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Bombay Duck London

The 12 Scents of Christmas No. 10: Estée Lauder Youth Dew

So: yesterday’s Scent Critic posting talked about how fragrance can turn you from a would-be couch potato into a party animal, with a waft of its magic wand.  But today, I’m going to marvel at its equal power to transport you through time and space.  Dr. Who, you can keep your Tardis.  We all have them, on our dressing table:  pretty bottles, precious flacons, with slightly dog-eared labels, maybe, on our favourites, and which work on the mind like mini-time machines.  And there is no scent that can transport me back through history more vividly than Estée Lauder Youth Dew.

I should explain:  I generally only ever wear this scent in New York City, because that’s where I had my first proper ‘encounter’ with Youth Dew.  My assignment:  to interview the legend that was Estée Lauder herself, as one element of a feature on women in the fragrance industry, of which there were far fewer, in the early 90s.  When I arrived at my luxe uptown hotel, along with a giant floral tribute and the regulation fruitbowl, there was a bottle of Youth Dew waiting for me, the  inviting colour of aged whiskey.

And actually, I fell in love with its spiciness, its warmth, its very power.  There is nothing, but nothing, shy and retiring about Youth Dew.  It is a classic ‘room-rocker’, as they used to say.  Somehow, it instantly became the perfect scent for the most dynamic, exciting, sometimes aggressive city in the world (Manhattan has mellowed, lately, but it was a pretty dog-eat-dog kinda town, back then).  It was shoulder pads, in a bottle.  High heels, too.  It’s warm as a fur coat, bold as a scarlet lipstick.

It’s the spices that get you, first.  Wham-o-la!  And tons of vanilla, right from the start, even though technically it’s a base note.  There’s a sunny peachy element that (if you ask me) borrows from Mitsouko, and the head-rush of aldehydes (Mrs. Lauder savvily realised that if they were good enough for No. 5, they were good enough for Youth Dew).  The spices emerge from backstage like an 80s supermodel storming the catwalk:  cinnamon, clove, apple-pie-notes to the power of 10.  Ylang-ylang adds exoticism, rose is there – well, because rose always is.

Then the base notes turn up, in a rowdy posse, and stay and stay and stay:  resinous sweet benzoin, amber, patchouli and tolu, a balsamic resin also used in cough medicines.  And – may Mrs. Lauder strike me with a thunderbolt here – there’s more than a touch of cough medicine about this, a good-for-your-chest warmth that clears the airwaves rather pleasantly.  (It will also clear the room, if you’re around people who hate it.  But that’s their problem, though I’m quite glad nobody else turned up for Yoga at 8 a.m. this morning, so I didn’t have to negotiate that scenario.)

I wore it – what else? – to have tea with Mrs. Lauder herself, at the Plaza’s Palm Court.  Tweed-suited, elegant, physically frail (but sharp as a tack), and eightysomething.  (Eighty-what, she wasn’t telling – and believe me, you wouldn’t ask either.)   There, she unfolded the story of Youth Dew to me.   ‘I decided that I wouldn’t call it perfume – I would call it Youth Dew.  A bath oil that doubled as a skin perfume would be acceptable to buy, because it was feminine – all-American, very girl-next-door – to take baths.  So a woman could buy herself bath oil without feeling guilty, without waiting for her wedding anniversary or giving hints to her husband,’ Mrs. Lauder explained, over teeny triangles of cucumber sandwiches and tea poured from a silver pot. And when Mrs. Lauder declared that women’s status got a boost when ‘a woman felt free to dole out some of her own dollars for her own choice of scents,’ who really could argue with that?  We might think that we have the Mrs. Pankhursts and Gloria Steinems of this world to thank for our more equal status, but many, many small but important steps for womankind were taken, along the way.

By the way, two things really blew me away about our encounter:  the Mexican wave of whispers that rippled through the tables in the Palm Court when she walked in – ‘It’s Estée Lauder, it’s Estée Lauder!’ – and her accent.  Not a refined New York accent.  A Noo Yoik accent.  Ballsy, down-to-earth and don’t-give-a-damn, in touch with its Queens roots even though she owned gilded apartments and a Palm Beach mansion and had truly been elevated to American royalty – something that’s only possible in a meritocracy like the States.

‘We should never underestimate the power of fragrance to enhance our lives,’ Mrs. Lauder continued, placing a bejewelled and glossily-manicured hand on mine.  ‘Each morning, a woman should spray fragrance into the air, first thing, and go walk through it.  That first spray of the day, you know, last longer than any other, on the skin.  Then you’ll feel brighter and younger.  Because you don’t smell a fragrance with your nose.  You smell it with your heart.’

So:  Youth Dew is the perfume that changed the course of fragrance history (and women’s history, in its way) and it deserves respect for that alone.  Me?  Though I rarely wear it, I’m drenched in it today (yes, I walked through a cloud of Youth Dew first thing) – and am reverentially enjoying every waft.  Smelling it with my heart, for sure.  And though I may be sitting in front of a computer in chilly Sussex, wearing several pairs of socks and jumpers, in my mind’s eye I’m wearing a nifty suit and am right there in the Palm Court just off Fifth Avenue, listening to harp music, and basking in the warmth of one of the most extraordinary women I’ll probably ever meet.

And that’s not just the power of Youth Dew.  That’s the power of perfume, full-stop.

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