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How Revisiting the Fragrances of My Youth Was Surprisingly Evocative

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Image – Carmenpalma/Stocksy

Welcome to Blasts From My Beauty Past, our monthly column written by journalist, and Live That Glow Beauty Editor, Philippa PearneFor the last 17 years, Philippa has written about her own beauty wins, fails and everything in between. In her monthly column, she looks back at the power of fragrance.

On a trip to Disneyland Paris with my children recently, I was sure memories of my youth would hit me as soon as I walked through the gates. 

The nostalgic sound of Disney fairground music, reminders of Mickey Mouse at every turn and memories of my dad complaining that nowhere served a relaxing beer. (A grievance I couldn’t quite relate to until I experienced it with my own kids.) 

But as it turned out, the reminiscing started before we’d even got there. During the ferry crossing, I snatched five minutes away from my children (and husband) who were slowly frying their brains (otherwise known as ‘screen time’) and headed straight for the duty-free store.

It might surprise you to know that even though I’m a beauty editor, a shop filled with beauty products is somewhere I’d usually avoid going at all costs when on holiday. It’s a bit like a pizza chef ordering a margarita from the menu on his day off – enough already! But the other options were a Costa, the toilets or the kids’ creche, and at least the duty-free shop might provide me with some journalistic inspiration…

And just like that, I got it straight away. Right in front of me was that green, headless, armless naked body with the white stripes. No I wasn’t hallucinating. It was Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, the men’s fragrance that, when I smell it, takes me straight back to the memory of my first ever boyfriend. 

I made a beeline for the sample, took off the lid, inhaled it and felt so many feelings. Innocence, love, heartbreak and above all, laughter. Because the boyfriend in question gave me just that – so much laughter. He was (and still is) a big ball of happy energy. 

“This is fun,” I thought. So I sought out some more. CK One was next. The first fragrance I ever owned. 

 

Image – Hermes

 

My dad agreed to buy three bottles of it on a family day trip to France – one for me aged around 14 and one for each of my sisters.  I had never felt so grown up. And as soon as I smelt that duty-free sample, the memories came flooding back. Truly happy, I-can’t-believe-dad-said-yes, ones.

I then noticed another Calvin Klein fragrance – Eternity for Men – which incidentally I decided to side-step. “Hmm, let’s give that one a miss,” I thought, since it was worn by a not so fondly remembered ex-boyfriend. I couldn’t even bring myself to open the lid, let alone sniff what was inside. 

So, I swiftly moved on. Armani Code. Ah, that’s better. This was my now-husband’s fragrance back in the day when we first met circa 2007 and because I liked it so much, for the next few years too. 

It wreaked of nervousness, flirtatiousness, happiness, career carving, carefree holidaying, house viewings, child-free social gatherings, engagement celebrating, wedding admin and generally planning a life together. 

I continued wondering around to see if there were any more nostalgic gems to be found and sure enough, there was Caleche by Hermes. 

My wonderful mum has never been a huge perfume person. So it still comes as a surprise to me then that back in the day, whenever she and my dad would go out for the evening, she’d douse herself in Caleche. It’s a rather heady scent you see so I’m not sure how this one slipped through her pernickety net, but perhaps she knew my dad liked it. 

 

Image – Tommy Hilfiger

 

On these evenings, they would leave us with our rather clumsy babysitter aged around 107. Mum would come and tuck me in before they left, looking all glamorous, jewellery rattling as she cuddled me. 

And the smell of her perfume filled my bedroom with both an explosion of love for her and a profound sadness that she was leaving. I smelt those feelings even on that rocky, noisy ferry.

Fast forward to now, and every time I go and say goodnight to my own children before leaving them with their (ahem) non-clumsy babysitter, my son often comments on how nice I smell (he loves a bit of Diptique) and then asks what time I’ll be home. And I can absolutely feel how he is feeling.

Next up was Tommy Girl. Cringe. All I can say is that if the ferry crossing wasn’t making me feel sick, then this certainly was. And not just because it smells so sickly sweet. 

This was the scent of my mid to late teens. When embarrassing outfit choices were made, questionable boys were kissed, and my school friendships were in tatters. I was almost amazed they still sold it, before having to remind myself that Tommy Hilfiger actually isn’t out to get me. (Funny that.)

Fragrances can hold so much more than memories too. They are also our last remaining scent of the ones no longer here. Well, not physically anyway. 

Just around the corner was Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent. It was my late dad’s daily scent which I sprayed onto a tissue and still keep in the top drawer of my bedside table. 

Every time I open that drawer, the smell wafts towards me and there he is, clear as day. All suited and booted, racing down the stairs, change jangling in his pocket, clearing his throat, trying endlessly to find his wallet. Always slightly late and always ever so slightly irritating my mum who has by now been waiting in the car for ten minutes. Ah, memories!

We can’t travel back in time, and there’s no such thing as a teleporter, no matter what Apple have you believe they will invent next. But we do have fragrance, which is close. If there’s ever a way to take yourself back to a different time, it’s that.

Whether you want to feel closer to someone, remember a happy time in your life or use it as a reminder that you’ve lived to tell a certain tale, a fragrance is just as effective as any photo. It can immediately transport your senses back to a time, place or person. 

So, next time you’re in duty-free or a department store, I urge you to go back to your youth, just for five minutes. Because it’s amazing how accurately these little bottles of nostalgia can retell a lifetime of stories. 

 

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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University
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