• Pink Really Does Stink

    Last September, Harrods hosted the ‘Perfume Diaries’ exhibition. There, perfume junkies like me could ogle exquisite bottles (some of which were a hundred and fifty years old) and sniff decades-old perfumes to their heart’s (and nose’s) content.

    It really was a glorious and fascinating exhibition and, to my mind, the most interesting sections by far were those focusing on the 1920s and 1930s - quite simply, because of the huge contrast with modern perfumes, in both the scents themselves and in the style of packaging.

    I grew up in a household where if you caught a waft of perfume it would probably belong to the house of Guerlain and would probably be Mitsouko, the classic chypre from 1919.

    My mother could never stand overly feminine fragrances and her personal perfume mantra is: ‘Never trust a pink perfume.’ Wise words indeed. Unfortunately for her, and for other grown women, the modern female perfume market seems to be targeted at ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ - that is, young girls, teenagers, and adults with the tastes of young girls or teenagers. Unless you’re happy to smell like a syrupy fruit salad, or maybe walking candy floss, then you’re going to have to work a bit harder and search more thoroughly to find something that you could seriously consider wearing and which doesn’t actively repel you or induce headaches and nausea. For a lot of perfume lovers, this in effect means hunting for vintage perfume on ebay.


    In the ‘Perfume Diaries’ exhibition, there was a small part of the 1930s section devoted to fragrances inspired by travel (pictured above). ‘Vol de Nuit’ (another Guerlain) in its striking Art Deco bottle, took its name from the novel by Saint-Exupéry. ‘Normandie’ by Jean Patou, was in the shape of the gleaming cruise liner. In the same decade Worth’s ‘Je Reviens’ was sold in a simple and elegant deep blue Lalique bottle (right) modelled on a skyscraper. Chanel’s ‘No. 5’, released in 1921, was produced in the now iconic flask which reflected Coco Chanel’s chic, pared-down style - a strong contrast to the current vogue for women’s fragrance containers to look like a tacky, pink floral explosion. Sharp, shiny and emphatically modern shapes and imagery characterised designs between the wars.

    The content of these bottles was also the antithesis of modern perfume. Fragrances appeared which wouldn’t have a chance of being produced now - for example, Caron’s ‘Tabac Blond’ - a smoky, leathery chypre - or Lanvin’s deep, dark, woody floral ‘Arpège’. Women were cutting their hair short and beginning to play men at their own game and the perfume houses reflected this and ultimately, encouraged them. Bottles appeared on the market disguised as a full brandy glass (Révillon’s ‘Carnet de Bal’), or even as an ashtray complete with smouldering cigarette (‘Carnation’ by Bristow). No modern perfume house would touch these with a ten-foot pole - and not just because smoking is so seriously infra-dig these days that no one would even think to do it, and not even because the makers of ‘Carnet de Bal’ would no doubt feel obliged to advise customers to ‘enjoy perfume responsibly’ - but also because the imagery involved is far, far too masculine to launch on a market which is accustomed to bland celebrity fragrances and excessively girly themes.

    Not being au fait with the workings of ebay, I’m still getting my perfume fix in department stores. Each time I go shopping I return clutching several of those little strips of card which, annoyingly, have to be kept apart so as not to contaminate each other, the result being that I then have to walk around town looking like a low-budget Edward Scissorhands. Some perfume counters will still give you actual, proper samples to take home, although these are often in those aggravating little sachets that squirt their contents in random directions when you’re trying to apply. So this morning, with some trepidation, I sliced open my latest little sachet and applied some of Givenchy’s new ‘Play for Her’. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it. My heart sank when the (extremely polite and helpful) shop assistant went to the trouble of digging out samples which, after only a fleeting glance, I knew I was going to hate.

    The packaging was a dead giveaway - a baby pink ipod, clear evidence that Givenchy is aiming for the youth market with this one. Compare this to the 1930s designs and the technological theme seems admirable - but why does the female version of ‘Play’ have to be pink? And why must it smell almost exclusively of sugar? This is a strong contender for the most pointless perfume in existence. It's not completely hideous, because sugar generally isn’t, but it sure as hell isn't a great perfume, or even a good one. The proliferation of perfumes such as this effectively means that complex, classic fragrances like Mitsouko or Arpège now smell almost masculine when compared with twenty first century confections.

    The problem with being a perfume obsessive is that the desire to keep trying new fragrances, educating one’s nose and learning about ingredients, means that I feel obliged to, eventually, try every perfume in existence. This is both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, anything aimed at teenagers is sure to be loud, sugary pap. I feel that I really ought to try Vera Wang’s ‘Glam Princess’ but I really, really don’t want to. (When I could be wearing a spritz of something cool and sophisticated, like Chanel ‘No 19’? That’s a Perfume Day I won’t get back.) The naff, nauseating imagery tells me that I’m in for a bad time (or at the very least a bland one) when I finally take the plunge.

