11/14/18

"Outdated" vs. "Dated" Fragrances


Is the telephone outdated? Not in the least.

In a recent basenotes thread, the OP pondered Habit Rouge, and wondered if fragrances of its ilk are truly "dated." The general consensus was that fragrance appreciation is mostly subjective, and the conceptualization of something "dated" could apply within this broad framework, if one looks closely enough at it.

As I perused the responses, I noticed that no one made the rather important distinction between "dated" and "outdated." This tends to happen frequently whenever I discuss classic fragrances, especially masculines. Recently a faithful and valued reader challenged my attribution of the word "dated" to Zino, and wrote at great length that by today's niche-friendly standards, something like Zino is merely ahead of its time. I concur wholeheartedly, but admit that describing something as lovely as Zino in such a succinct way can lead to misinterpretations of my words, and my definitions.

There is also a greater danger. If fragrance appreciation is to be considered entirely subjective, then definitions become meaningless, and we begin to head down the road of misunderstanding how perfume fits into the endless narrative of our history. Take telephones, for example. Can we view the telephone from a purely subjective standpoint and say that whatever charms your average landline telephone hold are whatever you make of them? Or can we objectively identify a difference between contemporary cell phones and antique rotary dials?

If you ask me whether telephones are "outdated," my answer would be surface-level negative. Smart phones are technically telephones, and therefore the concept of the telephone isn't "outdated," because we still need telephones, and still use them. But ask me if a Northern Electric Company candlestick telephone, like the one on my desk, is "outdated," and you'll get a much different answer.

The same applies to fragrances. Zino is "dated." It smells like a direct ancestor of Brut, adjusted to suit 1980s fashions. It also smells like a fragrance that spawned a zillion other fragrances, which means it has its own lineage. (It's similar to people that way.) The fact that contemporary niche frags, which are full of ambery, woody, animalic, tobacco-inspired, "smoky" notes, smell right at home next to Zino, speaks to a return to the sensibilities that introduced this template in the first place, which also makes contemporary niche frags susceptible to being labeled as "dated."

But it is these very contemporary niche frags that insulate Zino from being "outdated." Like I said, Zino is related to Brut, but is an updated, improved, and ultimately more successful iteration of that which Brut represents: the quintessential ambery fougere. Nothing has superseded Zino in excellence, but many have imitated and expanded upon it. So if Zino is "dated" but not "outdated," what does that make Brut? Wait for it . . . . Wait for it . . .

Yeah, Brut is "outdated." Make no mistake, it's still relevant, it's still wonderful, it's still fun to wear, and it's still entirely wearable, and it even garners sincere compliments from women (I got one not long ago), but if we refer to Brut, we are referring to a fragrance that has been eclipsed and contextualized firmly within its time period, the mid 1960s. Another fragrance that is "outdated" is Jovan Musk for Men. One can enjoy MfM, one can love MfM, one can wear MfM til the cows come home, but in the end, it represents a time when sweet, somewhat acrid and animalic musks were all the rage. Fortunately, they are no longer the rage.

Now, if you were to present me with something cast from the Musk for Men mould, perhaps something like Ungaro Pour L'Homme II, and tell me II is "outdated" by whatever standard you hold, that's fine, but I would vehemently disagree. Despite its being rich with synthetic musks (not the least of which is a hearty dollop of Civetone), and cast in the bourbon-barreled style of the late 1980s, I would merely refer to it as "dated," and even go so far as to suggest that it's barely that.

Ungaro Pour L'Homme II represents that rarest of rarities in the masculine canon - an endpoint to a specific evolution. The species in question? Guerlain's Jicky (in the abstract); Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur (for practical discussion). From Jovan Sex Appeal, we trace a handful of similar ambery fougerientals, until we reach the sleekest, most efficient, and most impressive creation, with the biggest budget, and with the biggest contemporary designer brand behind God's curtain (Chanel). Though it smells of a bygone era, and elicits nostalgia, II is still viable as a contemporary creation by dint of its never being surpassed.

And so I say to those who fear these terms, fear not. Greatness, cultural relevance, and lineage all factor into how these things are defined. We can inhale Mitsouko and consider it "dated," a thing of postwar decadence, but we can also consider it eminently viable as a contemporary fragrance (although this is arguable). We can do the same with something like Zino, probably with greater ease, despite its age, simply by considering what Zino is - a great fragrance. And Habit Rouge can also sustain the ironic considerations of those who appreciate its time period, without needing to relive its time while wearing it.


