Retro Lies

Back when we were talking about Jean Nate (and now I’ve gotta hunt up some retro JN cologne) March and several other of The Posse starting yarking about retro scents – not vintage haute couture but the scents that used to be found in drugstores and those odd little department stores (omg I LOVE coming across those!  Chicago used to be rife with them (back then, Bramson’s was my favorite – right on the corner of Randolph and Michigan Avenues, one stepped into a little cavern of mid-level luxe).  Now (at least in the Chicagoland area) the only two I can think of are Von Maur and Stein Mart – but… also.. back in the day (which seems to be going further and further ‘back’…)  suburban outdoor mall full-line department stores seemed more autonomous, carrying lines different than what could be found at the Boul Mich flagship.

One such store was Marshall Field and Company and one such mall was Oakbrook Center, in the Western ‘burbs.  Now… I was a North Shore gal, so ‘my’ malls were Old Orchard and Plaza del Lago and the strip malls of Skokie and Wilmette.  Going to the Western suburbs was akin to going to Jupiter!  In my mid-20s, though, I found myself at Oakbrook (Floyd only knows why) and I stepped into Marshall Field & Company (the name had not yet been changed)… as was the wont of all department stores of that era, Beauty was at the front of the store… and at the front of this particular department was a table display of Suzanne Thierry’s Ondine.

photo stolen: ebay

I can’t tell you much about the scent other than it’s an aldehydic floral, which is one of my favorite perfume types.  It’s got a nice galbanum-y whack, which I also love, and, if memory serves, reminds me a lot of the much later Romeo Gigli – Mark Benhke wrote a marvelous review of the actual Ondine perfume here  and there’s no point in me trying to gild a Mark Behnke lily – it can’t be done (at least not by me) – you’ll just have to read it.

This is about the memory of the display and maaayybe the perfume, just a little bit (because it’s that galbanum-y aldefloral that I find so irresistible (I don’t think anybody else likes Caron Montaigne – but I do, precisely because of the memories that watery (not aquatic) scent evokes, much like Ondine)…. anyway… back to the ‘experience’:

the courtyard entrance to Marshall Field & Company was dusky – that (and the fact that there were no revolving doors – too hoi polloi for that store – that’s all I remember.  And I might even be making that up, much as I probably am misremembering my first time walking up the original Bergdorf Goodman dove-grey carpeted stairs (later, those vaunted dove-grey stairs would be stained and dispirited, alas) – in my memory none of those areas ‘sparkled’ – not at first.  Much like a designer will create a bit of a tunnel to further enhance the glittery Beyond, I always think of those early stores as having that visual lead-in; maybe it’s just wishful thinking… but I digress…

but I do remember the display.  A round table, with a fountain of white lilies and roses – and atop the fountain, a crystal statue of Ondine, the water sprite. Maybe even a little trickling fountain…?  I stood there, in the vague dusk, mesmerized by that display.  I’ve always liked the story of Ondine.  Of course I had no idea of Audrey Hepburn’s stellar turn on Broadway – but I’m sure I would’ve adored that as well – Audrey & Broadway:  what’s not to adore?  But I don’t even remember if there was an image of her  (read Mark’s post!) – I only saw  the crystal statue of Ondine, the water sprite.  And every time I spritz a watery galbanum-y aldehydic floral, for just a moment, I’m transported back to that magical moment.  I’ve got a healthy dollop in my cart at Surrender to Chance – but, to be honest, I’m kind of afraid to spritz it; what if it’s NOT like the scents that always conjure it (and bonus points if you can parse that).  We shall see.  Besides, that scent/experience memory is 40+ years old, so I’m sure it’s morphed a bit over time – or maybe my brain is just flat-out lying about the entire thing.  I’ll just adjust my memory – and why not, right?  I probably made the whole thing up, anyway!  But gosh, what a scent memory, eh?  Even if it just might be a lie.

Do you have any weird, retro memories like that?  My favorite one (other than the Ondine memory) is of Bergdorf and Amouage Beloved.  A total fabrication, I wove an entire story of having climbed those dove-grey stairs in a pale pink St John knit suit, awash in Beloved.  The image is so clear that had I not known that the stairs were redone 25 years before Beloved was created… and I did not ever own a pale pink St John knit suit… I swear, I would swear! that memory was real.

Is there anyone else who weaves backstories and… well… makes up stuff about your perfume experiences?  I can’t be the only one… can I?