    The ‘Pink Stinks’ campaign highlights this ‘pinkified’ attitude with regard to role models for little girls. What is so frustrating is that this mentality is so dominant and all-pervasive that it has now invaded the realm of women’s perfume - that’s perfume for adults, not just tweenies. Not only does it mean that the overall quality of modern perfume has declined, not least because all new releases seem to smell exactly the same, but it says worrying things about how twenty-first century women see themselves. It seems that the little girls who spent their childhoods surrounded by pink (as all little princesses should be) have grown up and none of them bears even a passing resemblance to the likes of Katherine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich; individuality and independence are less important than appearing safe and stereotypically feminine.

    Unfortunately, the perfumers aren’t going to produce garbage unless they’re pretty sure it’ll sell and clearly there’s a market for it, to the extent that it’s now flooded with identikit sickly sweet florals and cheap fruit cocktails.

    The perfume industry seems to be hell bent on drowning itself in a vat of syrup - someone throw it a life belt, for goodness’ sake.


    About the author:

    Judith is a freelance journalist and aspiring perfumista based in the United Kingdom.

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    Comments 43 Comments
    1. Dr_Rudi's Avatar
      Dr_Rudi -
      Spam? Hacking? Can anyone access the link?

      EDIT: I see from Grant's Twitter feed that this article is coming, and that Judith is a new contributor.



      "‘Never trust a pink perfume." Right up there with "Don't eat the yellow snow."

      Ah - and this isn't about the musical artiste Pink.
    1. Gblue's Avatar
      Gblue -
      Tiny bit concerned about a "Mitsouko pink" flanker...
    1. stellaglo's Avatar
      stellaglo -
      this article is just brilliant. love "that's a perfume day i won't get back"!!
    1. ysatis's Avatar
      ysatis -
      exactly!! nowadays perfumes industry is so robotic! and i prefer to spend more bucks but to be sure that parfum i bought is 100% natural!
    1. Francop's Avatar
      Francop -
      A very enjoyable article...well done !!!
    1. miss mills's Avatar
      miss mills -
      Bang on!
    1. Persolaise's Avatar
      Persolaise -
      Thanks for this very entertaining piece... but I'm quite happy for certain elements of the perfume industry to drown, so I'd say, "Don't waste a perfectly good life belt."
    1. Brielle87's Avatar
      Brielle87 -
      Your article was so on the money. Sadly it makes me question where women as a whole are headed, when the majority seem to be drawn back to child-like pink-princess concoctions.
      So basically, the femme-fatale has been replaced by the woman/girl/child who still wants to be a princess, ride a unicorn and have a pretty pink silk party dress.
      Even the supposedly "sexy" stars releasing scent, still seem to think that the scent of cotton candied sugar is enticing and seductive.
      Whoa to the industry and the foolish consumer also.
    1. Brielle87's Avatar
      Brielle87 -
      Perfection and sadly the truth all around.

      Here was my comment

      "Your article was so on the money. Sadly it makes me question where women as a whole are headed, when the majority seem to be drawn back to child-like pink-princess concoctions.
      So basically, the femme-fatale has been replaced by the woman/girl/child who still wants to be a princess, ride a unicorn and have a pretty pink silk party dress.
      Even the supposedly "sexy" stars releasing scent, still seem to think that the scent of cotton candied sugar is enticing and seductive.
      Whoa to the industry and the foolish consumer also."
    1. elmsyrup's Avatar
      elmsyrup -
      This rings so true. All the women on the bus and the women I work with smell so sickly-sweet-foul these days. And this is why I wear mostly male and unisex fragrances now. Where has incense, musk, amber, and moss gone from women's fragrances?
    1. LaNose's Avatar
      LaNose -
      OMG! You've taken the words right out of my thoughts about today's fragrance culture. I hate to sound like an old fogey, but I grew up around some of the same classics you cite: Arpege; Shalimar: Mitsouko; White Shoulders. Mom also liked Chanel No. 5, Tigress, Woodhue and Or et Noir.

      Each of these has a distinct fragrance profile: I could never mistake one for another.

