These 90s Perfumes Take Us Down Memory Lane

Here at YouBeauty, we love rehashing pop culture moments from the past, including terrible trends we loved (um, jelly shoes?), movies that changed our lives (Clueless. Always Clueless), and epic music that still tugs at our heartstrings (End of The Road. YouTube it now). A lot of our reminiscing revolves around the 90s, and, being a beauty site, it often becomes a memory sesh about the perfumes we wore back then, which makes sense since smells are deeply connected to emotion. A scent tied to a certain emotion then prompts a memory to form about a time in your past when you felt that way. And since nostalgia gives life more meaning, please join us as we wax poetic about our favorite 90s scents, young love and questionable fashion choices.

MORE: The Science of Scent and Memory

1Memory by: Courtney Dunlop, Executive Editor

ck one, launched in 1994

Nothing represented 90s minimalism like ck one by Calvin Klein, a light, citrus-y, unisex scent that could not have been more different than a previous Calvin Klein success, the 80s-excess spicy explosion called Obsession. I had the ad poster hanging in my room and all I wanted in life was to be so cool like Kate Moss, in her tattered jean skirt, high heels with socks, and grubby tank top. I remember being so proud of my bottle of ck one, and being so devastated when it smelled like sh*t on me. That’s when I learned that citrus notes react badly against my body chemistry. I tried to soldier on, not willing to accept my fate. So, my memory of ck one is of me in my Gap slip dress and chunky mary janes, sauntering down the hall at school, smelling like cat pee.

2Memory by: Valerie Fischel, Photo Editor

Clinique Happy, launched in 1998

One year in high school, for reasons that I will not divulge here, I was among a group of friends that was banned from the homecoming dance. So instead, my boyfriend and I went to a dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in D.C. I wore a cute LBD from Bebe that was intended for homecoming, and got this atrocious-but-curiously-cool faux fur coat from a thrift store, à la Cruella Deville. I wanted my hair straight, but it being the 90s, I didn’t have enough insight to own a flat iron. So instead, I straightened my hair with a regular iron like I heard they did in the 70s and doused myself in my favorite scent, Clinique Happy. Our dinner was nice but was overshadowed by bitter sadness since we weren’t at homecoming with the rest of our friends. My hair was completely fried from that evening on, until I cut it all off. The smell of Happy instantly reminds me of that cold October evening as a dumb kid when I was trying to balance attempted sophistication with my lack of beauty knowledge.


The Body Shop White Musk, launched in 1981 in the U.K; brought stateside in the late 80s/early 90s

The first time I smelled White Musk I was completely hooked. It’s a clean scent and yet earthy and sexy, which sounds so cheesy, but anyone who has ever worn and loved White Musk knows exactly what I’m talking about it. The scent is so sensual, which either makes it a perfect match or highly inappropriate for a hormone-fueled teenager. Dabbing it on took me from feeling like a slightly insecure teen to a sexy, empowered young woman. A bit dangerous? Yes. But I loved how the perfume made me feel. White Musk was also vastly different from the many floral-focused scents of the 90s. The scent, in its oil form, would last for hours, too. I’d just have to rub my wrists together to reactivate it. More than 20 years later, White Musk still holds up, and I’d wear it again in a nostalgia-evoking heartbeat.

4Memory by: Amy Marturana, Editorial Assistant

Tommy Girl, launched in 1996

Hilfiger’s citrusy, flowery and feminine scent reminds me of my middle school years, when I discovered the perfume in the form of its limited time holiday “tickled pink shimmer” spray collection. I was your typical, body-glitter-obsessed-12-year-old in 2002. So on Christmas morning, when I unwrapped a woman’s perfume (so adult!) flecked with fine pink shimmer, I thought I had hit the beauty jackpot. It was more subtle than the chunky bright glitter I normally rolled all over my arms, chest and face, and it made me feel so much older because it was a designer perfume. Whenever I smell Tommy Girl, it reminds me of the very awkward middle school dances (we all have our own cringe-worthy memories from those), which I’d prepare for by expertly dressing in tight J.Lo flare jeans and a Wet Seal tank top, and then strategically coating my entire chest in the perfumed, pink shimmer. I reeked, and I loved it. I’ll always associate that smell with those bittersweet, “not a girl, not yet a woman” tween years.

