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These Classic Fragrances Will Take You Back in Time (And Prove That the Nose Always Knows)

Spray on these scents and get nostalgic.


Scent is one of our most powerful memory triggers. The smell of fresh cookies can transport you to childhood and remind you of your mother’s baking. A bouquet’s aroma can bring a sunny spring day to mind. Similarly, perfume can take us back in time, calling up memories of past loves and simpler times. If you’re nostalgic, you’re in luck: Many classic perfumes are still sold today. Here are five evocative fragrances that have stood the test of time. 

French Luxury: Chanel No. 5

This famed scent (Buy from Sephora, $116) from the French fashion house debuted nearly a century ago, in 1921. Chanel‘s site describes the scent as a “floral bouquet, composed around May rose and jasmine,” featuring “bright citrus top notes,” as well as a “smooth touch of bourbon vanilla.” Much of the scent’s distinctiveness comes from the presence of aldehydes, organic chemical compounds that impart a light, fresh aroma. Aldehydes also help to make perfume last longer. This fragrance summons all the glamour of classic Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe famously told Time that Chanel No. 5 was the only thing she wore to bed, and French movie star Catherine Deneuve appeared in its advertisements in the 1970s. Today, it remains a paragon of elegance — there’s even a book about its history (Buy from Amazon, $12.49).

’80s Glam Pick: Estée Lauder Cinnabar

This perfume (Buy from Estée Lauder, $63), which Estée Lauder describes as a “warm, mysterious, endlessly appealing spicy scent,” debuted in 1978 as an accessible fragrance inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s hugely popular (but pricier) Opium. Like Opium, Cinnabar is a heavy, spicy scent with notes of patchouli. Contemporary ads for Cinnabar featured “Estée Lauder’s fragrance for the 1980s” as a tagline, and the smell still evokes the excess of the era. This red-and-gold-hued commercial from 1980 (watch below) captured the scent’s sumptuousness perfectly, with a trip through what looks to be India and a voiceover declaring, “If Cinnabar were a palace, it would be opulent beyond all reason.”

The Princess Perfume: Houbigant Quelques Fleurs

Created by the Parisian perfume maker Houbigant in 1912, Quelques Fleurs (Buy from Nordstrom, $105) was beloved by none other than Princess Diana. Houbigant has a long history: The perfume house has been operating since 1775, and prides itself on being “the only fragrance house that has existed through four centuries of history.” Diana wore this scent on her wedding day, and it was even rumored that she accidentally spilled some of the fragrance on her gown. The perfume combines a variety of floral notes including jasmine, tuberose, lily of the valley, violet, and rose and mixes in some tarragon, lemon, sandalwood, and musk for added depth. Just like the Princess herself, this perfume is sweet and classic — with a touch of intriguing complexity. 

The Celebrity Scent: Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds

Celebrity perfumes are commonplace now, but Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor was among the first to get in the game with the launch of White Diamonds in 1991 (Buy from Amazon, $24.56). Its accessible price point combined with Taylor’s allure made it a huge hit (it’s generated over a billion dollars worth of revenue), and it remains on shelves today. Taylor went on to introduce a variety of additional perfumes, but none measured up to White Diamonds, whose floral scent has notes of lily, tuberose, and sandalwood, and whose black-and-white commercial — featuring the actress declaring that diamonds “have always brought [her] luck” — permeated television screens in the 1990s. In a 2011 interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Taylor reflected on the most famous of her perfumes: “I had no idea that White Diamonds would become a classic when we began, but I am thrilled it has, because it means we have really succeeded in giving women a little bit of luxury every day.” Now that’s a philosophy we can get behind.

The Teen Dream: Love’s Baby Soft

For many women growing up in the ’70s, Love’s Baby Soft (Buy from Amazon, $16.03) was the first fragrance they used. The scent, which debuted in 1974, came in a distinctive pink bottle. The smell is powdery and light, with touches of flowers, citrus, and vanilla. Ads for the perfume showcased its girly appeal in a way that would likely be controversial now — their tagline was “Because innocence is sexier than you think.” Icky marketing aside, the scent remains iconic.

Any one of these classic perfumes is sure to elicit good memories — and help you create new ones. Just spritz it on (add some retro lipstick to match) and enjoy the comforting fragrance of nostalgia.

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