When you’re a kid, perfume bottles are basically the closest thing in your house to treasure. The glittering bottles come in all sorts of unusual sizes, shapes and colours, and they’re usually protectively guarded by parents. Is it any wonder, then, that most children grow up completely fascinated by them?
If you were a child in the 80s or 90s, or if your mum or grandma aren’t the types to replenish their collection often, then there’s a good chance you’ll recognise some of these iconic 80s perfume bottles, from the beautiful and timeless to the trashy and over the top.
Given that the 80s are now known retrospectively as ‘the decade of greed’, it’s no surprise that the watchword for many brands during that time was decadence, decadence, decadence. The most infamous example of this attitude is Opium: the 1977 perfume that snowballed from a cult favourite to a beacon of controversy in the 80s.
Opium capitalised on the West’s fascination with orientalism and drew criticism for trivialising China’s ‘Opium Wars’, which devastated the country’s population in the 19th century. At Opium’s on-the-water launch party, The Los Angeles Times reported scores of people openly doing drugs in the bathrooms, while others engaged in public sex on the ship’s lower deck.
It might seem counter-intuitive to develop a fragrance called Joy, only to release it in a black bottle with a marketing strategy that emphasised danger and mystery, but that’s exactly what perfume visionary Jean Patou did in 1986.
Joy had been a mainstay of the perfume world for decades by the time the 80s rolled around, thanks to its classic tea rose and spice combination, one that was in danger of becoming dated. Relaunching Joy in a striking black bottle with a red, round top that was so at odds with its previous associations helped popularise the fragrance with a whole new generation of women.
If any fragrance was perfectly placed to court scandal, then it was Calvin Klein’s 1986 perfume Obsession. Right from the beginning, Obsession was marketed using the kind of overt sexuality that hadn’t been seen on television or in lifestyle at the time, with adverts that showed groups of naked bodies tangled together, and couples with their groins pressed up against one another.
All of this raunch led to the public becoming obsessed with Obsession. Klein later revealed that he launched Obsession immediately after his divorce, and everything from the bottle’s unusual bulbous design and polarising advertising was a reflection of his ‘anything goes’, newly-single attitude, which coincided with a period of open promiscuity for him.
12. Intimate Musk
Intimate Musk was released just a few months before Obsession, and it too attempted to scandalise its way onto the vanity of every woman in America. As if the incredibly unsubtle title wasn’t enough, Revlon followed through with every element of Intimate Musk’s marketing, using the tagline “some things are secret” and even implying the fragrance imitated the heady scent of lovemaking.
In truth, Intimate Musk was just a rework of Revlon’s 1955 perfume, Intimate. It does have woody, powdery top notes that have been referred to as “animalistic”, but in truth, the most scandalous thing about Intimate was the image of two naked people canoodling emblazoned on both box and bottle in loud, primary colours.
As the self-proclaimed decade of excess, if the 80s was typified by anything, then it might be a champagne bottle. One popular fragrance even patterned itself after the luxury and excitement of bubbly: Brut. Brut was one of only a few products to try and appeal to men with a bold and shocking bottle design, and it did sell remarkably well.
However, Brut’s success might have had more to do with its accompanying advertising strategy than its bottle design or even its fragrance. Brut hitched its provisional wagon to NFL quarterback Joe Namath, and as The Baltimore Sun coyly noted, “We all saw the TV ads. Joe Namath used Brut, and we all knew how Joe did in the babe department. Why, the poor man could barely walk.”
10. Albert Nipon
Though the worlds of fashion and fragrance seem closely aligned, there’s less crossover than we think. Fashion designers developing and championing their own perfume is rare enough to cause people to sit up and take notice, which is what happened with Albert Nipon’s self-titled fragrance, released in 1983.
The perfume was not a smash success, but it has garnered favourable reviews from aficionados, thanks to its heady, spicy scent with notes of rose, jasmine, carnation and moss. However, the frosted glass bow design is hard to read when the bottle is either full or half-empty, meaning it has always looked rather bulbous and inelegant on shelves.
9. Charlie Oriental
For sociopolitical reasons that we’re not going to distil here, the 80s was unquestionably the decade of orientalism, with several perfume brands attempting to cash in on the mystique of what lay beyond the West. These efforts ranged in their subtlety and taste level, from Opium to Jean Patou’s Jade 1000, but the only brand to say the quiet part out loud was Revlon, with their 1988 fragrance Charlie Oriental.
Though several of Revlon’s Charlie fragrances are still popular today, the same cannot be said for Charlie Oriental. Not only has the jade-effect bottle been labelled tacky, but the scent itself was also predictable, with overpowering notes of patchouli, wood and spices. The tagline, meanwhile, was ‘Eastern spice meets Western spirit’. Oof.