5Memory by: Julie Giusti, Social Media Manager

Vanilla Fields, launched in 1993

When I was 13, years of loyalty to Electric Youth Perfume by Debbie Gibson flew out the window when I discovered Vanilla Fields on my sister’s dresser. (I mean, if she was neglecting her duties as the “biggest Debbie fan in New Jersey,” so could I.) I snuck a few spritzes of her Vanilla Fields every morning for most of eighth grade. At some point I realized the powdery floral scent had the half-life of a piece of Fruit Stripe gum (five minutes). I convinced my parents I needed my own to carry with me at all times during school and spray on after gym class. Soon, everything I owned (scrunchies, locker, backpack, outerwear in general) smelled like any issue of Seventeen between 1993 and 1995, which (duh!) was obviously the point.

6Memory by: Julie Giusti, Social Media Manager

Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers, launched in 1993

If “Toy Story” starred 90s beauty productsand was set in a bright pink Caboodle—Vanilla Fields and Sunflowers would be the Buzz and Woody to my Andy. That said, if you replace “Vanilla Fields” with “Sunflowers” in the preceding anecdote (read: sneaking a spritz of my older sister’s Vanilla Fields off her dresser every morning throughout middle school), the story remains historically accurate. I stopped stealing my sister’s perfume identity midway through high school. (She’d gone to college and switched to Angel by Thierry Mugler. I so wasn’t going there…)

7Memory by: Amanda Schupak, Science Editor

Grass by Gap, launched in 1994 (now discontinued)

Mine is not a tale of remembrance. It is a saga of hope. The blind, stupid, ceaseless hope that Gap is suddenly going to re-release Grass. I get wistful olfactory flashbacks and wonder why no other grassy scent seems to hit the right note. I’ve yet to discover another fragrance that so perfectly suits my sensibilities. And that is why, every time I enter a Gap, I look in vain for a bottle of Grass perfume. I eagerly, earnestly (but slyly, because it’s embarrassing) scan the shelves and the checkout counter for that coveted stainless cylinder. I know it won’t appear. And yet, after all these years, I can’t let go.

8Memory by: Anne Roderique-Jones, Community Manager

Polo Sport For Him, launched in 1994

Ahhh, the immediate throwbacks of potent man-boy cologne. It was kinda my jam to buy any current let’s-take-this-to-the-next-level guy a bottle of something special during those steamy years of junior high school. My first real boyfriend, Josh, warranted nothing less. I carefully selected a bottle of the newly launched Polo Sport from our local department store as a Christmas gift for him during my eighth grade year. Josh and I didn’t last, but the memories from this cologne do. On the rare occasion that I get a whiff of that sweet, boyish scent, it takes me straight back to the good old days of heavy petting and dry humps.

9Memory by: Laura Kenney, Editor in Chief

Acqua di Gio by Giorgio Armani, launched in 1995 and re-launched with an updated scent as Acqua di Gioia in 2010

My very first glimpse of the magazine industry was during the summer of 1997, when I somehow landed an internship at Elle before my senior year in college. A wide-eyed babe in the woods, I was living in New York City for the very first time, and everything was so shiny and glamorous to me. I was in charge of organizing Elle’s ginormous beauty closet, and I dug up Acqua di Gio during one of my exploratory missions in there. I had never been a big fragrance fan (I thought all perfume smelled like Shalimar), but Acqua di Gio’s light, watery, slightly citrus notes appealed to me and really changed the way I perceived scents. It was modern and youthful, and ushered in a new wave of thinking for the fragrance industry, and it became a best-seller. I had no idea I was smelling history being made, but history appealed to me!