8 comments:

  1. Hmmmmmm.....
    To my thinking there is dated, outdated, and classic.
    Classic = judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.
    I think it is more an evolution or progression than a label. (A fragrance isn't damned to be 'outdated forever.)
    I was just thinking about Paco Rabanne pour Homme the other day. A client gave my husband a bottle for his birthday last year. My recollection of PRpH was as a teen in the 80's, it was an 'old man' scent then and a relic of the 70's heavy super macho animalic musks. (Like Jovan Musk for Men.)When my husband wore it for the first time I was really surprised. Wowzers! It's like a high budget Irish Spring with the clean white laundry musks swapped out for that naughty, acrid, macho animalic 70's musk. It's absolutely brilliant & therefore now a classic!

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    1. Paco Rabanne PH is dated, and a classic.

      It's dated because of its historical connection to dihydromyrcenol. It contains about 3% dihydromyrcenol, and spawned the further use of the chemical in subsequent fougeres through the 70s and 80s. So to smell it now, I recognize it as a landmark in time, a "date" of 1973, because of dihydromyrcenol, and how 78's Azzaro PH and 82's Drakkar Noir continued the evolution of that sort of soapy, clean, musky fougere idea as time marched onward toward the 21st century. Because PRPH still smells amazing, despite being 45 yrs old, and holds its own among contemporary fougeres of the last ten years, it is also "classic." It is a successful fragrance on almost every front, barring contentions about reformulation.

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  2. We may disagree somewhat on the terminology here. I think the move from dated to outdated largely has to do with something's relevance, or whether or not it is even produced. Maybe hai karate is outdated. I don't think brut can be outdated AND relevant, wonderful, fun to wear, and wearable. Nobody is going to smell you wearing brut and think "WTF was that". haha.

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    1. Jason, we'll probably have to agree to disagree. I agree with you that something "outdated" relates to its cultural relevance, but disagree with pretty much everything else you said. Hai Karate is outdated because it is not representative of a successful fragrance as much as it represents a time period's dearly departed zeitgeist. Brut is right there with it. I wore it last summer and my father commented on it. He said, "Is that Brut? Wow. I knew it smelled like something old." My dad is 70. For him to say Brut smells old is pretty much an indicator that it is an outmoded, outdated, and culturally forgotten fragrance.

      Two things can be true at once, however. While it is a bit of a relic, and something no current fragrance trends are attempting to emulate or revive, Brut still smells good, and is still a fun wear - and like I said, it still gets the occasional compliment. I've heard of attractive women finding Brut to be irresistible. I knew a perfume store owner who wore nothing but Brut, despite having 1,500 more sophisticated fragrances at his disposal. But while it still has its own cache, it has little cache with 2018.

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  3. I’d like to respectfully suggest that the axis of ‘dated’ & ‘outdated’ is misleading dichotomy… as is the telephone analogy (but I love the picture.) Technology outmodes other technology, and not always for reasons of quality (RIP Betamax) … Here in late capitalist culture, we treat market conditions with a sort of three-fold causation cum reification with Darwinian – Marxian – Freudian overtones (respectively: natural selection points to a dialectical of productive efficiency and use, points to the unconscious drives of the culture, or something like that…) We assume that new modes banish old ones for #reasons like ‘the invisible hand of the marketplace’, but of course something inevitably gets lost in the form of social values. Our own time has witnessed a mass, fetishized mourning of the analogue, whether it be the ‘warmth’ of audial dirt in a recording on vinyl or the care implicit in greeting a bank teller you know by name. The punchline to all this is that modes themselves become outmoded, and cultures also shift for other reasons than market conditions, spawning moments and motifs that are unexpected in their advent and almost inexplicable in retrospect… I’d go so far to say that ‘dated’ is what we say when we’ve lost our clear throughline to the cultural drives that produced a choice (like musk in the 70’s, or bell-bottom trousers, or corduroy suits, though at least two of those things are having a mini-moment just now) and cannot justify the movement towards or the movement away from this choice on the basis of obvious cause & effect vectors like technology.

