Pink Really Does Stink

26th November, 2010

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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About the author: Judith Brockless

As well as working tirelessly behind the scenes at Basenotes, Judith Brockless is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer.

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    • Dr_Rudi | 26th November 2010 01:28

      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.

    • Gblue | 27th November 2010 09:30

      Tiny bit concerned about a "Mitsouko pink" flanker... ;)

    • stellaglo | 27th November 2010 14:27

      this article is just brilliant. love "that's a perfume day i won't get back"!! :thumbup:

    • ysatis | 27th November 2010 19:29

      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!

    • Francop | 27th November 2010 20:37

      A very enjoyable article...well done !!!:rolleyesold:

    • Persolaise | 27th November 2010 22:51

      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."

    • Brielle87 | 27th November 2010 23:01

      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.

    • Brielle87 | 27th November 2010 23:03

      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."

    • elmsyrup | 28th November 2010 14:28

      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?

    • LaNose | 28th November 2010 19:26

      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.

    • Thalia | 29th November 2010 22:12

      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!!!"

    • BayKAT | 1st December 2010 22:35

      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.

    • Primrose | 2nd December 2010 05:55

      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.

      LOL! The girl/consumer nightmare...

    • GelbeDomino | 3rd December 2010 19:21

      Ah, the infantilization of fragrance!

      I feel very proud when someone refers to my fragrance as old-ladyish or strange.

    • michailG | 4th December 2010 09:51

      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!

    • Diamondflame | 4th December 2010 15:38

      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. :lipsrsealed:

    • MHV | 4th December 2010 15:55

      Down with Pink! Who wants to date a girl perpetually stuck in childhood, except perverts??

      Pink (i.e. Rose) should be a manly thing.

    • Jitterbug Perfume Lover | 5th December 2010 07:51

      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.

    • Tourbillion | 7th December 2010 08:55

      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.

    • sarıpatates | 7th December 2010 09:08

      very nice read.

      on a side note the basenotes tshirt ad at the end of the article is showing the single female tshirt in pink, that says floriental in kiddie script. :>

    • BetsyMeszaros | 8th December 2010 12:01

      Thank you so much for writing this. I was beginning to think I was the only one that felt this way. You took the words right out of my mouth with the term "fruit salad". What in the world are young girls thinking? Don't they have any sophistication about them at all? What are young boys thinking? Do they really like making love to a fruit salad? Amen to the phrase "all new releases seem to smell exactly the same".

    • BetsyMeszaros | 8th December 2010 12:02

      Sorry for double post. Computer connection problems this morning.

    • GelbeDomino | 8th December 2010 15:50

      I shouldn't say this, but I rarely bother trying new releases from mainstream brands because , in the end, I always feel disappointed after sniffing them.

      I`d rather go vintage or niche when I can.

      BTW, when I was a teen, I didn't like smelling of fruit salad or baked goods. My first fragrance as a teen were, if I recall correctly, Poison and Lauren.

    • Mrs H | 8th December 2010 22:24

      This is all so true- I'm a chypre girl, which seems very out of fashion in modern fragrance. Every fragrance released now seems identical, sweetness and fruit. There is no depth or intrigue to these- nothing like the complex, baroque style of the old French perfumes by Guerlain and Caron

    • Mimi Gardenia | 9th December 2010 22:19

      A stellar article and echoes my thoughts completely. It's very worrying that adult women in the 21st century seem to be ,in general, identifying with tweenies and all things pinkified. What ageism and a social disaster.

      Absolutely down with pink and pink stinks. I've never been a pink woman and never will be.

    • ohmira | 10th December 2010 10:44

      I disagree with the article, or with what I think the article is saying. I think alot of classic perfumes smell like chemicals or cleaning agents, and so I like the "pink" generation of perfumes because they tend to be lighter and softer. I don't like fruity or sweet smelling scents particularly, as I prefer woodsy notes like moss and cedar, and some spicy notes, like patchouli (sp?) and ooud (sp?)...but I can handle a bit of vanilla or berries better over chypre anyday. I am not a perfume snob. Why does it have to be either/or? Why can't classic perfumists merge with the pink generation and come up with something even better that combines the best of both worlds?

      Just my two cents.

    • indigo | 10th December 2010 11:21

      I agree with the article too, but there is some interesting stuff still to be found. It's just the sheer volume of non-descript "pink & frilly" stuff that is irritating.

      I don't bother trying most of them & have found more interest in discovering some of the old classics.

      Perhaps (hopefully) this style of scent is just a rather long trend - and like all trends, it will eventually come to an end & the general buying public will start demanding something more challenging/interesting/deep musky/incensy. I think it would only take one company (perhaps the likes of Thierry Mugler) to launch & have a massive hit with something really good along these lines & it just might change things :undecided:

    • blkbrd | 10th December 2010 17:49

      For what it's worth, my Arpege and my No. 19 sit on the same shelf as my pink stuff. While the market IS oversaturated and while there are certainly plenty of new releases I don't like, I wear my pinks and lavenders with great happiness, not because they tell me what kind of person I am, but because sometimes I like to smell like peony or pomegranate or even a dessert, in the same way that I and everyone else here sometimes like to smell like aldehydes and/or galbanum.

    • bookwyrmsmith | 10th December 2010 23:59

      The young student obviously has no clue ! I'm a girl and I really don't care for pink-but I have the Autumn/warm-muted/Sunset coloring so I prefer browns,ambers,and greens.

