You’ve likely heard the phrase “old lady perfume” in whispers, embarrassed and slightly unkind, about someone you know. Otherwise you’ve been shooed away from a scent you like, usually by a judgmental friend or fragrance advisor eyeing the end of their shift.
The phrase “old man perfume” gets some play, though far less and with far less judgement. “Old man perfumes” are often linked with a classic masculinity.
A generational divide does also impact smell. A child will consider mid-twenties old, and have different cultural references by the time they age into perfume wear. This can quickly veer into ageism well into adulthood, driven by the unfounded and inevitable fear of ageing.
Ageism and sexism colour our emotional perception and cultural zeitgeist. Perfume, a highly emotive product, will perform critically and commercially subject to our personal bias. Long term, this will impact a scent’s reputation and perceived relevance.
What are "old lady perfumes"?
“Old lady perfumes” are overpowering, powdery, soapy, amber blends. Chanel No. 5 set the trend, followed by Youth Dew, Opium. In my own brand, Scran On Th’ Garth is a (poor) cousin of Guerlain Shalimar.
What do "old lady perfumes" smell like?
Generally, “old lady perfumes” are soapy, waxy or powdery aldehyde and amber blends with a floral component.
You can often expect a long dry down, high sillage and heavy base note. Wearers have a reputation for excessive application. These scents will stand out sharply on a cold day.
These are iconic olfactory designs, largely produced from the 1920s-1980s, that changed culture and stood the test of time. This is something to celebrate and emulate, and why we continue to wear them.
What is considered "old lady perfume"?
We tend to associate “old lady perfumes” with our grandmothers or church at best. At worst, someone ‘past their prime’ who we don’t take seriously.
We do the same with our elderly, tending to treat them as invisible or at best with condescension.
Criticism of the scent itself seems to centre on being too feminine or powerful. While common for many scents, women often face a negative social reaction when speaking up or taking space.
In my opinion, “old lady perfume” is considered to be any scent that flies in the face of generational or gendered social convention.
Why do we call it “old lady perfume”?
Behind most beauty and media brands lies a patriarchal power structure that informs social convention.
Regardless of focus groups this will skew messaging and decision-making, and reduce the lived experience of the target consumer, for a product chiefly marketed to women.
Gender bias, conscious or unconscious, will be introduced to the perfume product pipeline.
This will inform how the women are spoken to in marketing messaging. Which scents are deemed of merit to review by influencers and press, and so the scents that people are aware of or feel allowed to buy.
While people have a greater voice about the fragrances they wear, many will opt for the cheapest or closest option. If men control most of the market pipeline, the trends that form will be through the lens of a male gaze.
Why do I smell "old lady perfume"?
We’ve all been raised under the spectre of the patriarchy. You smell “old lady perfume” because sexism (conscious or unconscious) created the association in your brain.
Smells are just smells. Our emotional response come down to our formative experiences and personal tastes.
Calling it “old lady perfume” is offensive and dismissive, to the wearer and the legacy of the perfume itself.
You’re allowed to dislike a scent, or think someone’s wearing too much.
That said, we should always ask ourselves why before we say something unkind.
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