Here's What 7 Classic Scents Actually Smell Like

I've never had a signature scent because the thought of finding a perfume that sums up my personality among all the choices available is deeply intimidating. There are dozens of classic perfume scents from brands I admire, but I've always held off on buying anything because it's hard to really know how a certain perfume smells like without, well, smelling it. Most of what I know about any scent is based on what I read about it on the Internet, what my mom or my friends tell me, what advertisements I see in magazines, and what snap judgments I make about the name. I have certain expectations for how certain perfumes should smell, based solely on reputation and, to some extent, personal biases.

Those expectations are only ramped up when it comes to classic perfume scents. Some of these perfumes, like Guerlain Shalimar and Chanel No. 5, have been around since the early twentieth century, so their legend looms large. With almost mythic status like that, it becomes even harder to distinguish what's real from what's expected... until you try it out. I've built up my expectations for certain perfumes in my head without having ever tried them, so I wanted to try classic perfume scents and break down those self-imposed walls.

This was the week I finally got over my fear of heavy fragrance, and tried to tease apart expectation from reality, because I tried seven classic perfume scents from seven iconic brands. Every perfume has a distinct personality, based on branding and marketing, so before actually smelling each perfume, I wrote down what I expected it to smell like. I then spritzed myself four times, once on the inside each wrist and once on the bottom of my throat, to make the perfume scent last as long as possible, and lived in it for a bit. Here's what I found, and how different my built-up expectations were from reality.

Calvin Klein ck one

Calvin Klein CK One, $58, Amazon


All I knew about Calvin Klein ck one was that it was unisex, for both men and women, and the ads I've seen for the fragrance in magazines feature a huge crowd of beautiful men and women in perfectly tailored, all-American denim and white t-shirts, so I imagined it couldn't be too sweet. I guessed it would be kind of woodsy or mossy, like the Pacific Northwest.


The scent was much brighter than I thought, but not floral or sweet. It was more delicate than I expected and, dare I say it, less masculine. (But that's not really fair, because the only "masculine" scent I can think of is Axe, and that stuff is strong.) I'd describe this classic scent as herbal with some citrus notes. This was the only perfume I tried where four sprays didn't feel like enough, as the scent all but disappeared by lunchtime. That's sort of the appeal of ck one, though. It was the scent-equivalent of wearing a pair of great blue jeans: simple and relaxed but still really nice.

Yves Saint Laurent Opium

Yves Saint Laurent Opium, $58, Amazon


When Yves Saint Laurent Opium came out in 1977, there was a bit of controversy over the name; people thought that Laurent was encouraging customers to do drugs. But the perfume's been produced regularly since it started, despite all of the debate, so it's got to be doing something right. I imagined the scent would be heavy and dense, something smokey and opulent and the nasal equivalent of red velvet chaise lounges. I also imagined it would have some sweet notes, like orchids in a rainforest.


The perfume was definitely strong. One spritz on my wrist, and I could instantly smell it. Four sprays was almost too much because the scent was way more tobacco than floral, way darker or denser than I had even imagined. But I started enjoying it more as it dried, because the scent mellowed out and became sweeter. By the end of the day, I smelled jasmine and some sweet citrus and rosewood. Opium was definitely a dramatic fragrance, as expected, but much more nuanced and thoughtful than I anticipated.

Estée Lauder Youth Dew

Estée Lauder Youth Dew, $31, Amazon


Part of the reason I wanted to try Estée Lauder Youth Dew is because it's so reasonably priced. It's also the beauty giant's first fragrance, released in 1953. To be honest, I didn't have high hopes for this one. In spite of the name of the perfume, I generally associate Estée Lauder with more mature women, so I expected the scent to be too "old" for me somehow. I thought it was going to be a light, soft combination of rose and talc, inoffensive and simple but still nice and comforting.