    • Flora | 12th December 2010 05:11

      I could not agree more, as someone who loves fiercely elegant classic perfumes like Jolie Madame and Jean-Louis Scherrer. Where are the modern perfumes for GROWNUPS?!

    • GelbeDomino | 12th December 2010 19:03

      Well, the BlingBling/ VIP/One Million trend makes the pink stuff seem classy by comparison.

    • Mimi Gardenia | 13th December 2010 10:33

      Yes...*LOL* me too- let's not give Guerlain any ideas........

    • Francop | 13th December 2010 21:26

      I get the message...

      Down with Pink girls...and

      Down with Blue boys...

      Let`s carry on enjoying golden, amber, dark profound scents...:thumbup:

    • Judith Brockless (article author) | 13th December 2010 23:30

      Just wanted to say thank you for all the nice comments. Much appreciated. :smiley:

    • msmith139 | 15th December 2010 14:43

      Great article...if someone tells me a perfume smells "like an old lady" I realize it is a classic being commented on by somebody who knows very little about good fragrances...

    • Nile_Etland | 16th December 2010 18:06

      I agree wholeheartedly with this article, but all the same I believe that there's nothing particularly wrong with pink - either as a colour or a fragrance - it's just the fact that a disproportionate number of manufacturers are bringing out practically nothing but brainless pretty-pretty fragrances, apparently designed for wannabe Barbies. I personally wear a wide variety of fragrances - Nahema, Mitsouko, Joy, Bulgari Black, Bois d'Encens (I could go on) - which to me all seem to be beautiful and, what is more, to be trying to appeal to people with a degree of intelligence.

      I think (and am open to correction) that if all available perfumes were on the masculine side of Jicky, the cry would be going up to all the fragrance houses, 'Hey! There are women out here! Give us something a bit more feminine!' The problem is that a distressing preponderance of feminine fragrances are not just sweet but sickly, and give the impression that the perfumer had been given a budget of less than 10c and a brief along the lines of 'Make it simple, make it obvious - and for goodness' sake don't make it anything that requires any thought or discrimination.'

      So I shall continue to wear pink from time to time (when I've had enough of black, cream and camel) and I shall wear - and enjoy - Nahema, Tocade & various other very feminine feminines when I'm in the mood. However I shall also pray for the perfume industry to come back to its senses and stop trying to treat all women as if they are total airheads - as appears to be happening at present.

    • Aredore | 20th December 2010 04:07

      Avoiding a complex discussion of the (de?-)evolution of culture relative to perfume and "what it means," I think we can rest assured that the "pinkness" of the "noughties" is on it's way out.

      Why? Sadly not because the first world is getting a clue and realizing that Britney Spears "fantasy" smells terrible, but because it was so popular and widely worn, that is now ubiquitous with a certain kind of girl; the 20-something bar-hopper who bathed in the stuff and drooled on any patron who looked twice at her. Now, sugary fragrances smell ANYTHING but innocent. Instead they broadcast one's sloppy easyness. Thanks to this chick, sugary pinkness is slowly being ruined for all of us. While I never really liked the stuff, as a lady who values variety in a wardrobe I have deep sympathy for those who do and manage civility.

      It makes sense that, after the dark raunchiness of eighties fragrances and super-clean freshness of the nineties, smelling like cake was the next thing. The new fashion appears to be moving in a decidedly retro direction, and hopefully that will translate into dryer fragrances only accented with the new fruity accords developed in the last decade.

    • Aredore | 20th December 2010 04:19

      I would argue that "that chick" is ruining this supposition; a subset of maturing guys have been utterly traumatized by their experiences with her. Pink sugar, Can Can and Curious are now forever bound to shameful memories of regrettable sex and very bad hangovers.

      Take "what men like" with a grain of salt.

    • Primrose | 4th January 2011 18:04

      It seems like the whole "pink" phenomenon holds true for many retailers.

      One large lingerie retailer launched a "luxe" line of EDPs that evoked "classic French perfumery." This line, from what I have seen, did not do well and was phased out at 50% off sales. The main line of syrupy body sprays and perfumes continue to sell well.

    • happy | 10th January 2011 15:02

      interesting article. Wrote with 'spicy, hot' notes. Like it. I tend to agree that the hundreds of new perfumes launched each year are mostly sweet, fruity and girly. Lack of depth and creativity.

      I noticed that not only the mainstream perfume houses are now lack of creativity in the scents, also lack of creativity in the themes. Celebrity, sex, youth, beauty - that's about it! Boring. Well, a few tries to be creative by making Japanese cartoon theme perfumes... gosh that really kills me! Tried Harajuku Lovers - Baby - aweful. But they are so everywhere in the big perfume chains.

      I think it's time for the big retailers to get more creative niche brands with 'surprising scents and themes' into their shops to 'entertain' us - the serious perfume lovers!

    • mrfresh | 9th March 2011 20:39

      Sadly, we as fragrance enthusiasts cannot dictate the trends in the industry. While our feedback and perspective may prove more useful, in no way do we equal the mainstream consumers' purchasing power. How many of Basenotes' beloved have been discontinued? What suits our collective tastes may be the department store brand's downfall. Marketing instills a selfperpetuating idea of what the modern man or woman smells like; those that have no knowledge of fragrance outside of what Sephora sells have few options beside the celebrity campaigns.

      (snobbishly)I feel they are uninspired and generic, but everyone is allowed to do as they want.