8. Baby Soft
Baby Soft might be the quintessential scent of the 80s. Though most of the perfumes on this list were aimed at grown women with full-time jobs and disposable income (or at the very least a college education), Baby Soft was the fragrance that was praised in teen magazines and proliferated the high school hallways of the decade.
The Love Cosmetics smash hit was actually released in the late 70s, with the troubling tagline of ‘Because innocence is sexier than you think’. However, the marketing shifted in the 80s to make Baby Soft the must-have fragrance for preppy tweens and teens, with the new slogan ‘Underneath it all, she’s Baby Soft’. As for the scent itself: overwhelming top notes of rose and baby powder, making it cloying but undeniably nostalgic.
Jean Patou was responsible for two of the 80s’ biggest fragrances: Joy, and 1000. Even today, perfume enthusiasts argue endlessly about the merits of each perfume, as well as which one was better suited to being a daily fragrance for the average business-casual woman. However, one thing of which there’s no doubt is which fragrance had the grander marketing scheme.
In a full-page print advert promoting 1000, it was explained that each bottle of the limited-edition fragrance was hand-sealed with gold leaf and a single gold cord, and for every kilogram of the night-blooming jasmine essence in the perfume, more than seven million flowers had to be picked. Talk about extravagance!
6. Anais Anais
Anais Anais was launched by Cacharel back in 1978, and went on to become one of the all-time fragrance greats. As promised by the packaging, the perfume features strong top notes of white lilies, with shadowy undertones of musk, patchouli and Russian leather.
The combination made it the typical ‘shy girl’s perfume’: feminine and innocent while also subtly hinting at depth and mystery. Anais Anais remained popular long after the 80s, to the extent that it was relaunched in 2014, with almost the exact same composition and packaging.
5. L’Air du Temps
Among perfume enthusiasts, L’Air du Temps is considered to be one of the all-time great fragrances. It was first released in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, with the dove on the bottle’s stopper intended as a symbol of peace.
L’Air du Temps’ carnation-heavy scent, supported by notes of bergamot and rosewood, combined to make it an enduring classic that was still going strong in the 80s. However, the perfume has seen many bottle redesigns over the years, and one 80s touch-up left L’Air du Temps’ signature gliding dove looking kitschy and over the top rather. This was soon corrected in later redesigns.
4. Drakkar Noir
Drakkar Noir might have been launched in 1982, but in the first half of the ‘me-first’ decade, it struggled to be heard above the noise. Both Obsession and Giorgio’s men’s fragrances commanded all the attention in the men’s fragrance market, leaving Drakkar Noir to struggle along on the sidelines… until the late 80s.
In the latter half of the decade, attitudes towards masculinity and power began to shift, leaving room for a sparser, more subtle fragrance to take centre stage. On AskMen.com, Jeremy Berger writes of Drakkar Noir: “Think of it as a combination of Mike Tyson’s sweat, Gordon Gekko’s power, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
First was released by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1976 to exploit a gap in the market for light, floral and fresh women’s fragrances, at a time when the trend was for smokier, muskier offerings. However, First really rose to prominence as many women’s perfume of choice in the mid-80s.
The appeal of First’s white floral notes scent alone was not enough to encourage purchases; First managed to catch the eye of customers thanks to its distinctive blown glass effect stopper, which was designed by prolific bottle artist Jacques Llorente.
2. Fleur de Fleur
Fleur de Fleur is a Nina Ricci offering that still has name recognition today. Translating to “flower of flowers”, it was released in 1982 to instant acclaim, thanks to its… you guessed it, strong floral notes. Light, fresh and feminine, Fleur de Fleur was particularly popular amongst younger and preppier demographics.
Fleur de Fleur’s coy and delicate sweetness is reflected in the bottle design, which actually didn’t last long. The whimsical flower imprint in frosted glass was an 80s-only Fleur de Fleur phenomenon, as later iterations featured a less innovative cylindrical design, and a larger, white stopper. There’s no question about which one stood out more prominently on the shelves.
The 80s produced a lot of gaudy perfume bottles, but none were more over the top than the bottle for Gem, by Van Cleef and Arpels. Not only is the liquid itself an almost fluorescent orange colour, but the hexagonal bottle has a chunky gold ‘gemstone’ on top that’s almost half the height of the entire bottle. In early iterations, the bottle was even encased in a chunky gold framing, just to make it stand out even more.
Oddly, neither the blunt force approach of the bottle design nor the tagline – ‘Who can resist the lure of a Gem?’ – accurately reflects the fragrance, which is actually a subtle and nuanced blend of plum, peach and spices. Maybe that’s the reason why this fragrance fell out of fashion in the early 90s.