I was way off with this one. It wasn't really floral and light at all, but smokey and musky in a wonderful, deep husky voice kind of way. Youth Dew initially reminded me of an old leather-bound book in that it was stately and established, but it softened after a few hours of wear to something a little lighter and more floral. (I think there's some jasmine in there.) This is definitely the most surprising of all the scents, which I totally loved.

Tom Ford Black Orchid

Tom Ford Black Orchid, $89, Amazon


Of the seven perfumes I tried, the packaging of Tom Ford Black Orchid was the most unique and most striking. The opaque black bottle is sleek and modern, but still feminine and beautiful. Based on that packaging and the name, I expected the scent to be similar to what I imagined YSL Opium would smell like, except even sweeter. "Dank" was the word that came to mind, picturing decaying, sickly sweet-smelling orchids.


Black Orchid was sweeter than YSL Opium, but I would describe it more like marshmallow than orchids. It was also much spicier than anticipated, like someone had dropped in some cayenne pepper. It wasn't unpleasant though; rather, it made the scent more multidimensional. Throughout the day, I'd get a whiff of something sweet and then something herbal and then something spicy.

Guerlain Shalimar

Guerlain's Shalimar, $56, Amazon


Guerlain's Shalimar is, according to their website, "the first oriental fragrance in history," created in 1925, and the packaging totally played into that expectation. Based on the branding, I expected the scent to be spicy and sweet — scents you'd find along the Silk Road back when Marco Polo was doing that.


Of the seven scents, this perfume was closest in reality to what I expected it to be. It was a tamer scent than I had imagined, in that it wasn't as in-your-face and strong as YSL Opium or Tom Ford Black Orchid, but the combination was definitely something bright and sharp paired with something sweeter with a hint of something spicy. My nose isn't fine-tuned enough to tell what that bright or sweet or spicy scent was, but I knew all of those notes were there and well-balanced. No one fragrance overpowered the others, and although I don't know if I'd call the scent "exotic," it was something a little bit different.

Chanel No. 5

Chanel No. 5, $176, Amazon


When I think of classic perfumes, I think of Chanel No. 5. But I had never actually tried the scent, even though I could draw you a picture of that iconic bottle from memory. To be honest, I also imagined the scent as kind of... old. Something light, maybe a little cirtus-y, and something my grandma would like. I kind of categorized it as the perfume equivalent of the iconic tweed suit. It's something I can admire and dream of wearing when I'm older, but not something that's fitting for a girl in her early twenties.


I was wrong. It's not old and stuffy. It's bright with jasmine, not citrus, and a little powdery, which adds a nice layer. It was perfect to wear around the office because it wasn't too dramatic. There's definitely a reason this scent is a classic, and I regret ever thinking this wasn't an "age-appropriate" perfume. For a recipe so old, I was surprised at how modern, and pleasant, it smells.

Dior Miss Dior

Miss Dior, $65, Amazon


When I went to pick up this sample of Miss Dior from the Dior counter at Bloomingdale's, I asked the salesclerk how he would describe the scent. He enthusiastically said, "It smells like love! You can just smell the love!" I had always thought that Miss Dior would smell like roses because the actual liquid is a darling light pink. But maybe the salesclerk would be right about the whole love thing. There was only one way to find out.


The perfume might not have smelled like love, but it was definitely lovely. It's sweet and slightly floral, which I think was rose. As the day wore on, and the scent settled a little bit, it took on a new dimension, something a little smokier offset the sweetness. Miss Dior was delicate without being weak or inconsequential. There was a depth to it, but it took a little while to get drawn out.


If I've learned anything from this experiment, it's to not be afraid of perfumes, even classic ones with iconic branding and loaded histories and famous endorsers. At the end of the day, they're just scents, and very beautiful, nuanced ones at that. Don't let your expectations drive you away from these, but I would recommend taking your time to find the scent that works best for you. There's a reason these perfumes are classic, so go ahead and take a whiff or two.

Images: Author's Own; Giphy