An Unironic Ode to ‘Old Lady’ Perfumes—and Why They’re Worth a Try

Rachel Krause
Getty Images, Graphic Design by Candace Napier

Getty Images, Graphic Design by Candace Napier

I remember the first time I smelled Chanel No. 5 like it was yesterday. I was 12 years old and in the ladies’ room at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Rockefeller Center, where I was dining with my parents. On the marble counter in the bathroom, just next to the sink, sat a tray stocked with all of the fine toiletries a fancy lady might need to complete her upscale restroom trip.

Naturally, this included a large bottle of the most famous perfume of all time, which, as a budding future beauty editor, I’d already heard so much about. I dutifully doused myself in the stuff, triggering an immediate assault on my own sensitive nasal passages. I hated it, but it was too late. Upon my return to the dinner table, my dad told me that I smelled like his mother, who’s 80, terrifyingly bitter, and smokes two packs of Virginia Slims a day. Not the best look.

A bad experience is a bad experience, and similar to the way I haven’t had a chocolate truffle since the time I ate an entire box of them and fell violently ill when I was eight, I avoided Chanel No. 5 for years, along with other “classic” perfumes typically associated with polished “mature” women. You may know them colloquially as “old lady perfumes”: Shalimar, Fracas, L’Air du Temps—all very different scents, but all off the table.

But now, roughly a decade later, I’m kind of falling in love with them. Hear me out.

My perfume preferences have changed so much over the years. After my ill-fated tête-à-tête with No. 5, I gravitated to more age-appropriate fragrances, like Aquolina’s Pink Sugar and the now-discontinued Miss Dior Cherie. Now, I exclusively wear Kiehl’s Original Musk … and as of recently, Chanel No. 5 Eau Première. It’s a “modern, airy interpretation of No. 5” that I received as a gift, “a silky-smooth harmony of notes that reveals the delicate facet of the now and forever fragrance.”

Okay, sure, why not. I gave myself a light spritz on one arm, just to check if I still hated it. I don’t know if it has more to do with the updated formulation of the perfume or with my shifting sensibilities, but I didn’t hate it at all. In fact, I really, really liked it—and I’ve been wearing it ever since. Well, kind of.

Here’s the thing: So-called “old lady perfumes” are called that for a reason, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing; they’re just not youthful. They’re dressed up, they’re kind of in-your-face, they’re the olfactory equivalent of a string of pearls. Elegant, you might say—and I wear them when I want to feel that way. Scent is so powerful, and while it sounds kind of basic to say that a change in fragrance can make you present yourself differently, there’s some truth to it.

I won’t be wearing my new go-to to any warehouse parties or casual bar-going any time soon, but when I really, really need to feel like a grown-up, I know exactly which scent will seal the deal. So if you happen to sense a cloud of Chanel No. 5 in your midst, don’t jump to conclusions and assume it’s a wealthy grandmother. It might just be me.