The Cologne Chronicles
A Personal History
The other day I found an old bottle of Ralph Lauren cologne in the closet at my parents’ house. It was probably thirty years old. I posted a photo on Instagram and received an avalanche of comments. Some people remembered the scent vividly, others still had bottles of similar vintage. Some were attracted, others mildly repelled. It was a reminder: People feel strongly about cologne.
That’s only natural. Fragrance is often tied to our teenage years. You have a little money, you spend time in a mall, you’re susceptible to advertising. More than that, you’re open to sensory experience. And not anything subtle either. You want a band with emotion—whether Led Zeppelin at one end of the spectrum or The Smiths at the other. You might be drawn to books, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or films, like Goodfellas, with vivid points of view.
Which is why, for better or worse, you’re drawn to cologne. Some of it quite powerful. In the late 1980s that was Cool Water by Davidoff, which could be sampled in those strips that they inserted in Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated (these were weekly print magazines, kids!). Some magazines that had their strips pulled open would still smell for weeks.
Drakkar Noir was before my time, but remained an object of fascination—I can see the curved, black bottle clearly in my mind. A man with Drakkar Noir, it seemed to me, was in control of his life—he could read Playboy, drink whisky, drive a Porsche. Crucially, Drakkar Noir meant no curfew. I realize now, of course, that a man excited about Drakkar Noir had probably not really grown up.
I was thinking about these bottles, the ads, and the fragrances themselves. Here are some scents that factored in my own history.
-Old Spice. This is the first cologne I remember, though it might have technically been after shave lotion, that is probably the same thing with a different name. I’ve always been fascinated by Old Spice. It reminds me of my father, which I think is true for many people. It also makes me think of my grandfather—there’s a mid-century American feeling to it. What seems classic to us now was supposed to be adventurous to those men at the time, recalling rum bars in the Pacific from their navy days. That’s why the bottle is supposed to resemble a buoy (you didn’t know that, did you?). I still think it’s great.