Perfume, like fashion, is very much a product of its time. Contemporary niche brands like Le Labo, Phlur, and Atelier Cologne favor unique unisex scents over traditional notes for men and women—a reflection of dissolving gender norms and the increasing popularity of indie brands. Fragrance “reflects both dominant fantasies and a means of escape from them,” Alyssa Harad, fragrance expert and author of the book Coming To My Senses, told Allure.
That’s part of what makes the explosion of interest in popular ‘80s and ‘90s fragrances so fascinating. The two were almost opposite decades, in a way—the ‘80s one of power, excess, and money, while the ‘90s embraced androgyny and clean minimalism. Yet here we are, with Bath and Body Works bringing back a selection of its iconic scents for a limited time, and Calvin Klein releasing its ‘90s-inspired fragrance Deep Euphoria.
“The perfumes of the late 1980’s were big fragrances to go with big shoulder pads and big hair,” Harad said. “They went with power suits and cigarettes and hairspray. Then in the early ‘90s we had a reaction to all that with the stripped-down, androgynous scents à la the CK series.”
Interested in catching the trend? Not so fast. Major regulations on scent components in the ‘80s in Europe forced many fragrance houses to reformulate their perfumes, so the floral notes your mom wore might be a little different than what you can buy now. But there are a few perfumes you can purchase that will transport you to the glitz and glamour of the ‘80s, or the clean, spare elegance of the ‘90s. We talked with Harad about the best perfumes of yesteryear that still make the cut today.
Estee Lauder Private Collection
Although first released in 1973, this classic perfume embodies the bold femininity of the ‘80s. Private Collection is “a deep green, expensive tennis court type of perfume,” Harad said. If you like rich leafy notes with a warm, woody base, this is the perfume for you. Also consider Estee Lauder’s Azuree, which according to Harad “takes that green and adds a big dose of leather.”
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Chanel Coco Eau de Parfum
Coco is the essence of the ‘80s. This Oriental Spicy perfume is a rich concoction of coriander, clover, and rose, with vanilla, tonka bean, and sandalwood in the drydown. This is a wonderful perfume for an elegant, classic, but bold woman.
Giorgio Giorgio Beverly Hills
Oh, Giorgio. If you really want to make a statement, Giorgio is a scent to wear. The fragrance belongs under the Big White Floral header—referred to by fragrance enthusiasts as BWFs—so if you’re not a fan of jasmine, honeysuckle, and orange blossom, stay away from this one. A musky base note ensures this perfume lasts. Don’t wear this scent unless you want to make a statement; however, at the height of its popularity, Giorgio was often banned from restaurants for its intensity.
Calvin Klein CK One
This classic fragrance almost goes without saying. Its clean, citrusy notes capture the essence of the ‘90s better than almost any other perfume of the era, and its just-out-of-the-shower mood is perfect for men and women. If you’re a no-nonsense type of girl (or boy!), this is the perfume for you.
Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers
Sunflowers is what the girl next door wears. True to its name, this fragrance is sunny, bright, and fresh, with lemon and peach notes mingling with jasmine and rose to make a lightly sweet, feminine scent. For a more glamorous, grown-up perfume from Elizabeth Arden, try the 1989 classic, Red Door. Instead of sunny florals, Red Door is a rich, deep testament to florals, featuring iris, rose, and honey.
Issey Miyake L’eau d’Issey
When Japanese designer Issey Miyake set out to create his namesake perfume, he wanted to capture the purity and perfection of “the scent of water on a woman’s skin.” This aquatic floral scent combines notes of lotus and freesia with cedar and sandalwood to create the ultimate freshness. Wear this perfume if you want your fragrance to accent, rather than dominate, your presence.
Check out this video on fragrances: