Mums and perfume

A few weeks ago I was sitting with some other mums enjoying the early Autumn sunshine while our daughters raced about playing. My daughter L. appeared suddenly and climbed into my lap for a rest and a cuddle. As she nuzzled into my neck she sighed and said, ‘Oh you smell nice Mum’. I was wearing SSS’s Nostalgie.

After that there was little doubt that I would possess myself of a full bottle of Nostalgie, and one is on its way to me now as I write.

I also began thinking about mothers, daughters and perfume memories. Any discussion of that topic on the blogs and forums always brings a large response. But I was wondering too about what characterizes a ‘mums’ perfume’. Women of my age (mid-40s) tend to remember their mums in fragrances like Chanel No 5, Arpege, Emeraude, Shalimar, Femme, Youth Dew, and Bal a Versailles. Joy? Sometimes, although it was probably a bit expensive for many women with families.

A lot of these were aldehydic florals. That was the style of the day. But warmth and intimacy seem to be the common characteristics too. Amber, sandalwood, vanilla, warm spices and fruits. These tend to make up mum’s fragrances for people my age.

People a bit younger will mention perfumes a little more assertive: Charlie, quite often, or Enjoli, or Chloe. And chypres will get a mention (usually a lesser mention): Mitsouko and Miss Dior from an earlier era, or later, Haltson or Aromatics Elixir perhaps.

Of course women of any age will remember their mothers wearing scents derived from the garden. My mother adored Yardley’s April Violets. In more recent times children and their dads will get together to buy mum’s favourite from Crabtree & Evelyn, L’Occitane or Jo Malone. For decades well-off British mothers have found something pretty from Penhaligon’s under the Christmas tree.

But look: it seems much more rare that mums wore, say, Chanel No 19. Or Vent Vert. Tabu? Probably not. Jolie Madame? Cabochard? Tabac Blond? Habanita? Fracas? Bandit? Who can remember their mother wearing Bandit?

And yet women have worn these fragrances for decades. They are classics. So what is going on? Do Bandit wearers not have children?

Or is it that we silently eliminate these scents from our memories of our mothers, even if they were worn? Smoking, drinking, casual sex, and dancing ’til dawn are not what we expect of mothers. At most we expect that after our mother has dressed for dinner or the opera, she will envelop us in a motherly hug and a cloud of Shalimar before departing on the arm of our handsome father.

Bitter greens, dirty panties, leather and tobacco are not notes part of the picture. We do not associate them with motherliness. Sexy they may be, but they are not nurturing smells. Not in anyone’s book, I reckon.

Even I participate in this. My children’s father and I are divorced, so they spend one week with their father – that’s when I’ll wear my Habanita, my Chanel No 19, or my Amaranthine. The following week the children are with back me and I’m in Nostalgie or Beautiful or one of my new rose fragrances. Then we start all over again.

Good lord! What sort of mother am I? Am I a good mother for surrounding them with warmth? Or a bad mother for reinforcing stereotypes? Aaarrgh.

I know, I know, I should take the perfumistas’ advice: just wear what you like. And be true to yourself.

So: Bandit for breakfast, anyone?

35 thoughts on “Mums and perfume

  1. My mother, now 97, wore Caron Bellodgia, and there is still a somewhat new bottle of the Parfum my sister and I found for her about ten years ago. Every now and then I sneak a dab (my mother would share, but somehow I want this to be a secret), and I am reminded of her, whatever I do, wherever I do, throughout the day nor night. Please don’t tell this to anyone, at my mother’s age we know she won’t be around forever, but the FIRST thing I am going to claim is not the silver or china or a piece of furniture or jewelry. I want what is remains of that treasure of a small bottle!

    1. Good heavens! 97 is a grand age and Bellodgia is a grand perfume to take with you through all those years. As far as an can recall of Bellodgia, it is a perfume projecting strength and confidence, and perhaps there is a link there with your mother’s longevity?

      I’m not surprised you want to cherish that bottle. I have my mother’s last bottle of April Violets. She had it with her in the hospital when she died. I spritz it every now and again. When AV was re-released a few years ago (it disappeared from the market for a while) I bought a new bottle. I don’t wear it but use it to scent my handkerchiefs.

  2. Interesting post, Annemarie. I think my mother would have worn some of those vampy and sophisticated perfumes you mentioned, as she was rather a sexy mom who didn’t really shy away from or hide that part of her identity from us, but those perfumes simply weren’t on her radar (or at least I don’t believe they were) because where we lived they weren’t available. Estee Lauder was, so she wore Youth Dew for awhile and also Germaine Monteil Royal Secret (I think that was the name). And when I was older, I bought her Diane Von Furstenberg Tatiana and Magie Noire, the latter of which she wore for many years.

    If Habanita or Tabac Blond had been available to her, I’m sure she would have worn them, even when we were young. But perhaps our household was a little different in that regard. My parents were very good parents, but they were quite open in their sexual attitudes. Of course, maybe that’s why they eventually divorced, but they stayed quite good friends afterwards.

    1. You make a really important point, and one that I should have been aware of. It is not enough that a perfume (or a book or film or whatever) has been produced. It has to be distributed and made available. If you are outside of that network of distribution points, then of course you don’t consume that product.

      I have occasionally wondered how widely Robert Piguet products were distributed. They certainly weren’t in my local department store when I was growing up, whereas, as you say in relation to your experience, Estee Lauder was. Piguet’s cult status has not been obtained by high sales.

      Magie Noire! I had forgotten about that one. I wore it myself in the 80s.

      Mention of your mother’s honest perfume wearing encourages me to do the same.

  3. My mom — apparently, i do not really recall — used to wear Gin Fizz back in the days. Ever since i started collecting perfume with a vengeance I got her hooked on Madame Rochas, the new Gin Fizz, AdiP Profumo, Crepe de Chine… The really cool thing though is the fact that my paternal grandma — who was, let’s say, a bit of a character, used to love, adore and crave… Cabochard! Again, i do not recall the actual scent from when i was small (I think she also had a thing for Fracas, at least when i smell Fracas it reminds me of her ..) but i think the idea is just really cool. Her love for perfume must have trickled down the blood, because my dad is actually more of a fumehead that my mom ever was (as said, i quickly remedied that situation a few years back), loving such gems as Green Water and Grey Flannel. He now loves vintage (well, duh) Equipage, and AdiP colonia… cheerio, Wendy

    1. That’s quite a perfume lineage you have! And it’s nice to have my thesis disproved – someone’s DOES remember their mum and grandmother (and dad, in your case) in those big, difficult scents of the mid-twentieth century. Funny, people reminisce much less often about their dad’s fragrance. (I love Grey Flannel) Luca Turin mentions his father wearing something quite special … can’t remember what it was.

      Gin Fizz has been rereleased – has your mum tried it?

      1. As soon as i heard it would be re-released i hunted down a bottle. She swears up and down that it is *exactly* as it was when she bought it as youngish woman. She’s actually on her second bottle! (re re-releases: my dad feels the same about the new Green Water, although I also got him a small vintage bottle, and this one does last longer).

  4. Annemarie, I really think that perfumistas are the ones that make the associations that you are referring to. Most of us (and certainly as children) only associate the smell with someone who loves us, not dirty panties.
    Here’s one of my favorite stories:
    When I was a child, my dad had a roving poker game. Every couple of weeks it was at our house, and the kitchen was filled with men (who were the fathers of my friends) downstairs talking, laughing, cursing and smoking cigars. I would be upstairs in my room, in bed for the night, feeling so safe and cozy with the sounds and the smells.
    I’m relating this because I now LOVE the smell of cigars. When I’m in a room (or more likely now, a garden) and somebody is smoking one, I can happily sit for hours, reminiscing about that poker game.
    I don’t block that scent, I welcome it because it evokes only comfort memories.
    So I don’t think you should restrict what you wear in front of your kids, you are creating great memories for them.

    1. That is a great story and you tell it well. I’m sure you are right, now I consider. Love will create the atmosphere in which the smells will be remembered in later years, no matter what the smells actually are. And that sense of security that your parents created for you is one of the greatest gifts parents can give.

      My daughter came into my bedroom recently and sat on the end of the bed and told me how nice the room smells. She said it must be my perfumes, and indeed I think they do attach themselves to carpet and curtains after a while. She said it smells very welcoming. I’m glad. And obviously I don’t need to keep the Habanita hidden away!

    2. Cigars are indeed nice! What about pipe tobacco? If you love that, you should try and get your hands on Tea for Two (Artisan P). i swear i smell pure pipe tobacco!! Cheers Wendy

        1. As a matter of fact, I just ordered a decant of Tea for Two – though I don’t know why I’m going to give myself a lemming for a scent that’s being discontinued….sigh…

          1. Not to worry, Tea for Two is still on the L’Artisan website, though rumours of d/c seem to have been discussed on Basenotes last month. A quick read suggest that they have d/c the 50 ml size. (Why?!) Sorry to have discomforted you.

  5. When it came out (around 1990?) Tresor became my mother’s signature scent, and she always smelled of it. I remember it being very sweet, almost syrup like, and being kind of fabulous. Now I smell it and think “fabulously trashy,” and that’s probaby apt. I remember her wearing black spandex dresses and heels, painting purple streaks in her huge mass of curly black hair… I’m the age now that she was in these memories, and I can’t imagine owning anything spandex, let alone leaving the house in any! Tresor was a good fit. 😉

    1. Tresor has left a lot of memories hasn’t it? Does she wear it now, or have you guided her into … um … calmer waters? I was just looking at Tresor on Fragrantica and was stunned to see the number of flankers and LEs it has had. Anyway, what great attitude! I’d love to see the purple streaks.

