor and high style.

  12. Ingeborg,

    compared to the ubiquitous Aeomatics Elixir here, White Linen is very much lying low, head down and murmured rather than projected. But it's not a shy violet! So there was this incongruity which produced this feeling in me.
    Personally I find it great but incredibly sharp, like being impaled. I can't wear it, but I admire it on others.
    That said, I like and wear many heavy hitters (vintage Opium being a notable specimen) from the 80s and other eras, so I think it's the quality of the sharpness (the lye, the starch, the neeeeeeeeedles up the nose) in this one which accounts for the difference in reception.
    Kudos to your sister though, she must smell incredible. It does leave a lovely trail.

  13. Frida,

    ah, an excellent gift choice! I think this is one of the perfumes which can be enjoyed actually by sniffing someone else who wears them: I happen to find this happens a lot with a Clinique one, it's just too strong when I wear it on myself full force.

    Pleasures seems so everyday now that we have been conditioned to clean and soapy scents, but back then it was so new and had a nice spicy kick to it, didn't it?
    Sometimes I miss the feeling of the discovery of something new.

  14. Maria,

    such an admiring comment describing your aunt. I think she should see it.
    I think you hit the nail on the head: such a sharp perfume should sit best on those who are very soft themselves, the juxtaposition would produce a very interesting, a compelling impression.
    Wish I were that soft myself.
    Thanks for commenting, such a rich comment. :)

  15. K,

    the contrast of the two balustrades (which I placed one on top of the other visually) is telling. I find the one you're talking about rather an uncomfortable setting (would the balustrade evolve organically from the pilars? it looks so awkward that I think it was manipulated in fact). Good observation!

    My favorite is the one with the geese, for reasons explained above. I like the two "green" colonial ones too, but find the "blue" one doesn't really fit the perfume. I think it was picked to be in blue tones because clean "blue" perfumes were so popular when it was published, that's all. It doesn't fit the fragrance just as much as the others, IMHO. But I do love the dress, much better than the pouffy sleeve one on the bottom with the mid-calf hem. This is the main reason I included the "blue" ad. ;)

  16. Mary K18:33

    I used to wear this one (even in the office)years ago, but it has been quite a while since I've even sniffed it. Must do so the next time
    I have the chance!

  17. I love aldehydes, but there is just something terribly sour and almost mildewed about White Linen on my skin (it's fine on other people). Can't manage it.

  18. Little Red00:55

    I wore this one summer about two years ago. The rose and aldehyde combo was a winner on me. Also very potent.

  19. well, the look that best fits the perfume in my opinion is the geese shepherdess one but my favourite would be regardless of the perfume is the macho estate heiress.


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