Favorite Signature Scents from History

by | Dec 29, 2021 | Personal Style

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In 2004, Dr. Rachel Herz at Brown University completed a study on the power of smell. 

Dr Herz examined the brain activity of women as they were introduced to different perfume scents. 

The participants showed greater brain activity when smelling a familiar scent than when introduced to an unfamiliar control scent. 

Even more so, the brain activity associated with smelling the scent was greater than the visual cue of seeing the familiar perfume bottle.

Have you ever smelled something that triggered a deep memory? 

Maybe the smell of a good book reminds you of nights spent up late reading as a kid. 

Or a certain candle scent reminds you of your grandmother. 

Research shows that smell has a stronger correlation with memories than any of our other senses. 

While science has yet to unravel the details, the “why” is fascinating. 

In every other situation, when you come into contact with something new, the information you gather travels to a part of your brain called the thalamus. The thalamus decodes it and sends it on. 

But not with smell. Instead of the thalamus, the information travels to the olfactory bulb. This portion of the brain connects to thoughts and memories and contributes to the strong association between scent and memory. 

Can Smell Unlock A Sense of Self?

Dr Herz’s research shows the power scent can wield on our emotional state. More than that, it shows how significant a signature scent can be to our personal brand. This science elevates perfume from the realm of “hygiene” and into the world of style, manifestation, and identity. 

History is filled with great women who are remembered by their accomplishments, contributions, and style. But isn’t it curious that even ancient powerhouses- like Cleopatra- have records of signature perfume? 

I like to think that, even if they didn’t know the scientific reason, they had an intuition on how involving the often-underestimated sense of smell in the creation of their persona could aid them in their mission. 

Are you looking to channel the strength of history’s greats in your own personal style? Here are ten of history’s leading female icons- and the scents they came to embody their identity. 

Chavela Vargas: Tobacco and Vanilla

Signature scent of Chavela VargasBest For: Stubborn hearts and power players who refuse to be boxed in.  

History of Chavela’s Signature Scent: “Chavela is unique… A lot of the time, she is out of tune. But that doesn’t matter. It’s the spirit, and the heart, and the interpretation, that matter. Having your own voice is the most important thing for an artist,” says music producer and vibraphonist, Felipe Fournier.

Chavela always commanded space for her voice. 

Her experimentation with chords and tones in ranchera music was groundbreaking, leaving ripples in the genre nearly 100 years after the start of her career. 

Before Vargas, rancheras were a male dominated genre. But as a woman, she broke those rules. She sang the lyrics true to their original lines- refusing to change the pronouns in the traditional ballads. She engaged in “unladylike behavior” like wearing men’s clothes and appreciated a good cigar. 

Want an in depth look at the life of Chavela Vargas? Check out our guide on her life, and how she disrupted the music industry.

What She Wore: Vargas never wore perfume but smelled strongly of vanilla and cigars. We’d like to imagine she would have worn Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille Eau de Parfum. With top notes of tobacco and vanilla, and base notes of dried fruit, this scent is the perfect blend for the free spirit of Chavela Vargas.

Maria Tallchief: Bergamot, Floral, Lemon

Signature Scent of Maria TallchiefBest For: Those yearning for center-stage romance, endless bouquets of spring blooms, and world travel.  

History of Maria’s Signature Scent: Maria Tallchief was the first professionally recognized Native American ballerina. 

Shortly after dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Maria Tallchief met and fell in love with famed choreographer George Balanchine. 

Balanchine is known for creating her signature firebird role. He also introduced Tallchief to her signature scent. 

In her autobiography, Tallchief recalls the occasion:

We sampled several before he settled on L’Heure Bleue (the expression the French have for twilight), a beautiful, subtle fragrance that I still use today. George dabbed some on my neck below my ear and lowered his head. His lips softly touched mine.” (p.66, Maria Tallchief By Maria Tallchief, Larry Kaplan) 

What She Wore:  With top notes of bergamot and lemon, and base notes of iris and vanilla, L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain is an elegant, feminine-forward scent. 

Maya Angelou: Apricot and Cashmere 

Maya Angelou and Signature scentBest For: The woman with a story to sing- and the courage to make it heard. 

History of Maya’s Signature Scent: Mute until the age of six, Maya Angelou’s voice became her strength. 

Her critically acclaimed autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing tells the story of her childhood and the struggles she overcame. 

On top of being an author and poet, Angelou used her voice to lead the civil rights movement, a cause she was passionate about until her death in 2014. Her presence is now a household name in the literary world- and her work carved a way for the voices of women of color to be heard. 

What She Wore: Angelou’s creativity and activism are central to her identity, but her style is unmistakable.  Although what perfume Angelou used was never recorded, her influence has inspired multiple scents. 

Perfume brand, ONE SEED adorns their bottles with lines of poetry and idioms by famous women. The company’s ethos comes from the Maya Angelou quote, “when you know better, you do better.” 

Beyoncé’s perfume, Rise, draws it’s inspiration from Maya Angelou. This scent has top notes of basil, apricot, and bergamot, paired with base notes of musk and cashmere wood.

Hedy Lamarr: Honeysuckle, Jasmine, and Bright Vanilla

Hedy Lamarr and perfumeBest For: High glamour that never ages out of style. 

History of Hedy’s Signature Scent: Rumor has it that Hedy Lamarr went to bed with a full face of makeup. 

Why? “Because the morning is when a woman should be her most attractive.” 

The glamorous rumors surrounding this actress and inventor don’t stop there. 

Some say that on the morning of her death, Lamarr was found in her bed, wearing her favorite perfume. Lamarr kept her favorite perfume on her bedside table, so she could freshen up immediately upon waking up. 