      A post for another day, and not one I could write, would be about how perfumistas have given their mothers perfumes, and tried to alter their taste.

  6. Oh! I love your story about Miriam and your daughter.

    My mother didn’t wear perfume and says she hates perfume. Although she has been know to wear Bath and Body Works scented lotions and things of that nature. She likes vanilla/gourmand/foody scents, but I don’t remember her even wearing scented lotion until the BBW opened in our town, which was when I was in high school I think.

    My grandmother wore perfume and I remember her bottle of Shalimar (the lovely gold slotted one) and a numbered Chanel, but I don’t know for sure which Chanel it was. I’m not sure I ever remember smelling them on her, though, just being on her bathroom counter.

    My daughter, who is only three, often asks me if she can smell my “pervume,” so I take it she already associates scent with me. ❤ sweetheart

    I think if I could choose the scent she associates with me, it would be Arpege, No. 22, or Miriam. 🙂

    1. Nostalgie, not Miriam, but I know what you mean. Natalie from Another Perfume Blog very generously sent me a sample of Miriam and I was thrilled to try it, but I don’t like it as much as Nostalgie. What I do like about Miriam is the name. That captures the vintage reference perfectly.

      Chanel is so often given as a gift, and the receiver no doubt feels she should display it.

      As for Arpege, have you seen those old magazine ads, featuring a little girl writing in chalk on her garden path: ‘Mommy loves Arpege’. And there is another one, showing the girl comforting her teary mother: ‘Don’t cry Mommy. I’m sure Daddy will give you Arpege!’

      Dearie me.

      1. Funny about the Nostalgie/Miriam mixup, I’m sure it’s just my brain switching myself into your story – so funny!

        I really need to try Nostalgie too.

        Arpege is glorious stuff, and I love those “Mommy loves Arpege” ads. I’ve even thought of buying one off ebay to frame. I’m not sure I’ve seen the “Don’t cry Mommy” one though – it’s a little disturbing!

    2. Susan, my 4yo son is often at my side when I’m getting ready at the beginning of the day (I’m sure you know what that’s like) and when I spray myself, he’ll often say, “Mommy, can I have some boy puh-foom?” He’s the best-smelling 4yo in his Preschool. 😉

      1. haha! I haven’t actually had the heart to let her wear perfume. Seems way too “big girl” as yet. I have let her put on some scented lotion a few times and she loooooves it.

        I love 3-4 year olds… so sweet.

  7. I wore Cabochard as my signature scent when my children were small. So there! I’m sure when my children smell it in the future, they’ll think of me, in all my complexity. And my own mother wore Shocking! A friend recently sent me a sample of vintage Shocking so I could smell it again. I found it very beautiful and comforting (even though I knew it my head it was a little skanky)

    1. Ah, so your experience supports Sassa’s (above)! Lovely! It is very telling that your heart finds Shocking comforting even tho’ your head tells you it is skanky.

      Of course we only learn what ‘skanky’ is after we have grown up …

  8. I’m like Suzanne, my parents were pretty open with us about sex (they’re still crazy about each other and we always knew that was an important part of their marriage) so my mom wearing va-va-va-voom perfumes for date night out with dad was pretty par for the course. My mom’s only in her 60’s, so I don’t remember her wearing any mid-century frags, but I do remember her marvellous sillage when they had a big night out.

    For myself, my children are used to watching their father greeting me at the end of the day by placing his face in my decolletage and making appreciative noises. It makes the little ones giggle and the teenagers groan, but as my 16yo summed it up a little while ago at supper, “It’s only lately I’ve realized that most of my friends’ parents don’t have a relationship like yours – I feel really lucky.” Basically, now I follow in my mother’s footsteps: I don’t hide my Black Cashmere days from them.

    Timely post, Anne-Marie. I’m working on one about how I got into perfume, and it involves childhood memories of my mom.

    1. Oh I shall look forward to that post. Perfume stories are wonderful! Responses to this ‘Mums and perfume’ post seem to demonstrate how often we take our earliest cues on perfume and style from our parents, especially mothers.

      I do wear perfumes that are much more sophisticated – and expensive – than my mother’s simple April Violets. But it is thanks to her efforts that I have the education and the job that allows me to afford expensive perfume. And for me, April Violets is THE perfume – the earliest perfume I remember, the perfume that was present at the dawn of the world. It is certainly the yardstick against which I judge all violet perfumes and all violet notes.

      How wonderful that your 16yo felt able to articulate their appreciation of your relationship.