      Today, the 'pink' (i.e., cotton candy, grapefruit, fig, ozone, sea air, water...) fragrances ALL smell the same to me with very minor differences. When this trend began, I momentarily thought I had lost my sense of smell; I discovered that I retained my LaNose (when I returned to the oldies), but also discovered that what was passing for 'fragrance' these days where akin to the Emperor's New Clothes ---- there's no there, there! Back to the future for me.
    1. Thalia's Avatar
      Thalia -
      It does seem to tie in to a bigger cultural shift -- that women are supposed to want to be Daddy's spoiled little girly princess their whole lives, with pink drinks full of umbrellas and sugar clutched in one, French-manicured hand, and giant logos on all their possessions saying "I am very expensive, so you can tell that the woman who owns me has GREAT TASTE because Luis Vuitton wrote his initials on me!!!"
    1. BayKAT's Avatar
      BayKAT -
      Ah Judith, I feel you held yourself back in this piece. Feel free to let fly those raw, caustic rants. We'll stand and applaud.
    1. Primrose's Avatar
      Primrose -
      Quote Originally Posted by Brielle87 View Post
      Perfection and sadly the truth all around.

      Here was my comment

      "Your article was so on the money. Sadly it makes me question where women as a whole are headed, when the majority seem to be drawn back to child-like pink-princess concoctions.
      So basically, the femme-fatale has been replaced by the woman/girl/child who still wants to be a princess, ride a unicorn and have a pretty pink silk party dress.
      Even the supposedly "sexy" stars releasing scent, still seem to think that the scent of cotton candied sugar is enticing and seductive.
      Whoa to the industry and the foolish consumer also."
      So true. All pink and girly and sugary sweet. I prefer the more mature femme fatales of the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, who donned tuxedo suits and top hats and took charge of their bold definition of what was feminine.

      Quote Originally Posted by Thalia View Post
      It does seem to tie in to a bigger cultural shift -- that women are supposed to want to be Daddy's spoiled little girly princess their whole lives, with pink drinks full of umbrellas and sugar clutched in one, French-manicured hand, and giant logos on all their possessions saying "I am very expensive, so you can tell that the woman who owns me has GREAT TASTE because Luis Vuitton wrote his initials on me!!!"
      LOL! The girl/consumer nightmare...
    1. GelbeDomino's Avatar
      GelbeDomino -
      Ah, the infantilization of fragrance!
      I feel very proud when someone refers to my fragrance as old-ladyish or strange.
    1. michailG's Avatar
      michailG -
      Mrs Brockless wrote about something that bothers many people although not many talk about it.
      I experienced exactly what she talks about a couple of years ago visiting a dear friend working in the perfume industry in New York. He is a sophisticated well-read person, and very elegant. He gave us to sample some of the latest offerings from the company he was working then. I couldn't help myself, and being overly spontaneous, I made a face as I sniffed the staff ... all sugar and sweetness!? His remark was: teenage girls go crazy with these! I thought they smelled like smearing oneself with gateaux. I believe that he couldn't have been very happy either; however, the trend sells and companies, especially big perfume companies, care mostly about profit. Boys buy AXE girls buy Pink... it's like a young student who once said in class that it is only a natural thing that girls prefer pink!
    1. Diamondflame's Avatar
      Diamondflame -
      It's just economics, folks. A product of the times. Young women & teens these days have much bigger discretionary allowances i.e. more spending power. And they are susceptible to celebrity-endorsements. If they like it sweet, the industry is only too happy to oblige & sell the idea that Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift wears sweet fragrances too! And none of them wants to smell like their grandmas who grew up during the era when the emancipation of women started & femme fatale type of scents such as Tabac Blond were the rage. The same can be said for the crap they dish out as masculine fragrances these days.
    1. MHV's Avatar
      MHV -
      Down with Pink! Who wants to date a girl perpetually stuck in childhood, except perverts??

      Pink (i.e. Rose) should be a manly thing.
    1. Jitterbug Perfume Lover's Avatar
      Jitterbug Perfume Lover -
      Great story! I also prefer the old classics because they've smelled so much more sophistocated. I will admit that I do indulge in some of the lighter/beachy scents on casual days or to wear to work, and I save my "good stuff" for dates on the weekend when it can be fully appreciated.
    1. Tourbillion's Avatar
      Tourbillion -
      I also wear mostly vintage scents, and sometimes even men's scents and really don't like the sugary stuff that is being sold today.

      However, there is a reason that it is so popular. Supposedly there have been studies done on the scents that men find most sexy and men's favorites are things like donuts and sugar cookies. I do think that culture is turning covertly pedophile in that today's ideal woman needs to be ultra slim, dress like a child, with no body hair and smell like vanilla sugar.

      I sometimes get negative comments on my "old lady" or "mannish" fragrances, and I know that I'd probably get complements if I wore some sugary or fruity body splash instead. Unfortunately, it is what the mainstream guy supposedly likes.



Loving perfume on the Internet since 2000