  • Portia says:

    LOVE this post Musette. I reckon everyone’s mind recalls and imagines things differently to how they happened exactly. We see, taste and touch things with so many blinkers, coloured veils, preconceptions and dreams. It’s the fantasy that creates the extra flair.
    Ondine sounds D I V I N E!
    Portia xx

  • Kathleen says:

    And thank you Posse for hosting the Zoom, so wonderful to meet all of you!

  • Kathleen says:

    My early perfume experience took place in a department store; specifically Eaton’s. In my small Canadian city, it felt so posh to me. My grandmother took me once a week, and we stopped by the candy counter for jelly beans and the perfume counter to spritz Chanel. I thought the SA so glamorous! And the perfume bottles were spectacular. I was thrilled when my grandmother bought me my first bottle of Chanel, Coco. Big perfume for a young teenager. Looking back, that small department store was likely very mediocre, but to me it was the most fabulous place.

  • Patty says:

    Retro is tricky. I get to smell it all day now, and some things I fall in love with over again, and some are – meh? WTF? Revlon Charlie was so much more brash in my memory, and I was driving a convertible with a scarf tied around my head that stayed put. Raffinee is actually gorgeous, and I never really remembered that from anything. I loved this post, Retro Lies indeed our memory banks are the best. I also think of Beloved as my splashing aging debutante scent in a life I never had. 🙂

  • Ann says:

    Wonderful post Musette! It reminds me of the below Phil Hartman & Jan Hooks vignette…If she was sprayed herself with perfume in the bank vault, it would be perfect!

    Watch “Love Is A Dream” on Vimeo:


  • ElizaC says:

    It was so wonderful meeting everyone at the zoom chat! I remember the stunning and elegant Frederick and Nelson’s in downtown Seattle. The Macys in downtown Seattle had such a beautiful interior! Not many stunning public interiors like those left! As far as perfume, I remember a solid musk locket I wore when I was 12 and spending the summer in London. I have never been able to find that wonderful scent memory again!

  • NancyC says:

    A big thank you to everyone who took the time and effort to organize the Zoom call on Sunday. It was a real blast!

    I worked at a fabric store at Baybrook mall in Houston when I was a teenager into my early 20’s. It was right next to one of the anchor (is that the term?) stores, either Joske’s or Foley’s. I can’t remember which, and they are both long gone. On my breaks, I’d zip over and spray all of the available Chanels on my arms, hoping one would work on me. Cristalle, No. 22, No. 5, No. 19, I tried all of them. This was before the Exclusifs line was created. I was completely taken with the chic, classic bottle design, but none of them really worked on my skin. No. 19 especially was almost a painful experience. I’m sure I gassed out my coworkers multiple times.
    My first Chanel was No. 5 Elixir Sensuel, so I did eventually get one of those gorgeous bottles!

    • Musette says:

      I’m sitting here, mouth agape like Gomer Pyle, imagining you coming back to work awash in 3-5 different Chanels!


    • Ann says:

      My mom worked at Joskey’s in San Antonio in the early 80s – I was eight +/- at the time and was enthralled with the wall of Madame Alexander dolls in her department- I couldn’t (still can’t) understand why she didn’t bring me home a doll every night she worked.

      • NancyC says:

        Aww, cute story, Ann. I don’t remember any Madame Alexander dolls in the CL Joske’s. I was probably too distracted by the perfume and makeup.

  • Eldarwen22 says:

    Sad to say that I have never conjured up any dreams like you described. Probably because I don’t have memories of my parents taking my sister and I to higher end shops.

  • Dina C. says:

    I love the sound of Ondine, especially since I adore galbanum. I also have fond memories of the long-gone department stores and their swanky experience. In the DC area, Garfinckel’s, Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht Co., Lord & Taylor, I. Magnin up in Maryland…they all had that special aura kind of like you see in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a show with huge retro appeal. Pretty much all that’s left is Nordstom, JCPenney, Bloomingdales, Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Macy’s in my area.

    • Musette says:

      oh, all those elegant, bygone-era shops! Even Saks has lost its original elegance – our original SFA was small and very luxe, with ELEVATOR OPERATORS in white gloves! Going in there was stepping into an alternate universe of luxury and privilege, where the SAs wore white gloves to present jewelry and the carpeted floors gave the impression of being cocooned in luxury. xoxoxo

  • SpringPansy says:

    Yes, thanks again to the Perfume Posse peeps for hosting the Zoom get-together. Such fun to see each other and hear perfume stories. I want you to know that I don’t always post, but I do ALWAYS read and I’m always happy to see everyone.