      1. This was a really interesting post, Annemarie. I’m enjoying reading everyone’s answers. Loved hearing that Dionne’s parents were openly affectionate and that a sense of sexual playfulness exists in her own marriage that her 16-yo can respect and appreciate. I also quite enjoyed reading, in your comment above, how you felt about your mother and why her April Violets will always be the benchmark violet perfume for you.

        1. Thanks, yes, I love posts like this so I thought I’d write one myself.

          April Violets is not a sweet violet at all so you can imagine my confusion when I started smelling a few of those. ErrrK!

  9. This is a great post and great question, Anne Marie. The smells I associate with my mom from childhood aren’t perfume smells, as we often could not afford such “luxuries.” My scented memories of her are from my teenage years and later. So I have often wondered about the “mum scents” that are common and whether, in 20 years, something like Marc Jacobs Lola will be a “mum scent” for the next generation.

    1. Thanks, that’s a really great point. There is every chance that stuff by Marc Jacobs will be the mum’s scents of the future, I guess. And Coco Mademoiselle would be another. Sigh.

      Perhaps a difference is that there are so many perfumeson the market these days that smell all the same. Our children may grow up not recognising single perfumes, but genres – CM and all its clones, Angel and all ist clones, and so on.

      In the past women had far fewer scents to choose from, especially if you lived away from large cities. I was much struck by Wendy’s remark, above, that her mother wore Youth Dew – because it was available. I’m sure YD serviced the adventurous tastes of untold numbers of women who, of they had the chance, might have been even more daring.

  10. That line cracked me up – “Do Bandit wearers not have children?” : – )

    You raise a very good point, and I can tell you that my mother wore Lentheric Tweed, which is a bit reminiscent of Cabochard, and certainly in a more outdoorsy rugged vein than something snuggly and maternal. Though she absolutely was that too!

    1. Oh Tweed! How could I forget that! Lentheric was a huge brand when I was growing up. Tweed is, or was, great! Yes, very rugged. And cheaper than Cabochard, perhaps, and so attractive for women trying to stretch family budgets. And you have reminded me that the elderly mother of a friend of mine used to wear it, and she was very maternal.

      So what is emerging out of this discussion is really a very obvious point – that women may use perfume as an easy way of exploring identities and ideas about themselves OUTSDIDE their allotted roles in life. Ways to question, resist, transgress … It was perhaps THESE women Germaine Cellier was thinking of when she composed Bandit.

      Seen in that light, the money we spend on perfume seems like nothing, given the freedom it grants us! Hey, go spend! 🙂

  11. May I start with answering your last question? I think that in your case “just wear what you like” and “be true to yourself” contradict to each other. Since you chose to wear those perfumes when your kids are around instinctively, not as a conscious decision, it is who you are, how you feel. So maybe you do not need to change anything?

    My grandmother, who is 91 now, wore Lancome’s Climat (my all-time favorite perfume), Estee (I didn’t like it when last tried 10 years ago, will re-try soon) and J’ose by Guy Laroche (don’t remember hoow it smelled, it’s discontinued now).

    My mother wore Dior’s Miss Dior, Diorella and Dior-Dior. First two are my current favorites, the last one I do not remember since it was discontinued.

    1. You are right about the contradiction, although after all these discussions I do now feel better about wearing some of my fiercer perfumes around the kids, and did just that when we went out for pasta dinner last night. One of the last warm evenings we shall get here.

      That is another great perfume lineage. You are lucky. It would be like growing up with classical music in the house. It becomes just part of life.

      All those Diors! I was interested to read recently that it was not until the 1980s, with Dune and Poison, that Dior finally acted on the knowledge that people were getting muddled with all those Dior names.

  12. Lovely post. My mum did not buy or wear perfume when she was looking after 3 small children, but luxuriated in “Aqua Manda” baths – herbs, orange and cedar. Later in life acquired a taste for Nahema which became her signature scent. A keen gardener, she grew sweet briar, sweet peas and herbs and passed on an appreciation of lovely scents.

    I loved perfume as a young woman in the 70s and 80s, Diorella, Magie Noire, Cristalle, Femme, O de Lancome – and wish I still had some of those bottles. When I became a mum myself I stopped wearing perfume for almost three years – perfume was jarring to my nose during that time and I did not need or want to spray it. I have now gone to the other extreme, and own more perfume than I can ever use, I don’t have a signature scent but am always perfumed!

    1. Your mum sounds lovely. I too love the peace and luxury of a bath, door shut, no kids. I’ve become curious about Aqua Manda; I’m just about to dive off and do some research!

      Magnificent perfumes you mention! What a great era that was, before the likes of CkOne and Issey Miyake came along to clean up the scene. How I wish I’d hung on the Magie Noire I had in the 80s! I didn’t wear much perfume wen my kids were little, but like you, I’m making up for it.


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