I don’t remember what my older brother Keith actually wore, if anything, when it came to cologne. I do remember while I was still getting toys and other “cool” (to me) Christmas gifts, he at some point began regularly getting Avon’s Wild in the Country and English Leather from various relatives. When I myself reached around 16, our Aunt Ova began giving me bottles of men’s cologne — by Studio Girl Cosmetics. Aunt Ova had sold Studio Girl, which was a lesser known direct sales company similar to Avon or Mary Kay. I also remember a lot of Brut bottles around the house about that time — and chipping in together to buy Dad bottles of Hai Karate and Skin Bracer. I’m not sure he ever wore either one. He mostly used plain old Old Spice.
A couple of weeks ago, as I watched a TV special about the late designer Halston, I posted a picture to Facbook of my well-aged bottle of Halston Z-14. I said it was my first “designer” cologne. I likely bought it at Ivey’s or Thalhimer’s, venerable department stores my family often shopped at in Greensboro, North Carolina. I think that because smelling Z-14 today makes me think of Greensboro. It also makes me think of my first few times of sneaking into clubs to go dancing, and an off-white ultrasuede Adolfo “jogging suit” I wore for such adventures. If you can believe what you find in online searches, Halston Z-14 was released in 1974. I wasn’t aware of it until 1977 or 1978.
At some point in the latter half of high school, Paco Rabanne (“Pour Homme”) seemed to be all the craze (even though it apparently had been around since 1973). People I knew back then pronounced the “E” on the end, as if it were “Rabanny.” I later heard that’s not correct. I no longer care. Its scent today reminds me of nothing in particular.
I’m sure a lot of younger folks don’t know that back in the day cosmetics counters didn’t just offer you a piece of spritzed paper to test a scent. They gave out samples! Little glass vials that held several days’ or weeks’ worth of a dab on each wrist or ankle or wherever you put your dabs. The ladies behind the counters at Parks-Belk kept me well-stocked in the latest new scents, as well as my favorites. I’m not sure when spritzed paper cards replaced little glass vials. But it was a sad day.
Around 1979-80, I was all about Lagerfeld. Its scent today reminds me of two or three then-running buddies, all of whom I have outlived. So it’s a loud fragrance. But to me bittersweet.
Next up for me was Pierre Cardin, which I wore for exactly one bottle’s worth. Smelling it today makes me think of the Chinese restaurant that was in the “Barn” at the Interstate 81/Highway 11W interchange at Bristol. The link: I was taken there for a birthday dinner date and the Cardin cologne was a gift. The biggest reason the dinner stands out as a memory is that date, who knew the owner or the cook or someone, had pre-ordered a dozen egg rolls as our appetizer and was intent on us eating them all there.
With my discovery of Polo (in the green bottle), I settled down and wore it faithfully for several years. So smelling it today summons a smorgasbord of memories spanning most of the 1980s and the first half of the ’90s. I went through several sets of “gift with purchase” luggage and totes with the pony logo. I wore many Polo argyle sweaters and sweater vests. I did stray a bit from Polo in the green bottle by occasionally, at the urging of my staid Uncle Harold, using Chanel for Men instead. Polo in the green bottle and Chanel for men both make me think of Washington, D.C., where Uncle Harold lives and I spent much time in the 1980s. One summer I lived in D.C. and decided to come home earlier than planned. I had flown up. And accumulated lots of stuff. Dad prepaid me a ticket home on Piedmont and Uncle Harold drove me to Washington National Airport in his little LeBaron convertible. As we struggled to the check in desk, one of my “gift with purchase” Polo totes ripped completely open and hardback books were strewn between my side of the desk and that of the not-pleased ticket agent.
“Yes?” he inquired.
“I should have a prepaid ticket to Tri-Cities. Osborne. John H. The third.”
Typing, screen scrolling. “Oh. First class. Someone is spoiled!”
“Spoiled” reverberated in my head like an echo sound effect in a horror movie. But you know what? He taped my books back up in that tote, and Uncle Harold accompanied me up to wait for my flight in the Piedmont Presidential Club. After some free refreshments there, Uncle Harold walked me right to my gate. I don’t think that would be allowed in today’s post-9/11 world.
Then I found Brooks Brothers classic cologne for men. I’d worn Brooks Brothers shirts for years. But I had never tried the cologne. It instantly became my regular cologne. Its scent today makes me think of the beach, and Hilton Head in particular, and good times traveling with my parents. Pleasures for men, by Lauder, brings similar memories. I still wear Brooks Brothers. Not so much the much more flowery Pleasures. But judging from how little is left in my bottle of Pleasures, I sure gave it a run for its money at some point.
About the time I hit 39 (nearly 18 years ago) I rediscovered plain old Old Spice. I like it. It suits me, I think. But I also went through a typical (I hate being typical) mid-life crisis. I decided to go hit the dance floors again. Old Spice didn’t seem right. So for a while there, I was wearing nothing but Touch by Burberry. If its name was supposed to elicit that response, I should sue for false advertising.
Today, if I were cologne, my fragrance of choice is Robert Graham’s Fortitude. But sometimes I’m feeling nostalgic and spritz or dab on one of my golden oldies.
I hope my trip down olfactory memory lane has jogged some memories for you. Do you have an old favorite? A despised scent due to an over-indulgent friend or coworker?
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.