    Musette, thanks for this trip down memory lane. I grew up in a small town, but we had a Nordstrom in a small city about an hour away. Even in that small city, there were two or three department stores. I remember saving money to go shopping with my mom to buy my very own Yardley eye shadow palette from the makeup and perfume department at one of those stores. I used up several of those eye shadows, I’m sure wearing way too much – how I loved it. That would have been the early 70s. Later, in high school, Je Reviens became my signature scent and my parents gave me the parfum for Christmas for several years from that same Nordstrom. That Nordstrom closed many years ago, and the city struggled and went a bit downhill (not necessarily related, but I always thought it was – they had lost the one store that provided a bit of luxe). I also remember visiting San Francisco in my early teens and mom, who grew up during the depression, was so excited to take us (my sister and I) into the elegant I Magnin store. We made a stop in their gorgeous single stall bathrooms. Funny that the bathrooms are the main thing I recall!

    In honor of memories, I’ll wear my vintage Inoui today.

    • Musette says:

      Nope! Not. At. All. Two places stand out for me PRECISELY because of their bathrooms. One was the original Water Tower Hotel (I’m sure it wasn’t that persack name but it was across from Chicago’s historic Water Tower (pretty much the demarcation point of where the Great Chicago Fire stopped). Each stall was its own private room, with a sink inside. SO elegant. And Dillards in St Louis had the most stunning bathroom, with a lounge replete with chaise longues!!! Couldn’t tell you another thing about the store, other than the bathroom!

    • SpringPansy says:

      Omg, just found a pic of my old Yardley eyeshadow palette – it was like the kind of paintbox you had as a kid, with a paintbrush that you had dampen to to use the shadow. And I’ve also just remembered that Mom used to call me “Miss Blue Eyeshadow 1972” when I used it. (I would have been 14 in ’72.)
      I will be back in memory-land all day now!

    • Musette says:

      … and I loved Je Reviens, back in the day – I always associated it with ‘Rebecca’. xoxo

    • Ann says:

      What great memory spring pansy! I love the idea of saving up for something special. I’m sorry that when I lived in New York City I didn’t buy anything really special from that time — at that time there was still an element of specialness to department stores, and several smaller department stores like Henri Bendel were still around. Lesson learned! I just wish there were special stores where I could take my kids if we were to save up. We might just have to go to Paris or Tokyo or some thing.

  • March says:

    This was just wonderful. If I play that mental “time travel” game where you could go back to your neighborhood in childhood for a day, I’d head to the Garfinckels. I remember it through my child’s eyes as being impossibly chic and intimidating, lots of white lacquer and a bright grass-green plush pile carpet? Can that even be … right? The color scheme makes sense for the time. And I’m pretty sure the Woodies nearby had lavender carpet? although again maybe I’m imagining it. I want to go there and wander around and stare and sniff things. OH! I love to tell people this and I am pretty sure it’s true, but: our local Tysons Corner mall decades ago, an early regional mall, when it was still out in the “country,” had live peacocks strutting around inside in giant aviaries. I swear …. I think that’s true.

    • Musette says:

      I wouldn’t doubt it – back then things like an aviary would be the height of ‘luxe’! I could see early Old Orchard or Oakbrook (those courtyard malls) having something like that!

  • Cinnamon says:

    Never encountered Ondine. I did love walking into Bergdorf or Saks straight into the perfume section. I think there was a Macys in White Plains when I lived in Westchester, but don’t recall anything else. I escaped as much as I could to New York City — I guess the nature of being a suburban teenager in the 1970s.

    • Musette says:

      well, yeah! did you go to ‘Bonwit Taylor’? 😉

      I have such fond memories of the late 60s-early 70s shopping – there was this fabulous little restaurant (you know the ones that are one step up from a diner?) – on Michigan Avenue, probably where the Rolex boutique is now. The generic food wasn’t the draw – it was the dual staircase up to the mezzanine level – so LUXE! xoxoxo

  • Gina T says:

    Now when I read these wonderful posts I can see faces!!!!! 🙂 So lovely to meet you last night.

  • Sarah says:

    As a teenager I adored an Avon cologne named Hana Gasa. I remembered its clear clean smell as I wore it in junior high. I purchased an unopened vintage (Ha-Avon) bottle.
    Nope.Nope.Nope. The worst part was not knowing if it was always so awful or just rancid.

    • Musette says:

      LOL! (not at you – at your last sentence) – I know persackly what you mean! I have avoided Ondine for precisely that reason – I have only the faintest recollection of the actual perfume but OMG! What if it suuuuucks???!?