    Back to perfume. Technology plays a big role in why some perfumes are new. nitro musks made Brut indisputably different than the fougères that informed it. You’ve argued for the rise of synthetic sandalwood surrogates in the making of Zino and that seems likely to me. We are now living in the era of ISO E super and ambroxan bombs (viz a blogger called JTD’s genius remark that ISO-heavy fragrances have transcended acknowledged ‘woody’ categories to become pretty much their own genre.) But this is also cultural: Fahrenheit contains ISO, but not in nearly as critical a functional or artistic way as either Terre d’Hermès or Encre Noire. ISO-heavy compositions exemplify a contemporary approach to perfumery in which notes are cleaned and polished individually rather in the way that digital recordings isolate key points of sound while removing ‘dirt’ and ‘fuzz’ and dissonant complexity. Complicated materials like oakmoss are taken apart and reassembled free of problematic molecular components by houses (like Hermès or Chanel) that can afford this IFRA-friendly process. Post-niche, post-Ellena taste cultivates an appreciation for the curated pyramid. The impression, broadly speaking, feels clean and lucid, modern though somehow quoted, synthetic but focused; it risks becoming, as one critic has observed, the easy listening (or EDM?) of perfumery.

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    1. One could argue that Betamax is outdated, as are DVDs. The reason is that they have been surpassed technologically. One could also argue that Blu-ray is dated, but not outdated, for the reason that the technology is still relevant (we get a perfect picture) but we no longer need the disc (we can stream in HD). The mode of Blu-ray has been perfected but the end result hasn't really been surpassed. Of course, we now have 4K and all sorts of extremely hi-def resolutions, but here we get into "overclocked" technological advancements. I'm not convinced that 4K is really a step forward, because I don't see any improvement in the performance of a film or tv show just because I can see the actors' every nose hair.

      A better example perhaps is analog vs digital sound. You say that has "warmth" but in actuality it has length - more precisely, wavelength. Sound waves of analog recordings travel infinitely further than digital recordings, thus making a vinyl record a more effective mode than a CD or MP3.

      One can look to perfumes as similar systems. You mention Iso E - the true landmark of Iso E in recent history (last 50 yrs) is Halston Z14. It is arguable as to whether a fragrance since Z14 has used Iso E Super to the same effect as subsequent fragrances, and that raises the question of how was it meant to be utilized in the first place? Was it supposed to be its own note (no, not really), or was it meant to underscore the potential of starring notes? If the latter, then Z14 is dated, merely because it stands as the date marker of when Iso E Super became super relevant in contemporary perfumery. It avoids being outdated because as such an entity, it paved the way for frags that haven't necessarily improved upon it, stuff like Tom Ford's Italian Cypress.

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  4. Anyway, this too shall pass. I think… We are really having quite a moment, culturally & technologically speaking, which is why it is easy to draw parallels to other indicators (electronics, entertainment, communication…politics?) in this conversation. I think the issue isn’t ‘dated’ it’s ‘datable’, and while subjectivity isn’t everything, the datable-ness of a fragrance is a factor hugely skewed by wearer, community and setting…Fragrance makes no sense objectively unless understood as a practice (that’s really what this whole argument – this whole blog – is about.) To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, Habit Rouge is Habit Rouge is Habit Rouge, but that particular composition is worth noting because to one population it seems so dated as to represent baffling arcana (a recent poster on Fragrantica said they didn’t feel “safe” wearing it in public), while on the other it has a cult of fragheads who love it as received arcana while on still another it is (as one reads on scenthurdle.com and I agree) a sound example of an older fragrance that, post-IFRA-era, post-reformulation and LVMH buyout, has found an audience with the segment of the market that mostly shops niche. To people in my office, it’s probably just talcum powder! Arguably, it’s a classic not because it has stayed true to its roots but because it has found ways to make those roots still seem relevant from the perspective of current perfumery practice. I suspect that when we’ve all recovered from the challenges of the particularly challenging interface of technology and culture represented by reformulations of the early 2000’s, we will come to recognize what all classics nerds accept about canon: iterations vary, but do not necessarily obscure or destroy a legacy…They may even serve to prolong and enrich it.

    On that note, one thing you said that I do agree with relates to a perfume representing the end of an inquiry… That may or may not be true, but as a fan I find it at least compelling, as it pertains to Habit Rouge, Eau Sauvage or Kouros, for example. At least until some new technology comes along and bonds with a cultural imperative (or vice versa) to produce sweeping new changes to the way we think of a fern in the woods, or a breeze blowing through the island of Cyprus, or whatever other, strange, new cultural fantasies fulfill our psychological & social needs.

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    1. To me the problem exists when people peg fragrances as being "old" or "old man" and then take that ball and run with it to an end goal of "outdated."

      If it smells like an "old man," then one must have an incredibly accurate idea of what an old man smells like. But to then transition that to a question of "Is this outdated?" seems pretty futile and misleading. I don't like that the terminology is dragged into such a subjective perception.

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