The front cabin of a Boeing 707-320, en route to Montreal, summer 1967. My parents, in an uncharacteristic indulgence, have splurged on a family trip to Expo ’67. Just before we land, the French stewardess hands the men in first class—including my ten-year-old self—a satchel embossed with Air France’s sea-horse logo and containing three columnar bottles filled with amber and aquamarine liquids: “Moustache,” the labels read, “Pour Homme.” I open one and inhale. It’s as if the entirety of the jet-setting ’60s, as I innocently imagine them, has been distilled in that bottle. Had I the vocabulary, I would have characterized the scent as heady and altogether foreign, as exotic and compelling as the stewardess now handing me a hot towel with a pair of tongs. For years, I kept those bottles on my desk and took a whiff whenever I wanted to remind myself that there was a world beyond the Chicago suburbs; I also dabbed on a little to impress my first girlfriend, who I later discovered wore Chanel No 5 to our make-out sessions.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction to Moustache. Launched by the French perfumer Rochas in 1949, it was the first of a wave of fragrances introduced after World War II that changed forever the relationship between men and cologne. “They were huge, innovative statements,” Eddie Roschi, cofounder of Le Labo, the Franco-American artisanal perfumery, told me. They were referred to time and again for, among other innovations, combining traditional heavy cologne with lighter citrus notes.
Many emanated from the great houses of couture during the 1950s and ’60s: Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage; Givenchy’s Monsieur de Givenchy and Eau de Vetyver (Hubert de Givenchy’s personal fragrance); Guerlain’s Vetiver and Habit Rouge; Chanel Pour Monsieur, the “reference chypre fragrance,” according to the olfactory scholar Luca Turin, coauthor of Perfume: The A-Z Guide (Penguin). Several perfumed Swinging London as thoroughly as Mary Quant bobs and the Yardbirds’ Rave Up; Habit Rouge flaunted an opening as unapologetic as Keith Richards’s guitar riff on “Satisfaction” when both were released in 1965. (“When I changed from Old Spice to Habit Rouge,” Richards later recalled, “things definitely got better.”) John Lennon was said to wear Eau Sauvage, whose formulation included a liberal infusion of hedione, a jasmine-like synthetic, at the time considered revolutionary for a men’s cologne.
Assuming these Cold War artifacts had by now been put to pasture, I was surprised to discover most are still in production and even thriving—Eau Sauvage, in the original 1966 flask designed by Pierre Camin, its cap suggesting a thimble, the bottle’s rippling glass the metaphorical folds of Dior’s couture, is still a top seller in France. Amid the ocean of interchangeable fresh aquatics that today dominate men’s fragrances, these classics—with their signature citrus, wood, musk and leather accords—offer today’s man the opportunity to discreetly stand apart. Their continued relevance speaks to the care with which they were conceived and formulated—many contain now-forbidden ingredients like Mysore sandalwood oil from India’s Karnataka state. The noses who created the ’50s and ’60s classics were constrained by a much smaller palette of mostly natural, sometimes extremely costly ingredients, which makes the depth and endurance of their formulations all the more remarkable. They also still inspire modern perfumers. Among recent homages are Tom Ford’s Grey Vetiver (from $90 for 1.7 ounces; neimanmarcus.com), which evokes the Guerlain and Givenchy originals, and the fashion designer’s Neroli Portofino (from $210 for 1.7 ounces; neimanmarcus.com), a reinterpretation of classic eau de cologne, the blend of citrus oils and herbs perfected in 1700s Cologne, which influenced many postwar men’s fragrances.
There have long been fragrances nominally aimed at men, among them Mouchoir de Monsieur (1904) and Acqua di Parma Colonia (1916), both still available; Caron Pour un Homme (1934), a favorite of Ford’s, was among the first scents expressly marketed toward men, while Old Spice began as the women’s fragrance Early American Old Spice in 1937. But men’s fragrances as a distinct category didn’t really take off until after World War II. According to the work of perfume historian Elena Vosnaki, the arrival of Dior’s ultrafeminine New Look in 1947 encouraged the development of dedicated men’s scents because the times “prescribed clear-cut roles: women impeccably turned out...men suave in their conservative suits and modest ties.”
As I discovered, masculine signifiers were certainly prominent in Moustache, formulated by the French husband-and-wife perfumers Edmond and Thérèse Roudnitska and redolent of citrus, oakmoss and “animalic” notes—the classic chypre style that defined many postwar men’s fragrances. Moustache was part of a dichotomy in men’s scents that wouldn’t resolve until Edmond created Eau Sauvage in 1966. “In the ’50s you had two types of men’s fragrances,” says Roschi. “The pure colognes, which were basically citrus-based notes and lavender. Then you had essentially perfumes, which were very heavy.” Edmond’s masterstroke with Eau Sauvage was to combine both aesthetics in a single fragrance. “It was the first time someone had decided, Enough of going with either the perfume for men or the cologne,” says Roschi. “That’s what Eau Sauvage was and why it was so iconic and revolutionary.”
Not long ago, while packing my parents’ house, I glimpsed something familiar. When I wiped off the dust, I beheld an Air France logo—it was the satchel from that long-ago flight to Montreal. The bottles of Moustache within were as before except for the aftershave, which had evaporated. I opened the eau de toilette, expecting it to have withered after 40 years; instead, what wafted forth was the same accord that had beguiled my ten-year-old nose, as potent as a single malt and still able to fire my now early-middle-age imagination. Where before the scent had stirred in me the possibilities of a life yet to be lived, it now just as inevitably took me back: the New Frontier-ish wonder of that 707 flight, a Mad Man before the term was coined, sitting beside me, sipping his martini; and later, a girl as blonde as Julie Christie nuzzling my neck in a darkened pool house, smelling faintly of Chanel No 5.
They Don’t Make Them Like that Anymore
While most of the commercially successful men’s fragrances from the ’50s and ’60s are still manufactured, it’s unlikely that any smell precisely as they once did. Perfumers rarely admit it, but classic men’s—and women’s—fragrances have been quietly reformulated over the years to adjust for changing tastes, scarcity and the expense of source materials or, most recently, to conform to strict guidelines laid down by the International Fragrance Association. “To say you can wear today’s Eau Sauvage and smell like the ’60s would be like listening to Britney Spears singing ‘Satisfaction’ as a way to enjoy the Stones,” says Tania Sanchez, co-author of Perfumes: The A—Z Guide. Key ingredients that give the classics their signature accords are now restricted or banned because they may create allergic reactions. Still, advances in scent chemistry make it possible to replace these ingredients and retain the fragrances’ original characters.
Going for Vintage
Properly stored, some perfumes can last for decades without significant deterioration, making it possible to wear vintage scents bottled prior to reformulations, like 20-year-old Monsieur de Givenchy, which typically sells for about $50 on eBay. To sample before committing to a full bottle, small decants of retro classics can be purchased from The Perfumed Court (theperfumedcourt.com) for less than $10. And Beverly Hills Perfumery (264 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills; beverlyhillsperfumery.com) stocks one of the world’s largest selections of vintage men’s fragrances, including Guerlain Vetiver.