What She Wore: Although we don’t know what this mysterious bedside favorite was, we like to think Lamarr would have worn Arpege by Lanvin. This floral perfume grew to popularity in the late 1940’s, at the height of Lamarr’s popularity. 

Billie Holiday: Gardenia, Sea Spray, Musk

Signature scent of Billie HolidayBest For: Soul-driven angels who balance strength with empathy.

History of Billie’s Signature Scent: It’s 1939 at New York’s Cafe Society. 

Billie Holiday takes the stage and a delicate melody begins to play. Her hair adorned with a large white gardenia- head leaned back during the entirety of her performance. 

As she sings, her voice rings through the cafe. The music remains soft, serving as a stark contrast to the harsh lyrics of her song, Strange Fruit. The song is now her signature ballad, and told the story of the lynchings of African Americans happening throughout the US at this time. 

The debut performance of Strange Fruit was also the first time she wore white gardenias in her hair- a style staple she’d adopt for the rest of her career. 

What She Wore: Although we don’t know what perfume Billie Holiday wore, the gentle scent of Gardenia Rattan Aerin Lauder is the perfect signature scent to match her style. White floral balances with fresh sea and underlying tones of musk to create a wash of contemplation.

Cleopatra: Cardamom, Wood, Amber

Signature Scent of CleopatraBest For: The fierce goddess channeling the power of their ancestry. 

History of Cleopatra’s Signature Scent: Although much knowledge about Cleopatra is lost to time, this queen’s signature scent has been recovered. 

After archeologists recovered a vial of perfume believed to be used by Cleopatra, researchers Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein began studying the scent. 

They examined the chemical analysis of the ingredients. Their research reveals the contents to be made up of myrrh, cardamom, olive oil, and cinnamon. 

What She Wore: La Fumee by Miller Harris is the best choice for a queen. With top notes of cardamom, coriander, and frankincense, and base notes of wood and amber, this scent will leave an hypnotically unforgettable impression on your subjects.

Judy Garland: May Rose, Jasmine, Warm Bourbon Vanilla 

Signature scent of Judy GarlandBest For: The influencer, the style-leader, the trend-setter.

History of Judy’s Signature Scent: Classic American movie star Judy Garland led a troubled life off-stage. Shamed throughout Hollywood and by her family, Garland struggled with her weight and self perception all throughout her career.

Garland’s first theatrical performance took place at the age of two and a half. She grew up fast- and she struggled her entire life to find a balance between her career and her own wellbeing. 

In her early teen years, Garland discovered Chanel No 5. The young actress recalls in her biography that she often mispronounced Chanel, calling it channel instead. 

Later in her life, Garland landed on the signature scent that would define her life: Ma Griffe by Carven Parfum. The top notes of this vintage perfume are bergamot, lemon, and gardenia, with base notes of musk and styrax. 

What She Wore: Although you can no longer purchase Ma Griffe, Chanel No. 5 is still in production for those looking to channel their inner celebrity. A favorite of founder Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Kidman, and Lily-Rose Depp.

Frida Kahlo: Amber, Pepper, Honey

Signature scent of Frida KahloBest For: Beauty that is bold and brassy. The rule-breakers who just can’t help themselves.

History of Frida’s Signature Scent: When asked, Frida Kahlo told people she was born in 1910, at the start of the revolution. 

Kahlo was bold. Whether it be her colorful self portraits, hair adorned with full crown flowers, or unshaven unibrow…Kahlo rejected modern perceptions of beauty standards. She was her own woman. 

It should be no surprise that even the perfume Kahlo used was untraditional. 

Instead of gentle floral scents, Kahlo preferred Salut de Schiaparelli. This balsamic perfume is green and harsh, with notes of citrus, spices, and sandalwood. 

What She Wore: Although Salut de Schiaparelli is no longer in production, Estee Lauder’s balsamic scent, Sensuous, is a close substitute. Woody amber, pepper, and a touch of honey make this less of a scent- and more of a statement. 

Anna May Wong: Cinnamon, Patchouli, Amber

Signature Scent of Anna May WongBest For: The woman whose executive suite has an endless delivery of gifts from prospective partners. Don’t get your hopes up, boys…there’s only one lady around here that calls the shots. 

History of Anna May’s Signature Scent: Tired of being cast as a supporting character or an offensive racial stereotype, Anna May Wong stepped out of traditional cinema options to start her own production company. 

Credited as the first Asian American actress, Wong starred in over sixty movies made in both North America and Europe. 

A photo taken of Wong at her dressing table at the Tivoli Theatre in Scotland revealed her love for Guerlain perfume. Although the bottle’s label is unreadable, we believe she favored L’Heure Bleue. 

What She Wore: L’Heure Bleue combines anise, bergamont, and iris to create a scent that balances forward spice notes with a floral fragrance. The bottle is adorned with a heart shaped stopper for a combination that declares to the world “I own you and you love it.”

Sylvia Plath: Candy Apple, Orange, Vanilla 

Signature Scent of Sylvia PlathBest For: Eccentric spirits, lavish hostesses, and poetic souls

History of Silvia’s Signature Scent: “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between,” (The Unabridged Journal of Sylvia Plath)

Known for writing such lines as this, it’s hard to imagine Sylvia Plath as one to host a lavish dinner party. But an excerpt from the author’s diary revealed on more than one occasion she would entertain guests with an ecstasy of excitement. 

In one entry from February of 1958, Plath talks about her eagerness to dress up and host friends. She describes herself as wearing a dull-avocado colored skirt, and her Tigress perfume. 

What She Wore: Although this scent by Fabergé is no longer in production, it has been recreated several times throughout the years. 

Our favorite recreation is Humor da Minha Vida by Natura. With a candy apple top note, paired with a vanilla base, this sweet perfume is the closest recreation to Plath’s  favorite Tigress perfume.