What is a classic perfume?
Is it a fragrance that offered something distinctive and unique when it was launched? Is it a fragrance that has influenced many others? Or is it a fragrance that has stood the test of time, despite changes in trends and tastes?
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All are still in production but may have been reformulated for various reasons. Vintage versions are highly prized. The name of the perfumer is listed in brackets after the name of the perfume.
Why buy classic perfumes?
Perfume & Memories
There are many reasons women love classic perfumes. Perhaps one of the most compelling is the fact that scents are intimately connected with our memories. Perhaps a certain perfume reminds you of someone special like your mom or grandmother.
It can also link you to a special moment in your life like a date night or wedding. Just a single spritz of a specific fragrance can instantly bring all those memories and feelings back.
Perfect for People New To Fragrances
Are you new to wearing perfume? Want to expand your collection? There’s a few reasons you’ll want to check out classic fragrances. First of all, they’re a reference to almost all other fragrances. When someone says it’s like an updated Mitsouko, you’ll instantly know the type of fragrance and whether it’s worth adding to your collection (or not).
Plus the fact they are classics means they are generally safe blind-buys (when you purchase a fragrance without trying it first). Millions of bottles of Chanel 5 sold can’t be wrong!
Great for Gift Giving
Is there anything as personal and endearing, but also nerve-wracking as giving perfume as a gift? Perfumes are thoughtful, personal, and even romantic gifts. On one hand, you could be creating a lifetime of memories associated with a specific fragrance. On the other, it could be something they take one sniff of and hate. Classic fragrances tend to be safe bets if you don’t know someone’s taste well.
These perfumes are classics because they are popular with so many women and have sustained that popularity over time. While newly released fragrances come and go, you can trust that most people will enjoy classic fragrances.
10 Best Classic Women’s Perfumes
Our fragrance history features the best-selling and most long-lived perfumes which are still being produced today. It’s a whirlwind tour of the history of perfume from the soft and fruity scents of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, the feminine, floral powerhouses of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the cultural shift and changing times with aggressive spicy and seductive 1970s and 80s to the bourgeoning, a new category of gourmand fragrances in the 1990s.
Perfumes of the Early 20th Century: Floral Powerhouses
Launched: 1919 | Perfumer: Jacques Guerlain
Launched in 1919, Guerlain Mitsouko was created by the legendary Jacques Guerlain. He also produced other Guerlain classics such as Shalimar and L’Heure Bleue. It took its name from the Japanese heroine of Claude Farrère’s novel La Bataille and is nicknamed “Mitzy” by its fans.
Guerlain Mitsouko celebrates its centenary this year and is widely regarded as the first fruity chypre in perfumery. It took Francois Coty’s iconic Chypre, which was launched in 1917, in a new direction.
It’s defined by its superbly smooth blend of bergamot, rose, jasmine, spice, peach, oakmoss and vetiver notes.
Despite numerous reformulations over the decades, Guerlain Mitsouko maintains its mysterious character and beauty.
Launched: 1921 | Perfumer: Ernest Beaux
No list of classic fragrances is complete without probably the most famous perfume of all time. Launched in 1921, Chanel’s debut fragrance was remarkably modern for its time, from the clean-lined bottle to the juice itself, which, according to the brand’s website, contains 80 ingredients.
Chanel No 5 is a classic fragrance for many reasons, but it’s the use of aldehydes (a chemical compound) in the opening that makes it truly memorable. They give the fragrance a slightly soapy quality.
The opening includes floral notes of ylang-ylang and continues through to the elegant heart, which features May rose and jasmine notes, among others. Iris adds an element of powderiness to the composition.
A woody dimension (sandalwood and vetiver notes) is perfectly balanced by a hit of vanilla.
If you find the parfum, EDP and EDT versions of Chanel No 5 too heavy for you, Chanel No 5 L’Eau EDT is a fresher, lighter option.
Launched: 1930 | Perfumer: Henri Almeras
The stock market and the fortunes of many of his clients might have crashed spectacularly in 1929, but that didn’t stop French couturier Jean Patou insisting on the most expensive perfume ever made. And that’s exactly what perfumer Henri Alméras delivered for his demanding client when Joy was launched in 1930.
One ounce of Joy contains an extremely high concentration of natural ingredients, including the essence of 10 600 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen Bulgarian roses. The fragrance also features notes of tuberose, ylang-ylang, aldehydes, and musk.
The result is a rich and supremely luxurious fragrance that still captivates today.
Launched: 1948 | Perfumer: Germaine Cellier
There are several classic tuberose fragrances on the market, including Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower EDP and Diptyque Do Son EDP. However, Robert Piguet Fracas remains the benchmark against which all others are measured. It was inducted into the Fragrance Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
Tuberose is known for its intensity and this EDP, which was launched in 1948, takes it to the max in a most elegant way.
