A Love Letter to the Fragrances of Our Youth
Published Apr 04, 2014
It happened at the grocery store near my house. I was testing pineapples for ripeness (tip: the heavier it is, the riper it is), hoisting each one by its spine, when she walked by: my old babysitter, Cassie. Cassie babysat me fairly often for several years, when I was between six and nine years old, and all I wanted was to be exactly like her. She had long black shiny hair that she flipped impatiently over her shoulders and silver earrings shaped like tiny feathers; she wore off-the-shoulder shirts and a ring on her thumb (weird!) and she could pick me up easily and give me piggy back rides. I would fling my arms around her neck and bury my face in her hair; she smelled like heaven, like a cloud of elegance, like the embodiment of the cool teenager I wanted to be.
She went to college when I was ten. I’m still not okay with it.
Suddenly, there she was at my grocery store, squeezing pears! Cassie had her back to me, but it had to be her. It was her smell, the most distinctive smell in the world, and I was suddenly eight years old again. Then she turned around. It was a 60-year-old woman with dyed red hair tucked under her hat.
I had been tricked by A Little Sexy, a perfume by Designer Imposters—a company that I thought had died out in the mid-90s. I’ve never smelled it on anyone else, but I’d know that perfume anywhere. Cassie carried a little aerosol bottle(!) of it in her purse. How did this Designer Imposter Cassie standing in front of me find it?
I went home and googled it, and yup—Designer Imposters is still up and running, and yup—you can still buy A Little Sexy. (It’s $7.98, by the way. I was tempted to buy some but decided that would be creepy.) Then I got all nostalgic for the fragrances of my youth, so I put this little list together. If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, I dedicate this list to you and your high-school makeout sessions and anxiety-ridden locker room situations.
First launched in 1974, Love’s Baby Soft was a mega-hit for teen girls from the late ’70s through the late ’90s.
How it smells: Like you’ve dunked your head into a bottle of baby powder and inhaled. This is a single-note perfume, meaning it smells like one thing, and that thing is a clean baby in a fresh diaper.
Who wore it: Girls who hated getting all sweaty at gym class. Your best friend from church camp. Anyone who drew horses in her notebook.
Furthermore: The bottle looks uncomfortably like a pink penis. Also please check out the Love’s Baby Soft creepy sexy-toddler ad.
This perfume was on everyone’s dresser beginning in 1988, and commercials for it featured an insanely catchy song that went “EX-CLA-MAY-SHUN! ….A SITUATION!”, which I still hum under my breath sometimes. The bottle is shaped like an exclamation point, which, I remember thinking, was extremely cool.
How it smells: Bold n’ cheap. Exclamation hits you over the head with a fruity mixture of peach, apricot, and sandalwood, and lingers for_ hours_. It would have no problem riding a mechanical bull during a bachelorette party.
Who wore it: Party animals. Teens who were anxious about their social standing and therefore wanted something instantly recognizable in a distinctive and trendy bottle. So: me. Except it totally wasn’t cool anymore by the time I was old enough to wear perfume. But shhhh, don’t tell 12-year-old me, I’m kind of emotional.
Released in 1973, this was a perfume that was too old for you but you wanted to wear anyway.
How it smells: Citrusy, mixed with jasmine, rose, vanilla, and musk notes.
Who wore it: Your cool aunt with no kids and a boyfriend named Mike. They gambled.
This popular fragrance marketed to teens hit shelves in 1989, and was supposed to smell like “Instant California Sun.” My mother would not buy this for me, saying it “reeked.”
How it smells: So fruity! So musky! Weird and addictive, this was the strong-smelling precursor to that Herbal Essences super-fruit smell, with a dangerous hint of sexiness simmering underneath it.
Who wore it: Your best friend. Popular kids. Your older sister’s arch-nemesis.
It was 1988, and your crush was maybe...five years old? Unborn? No matter! He was birthed, turned into a teenager, and this cologne was still popular when he was ready to wow you with the fresh peach fuzz lines of his bowl-cut.
How it smells: Like we should make out. Cool Water has an immediate peppermint and lavender fragrance, and then heads directly into sandalwood, musk, and cedar, before trying for third base.
Who wore it: Every “cool” boy from grades 7 to 12 (slaps wandering hand off thigh).
Released in 2002, this runaway bestseller is instantly recognizable and reminds me of hot summer evenings when you don’t really have anything important to do, so you just drive around with everyone in your parents’ car.
How it smells: Like getting platonically spooned in a bed of vanilla, orange, and musk by your friend who wears only underwear to bed.
Who wore it: Half the sorority. That one girl with really shiny hair in your required college writing class. This perfume is at its best when warm, meaning that it’s a great fragrance to wear when going dancing.
Goddammit. I hated Country Apple, but Bath & Body Works was at its popularity peak when I was in middle and high school.
How it smells: Ugh. It’s a single-note perfume, so it smells like an apple...in the country? I don’t know. For the love of all that is holy, could single-note perfumes that smell like food please not be a thing?
Who wore it: The entire girls’ softball, swimming, and basketball teams. Body sprays were huge for sporty girls, who were hyper-concerned about stinkiness. They felt that a spray was not perfume, and therefore light enough to use at least once per class period. WRONG.
Ahhh, the fragrance of freshman year at Bay Port High. Launched in 1997, Clinique Happy had a slick advertising campaign that encouraged you to simply “be happy” and featured dancing models around a minimalist bottle.
How it smells: Super citrusy, bubbly, and flowery, like bergamot-flavored champagne on acid.
Who wore it: “Rich” girls at school, or girls who hoarded their allowance and babysitting money for six months to buy it (hiya). This was a status scent, so statusy that I almost never allowed myself to even use it after I finally bought it. Dad hated it. I was not allowed to wear it in the car.
Furthermore: The perfume came with a compilation CD of “happy”-themed songs, and I listened to it on repeat while doing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles on a sewing table in the basement. Ten years later, I performed a burlesque piece to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” using the very same CD. The number involved strategically placed balloons and an audience member with a pin. Memories.