What does “classic” mean?

Classic is a word that I use way too often and I am committing to a year-2011 resolution right now… not to use it anymore… or at least, less often.

Whenever I go perfume shopping I run into the c-word all the time.  The word “classic” seems to be the catch-all descriptor for perfumes that are still around after 50 years or more.  Offhand, you’d think it would be a good thing.  The word “classic” conjures up images of classic beauties like Grace Kelly and Greta Garbo, classic movies like Gone with the Wind and White Christmas and classic cars like vintage Cadillacs.  But when applied to perfumes, my experience has been that classic represents something quite different and that’s probably because of the nature of modern perfumery.  The “classics” they sell today like Arpège by Lanvin or L’Interdit by Givenchy are not the same perfumes they were even 10 years ago.  They’ve changed… likely due to changing tastes.  Or the scarcity, disappearance or outright ban of certain raw materials or bases.  Or, more likely, to the rise and abundancy of cost accountants.

In short, classic perfumes which are sold today are shadows of their former glory.  For instance, my bottle of L’Interdit could not be the same perfume that Audrey Hepburn wore in 1957 (supposedly, it was created for her).  It’s just not beautiful enough.  Oh, the opening notes are gorgeous!  When I smelled it at the store, it held such promise of a “classic” 50s aldehydic floral that I bought it without waiting to see how it would evolve.  But on me the next day, the grand overture lasted all of 20 minutes.  A couple of hours later I was in the washroom bent over the sink… trying to wash off the el-cheapo synthetic, sweet musk.

 For many sales associates the word “classic” seems to be a euphemism for:

a. I don’t know the notes, and/or

b. I don’t get bonus points for it and so if you would just buy this ultra-fresh-Hombre-Sport-Energie-Noir thing, I’ll be that much closer to receiving an Yves Saint-Laurent make-up bag.

Perhaps I am being a little too harsh here.  The truth is I have only admiration for sales associates who spend their life on their feet, all dressed up and trying to sell basically useless perfume to weary shoppers.  Admittedly, I wouldn’t sell perfume if my life depended on it but fortunately there are people who will… even with a stressful business model of simply moving the boxes that were delivered last week… whether they be beautiful, “classics” or none of the above.

In public libraries, classics are novels from former centuries that no one borrows.  When a library user found a classic Stendhal novel on our “Take one, please!” table, he objected.  “You can’t get rid of Le Rouge et le Noir!  It’s a classic!”  My “classic” response was… “Well… the last time someone borrowed it, Madonna was a virgin and I need the shelf space for the latest Danielle Steel blockbuster which has a reserve list longer than this day is long.   And, while you’re at it, please take this anthology of Classic 19th Century Poetry.  It has never circulated since we purchased it over 50 years ago.”  Ouch!

Does that mean that all the oldies are useless classics?  Thankfully, no!  When people ask me what I think of Chanel No. 5 I tell them that No. 5 is still “young, crisp and smart”.  Even today, my newly-purchased bottle of the perfume smells modern and elegant.  In that sense, and luckily, Ernest Beaux’ classic is… well… not a classic.

So let’s close this post on an equally high note… this photo of Katherine Hepburn, who remained “young, crisp and smart” throughout her life… a classic.  D’oh!

Top image : Vanitas (1630) by Pieter Claesz

Bottom image : Katherine Hepburn

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  1. Oh, Kate Hepburn is my favourite movie star! I love her sense of style. I love that she liked to wear suits. In her autobiography she describes getting several linen suits made for herself in London before flying to Africa to film African Queen. She said that she was the only one there who was comfortable.

    A classic to me is exactly like Chanel No. 5, something that has a long pedigree but is still perfectly relevant today.

    You’re right, most of the vintage perfumes I have tried are so much better than the modern ones available. The only exception is Rochas Femme – I like the modern formula with the sexy cumin note better than the vintage one I have tried.

    • I agree with you. A “classic” should be something relevant today. But I find that it is overused and a catch-all word today for legacy perfumes… and totally misleading.

      Great story about Kate Hepburn. Thanks!

  2. I always figured “classic” should mean of no definitive era. If something meets the stringent classic certification (in my books), it has to smell as if it were released yesterday, even if it’s 100 years old (take Jicky for example).

    Unfortunately, that dreaded word means something entirely different in the land of perfume, as you’ve described. I prefer the term “vintage” when it comes to smells of yesteryear.

  3. I think the only time I ever heard a sales associate use the shopworn word “classic” was when a woman assumed I was buying for my grandmother and led me over to Shalimar. The younger associate there, seeing we were looking at Shalimar, decreed with the inelegant abruptness of the contemporary tween that Shalimar is for “old ladies”. I felt very sorry for the first associate, who wasn’t exactly ripe on the vine herself.

    I wish I heard these gals use the word more often. I need a good laugh. But I figure they know that most shoppers here a). Wouldn’t know classic from craptastic and b). Would probably view the term as a signifier of total irrelevance.

    Classic, for me, signifies a state of mind, I guess. It isn’t simply or always something old. Many old things, like the beaten plastic watering can on my back porch, are basically *just* old. Classic fits into some special category that transcends space and time? I dunno. If so it’s purely subjective, and someone out there considers the work of Danielle S. masterpieces on par with (sigh) Shakespeare.

    • The last time I was at the Guerlain counter, I asked the sales associate if they had Jicky.

      She replied, “Of course! Where would we be without Jicky?”

      I replied, “My guess is we’d be right here.”

      There are a couple of SA’s I see all the time because of their knowledge of perfume. They help me build my collection and I buy as much from them as I can.

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