Peach and orange blossom notes stand out in the opening, but tuberose takes pride of place in the floral heart of the fragrance, which also includes notes of jasmine, gardenia, osmanthus and narcissus.
The sensuality of the tuberose is masterfully complemented by the base notes of sandalwood and musk.
Perfumes of the 1950s: Perfume for Everyday Life
Launched: 1953 | Perfumer: Josephine Catapano
Cosmetics entrepreneur Estée Lauder wanted women to wear perfume on all occasions, not just special ones, and she succeeded in that goal with the launch of Youth-Dew EDP in 1953.
Originally launched as a bath oil, women started using it as their favorite fragrance as well, and it’s easy to see why.
It opens with a blast of floral notes, including rose and jonquil. The heart is full of spice (cloves, cinnamon) and is followed by a densely earthy base of moss, vetiver and patchouli notes.
Chances are many of us were introduced to this fragrance by our mothers. As an added bonus, this spicy oriental is very reasonably priced.
Perfumes of the 1970s: Wear to Work Fragrances
Launched: 1978 | Perfumers: Roger Pellergino, Robert Gonnon, Paul Leger & Raymond Chaillan
Launched in 1978, the debut fragrance from the French fashion label captured a generation of women with its romantic femininity. Today it can be found on the bargain shelves of many perfume retailers.
It’s a beautifully fresh floral fragrance with standout notes of white lily, hyacinth, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, carnation and honeysuckle.
It settles on a base of woody notes, including sandalwood, cedar and vetiver, with a dose of musk and leather completing the package.
Also look out for other Cacharel classics such as Loulou EDP and Eden EDP.
Launched: 1979 | Perfumer: Francoise Caron
The French luxury company created an instant classic when it launched its first cologne, Hermès Eau d’Orange Verte, in 1979.
Inspired by the smell of undergrowth moist with morning dew, it opens with a fresh burst of citrus notes, including lemon and mandarin. But juicy orange is the star of the show. Notes of mint and blackcurrant bud add to the appeal.
The fragrance is also very special for its base of patchouli and oak moss notes.
The Hermes cologne collection includes other beauties such as Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate and Eau de Gentiane Blanche, which are highly recommended.
Perfumes of the 1980s: Opulence, Spice and Bold Power Moves
Launched: 1977 | Perfumers: Jean Amic & Jean-Louis Sieuzak
When the provocatively named YSL Opium EDP was launched in 1977, it caused much controversy, which, of course, boosted sales. But there’s so much more to this spicy oriental than its sensational name.
The opening notes of mandarin and bergamot are laden with a heavy dose of spice, including coriander, pepper, and clove. Carnation and jasmine are just some of the floral notes in this complex creation. Opoponax and myrrh give it a distinctive smoky quality.
Slightly sweet and, yes, intoxicating, it paved the way for the heavy and opulent scents that came to characterize the 80s.
The fragrance was relaunched in 2009 in a new bottle.
Launched: 1985 | Perfumer: Edouard Flechier
Launched in 1985, Dior Poison is one of the iconic fragrances of the decade. In an era known for its big and bold fragrances, it stood out among the crowd with its floral, woody, spicy and fruity facets.
Dark and mysterious, the fragrance works its magic from the opening notes of plum, coriander and wild berries.
Indian tuberose absolute dominates the heart of the fragrance with its rich scent, and is supported by notes of incense, honey and cinnamon.
The base is a woodier affair, featuring notes of sandalwood and cedar, but it’s the resinous and sweet quality of opoponax that lingers in this oriental classic.
Perfumes of the 1990s: The Birth of Gourmand Fragrances
Launched: 1992 | Perfumers: Oliver Cresp & Yves De Chirin
If you want to know where the still-popular gourmand trend can be traced back to, you’re looking at it. Revolutionary when it was launched in 1992 and still influential to this day, Mugler Angel is an audacious scent and, like any classic, invites love-it-or-hate-it reactions.
Coconut, candyfloss and melon are just three of the notes that will mesmerise you when you apply it. Honey, spice (caraway, nutmeg) and more fruit (blackberry, plum, red berries) follow this intro.
But it’s the base of this fragrance that really makes an impression. Lashings of caramel, chocolate and vanilla mingle with the earthiness of patchouli to create a unique scent.
Richard Goller is a fragrance and grooming blogger. His blog is called Fragroom. A senior editor with 20 years' experience, his blog allows him to combine two of his passions: engaging content and the always-intriguing world of fragrances. When he isn't blogging, you'll find Richard indulging in his newly found passion for balcony gardening.