Here’s Why Women Want To Smell Like Dessert

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The popularity of super-sweet perfumes is only growing. But why? Photo: Travis Rathbone/Trunk Archive 

If you’ve spritzed your way down the perfume counter lately, you’ve picked up on a trend: fragrances that smell like dessert. Gourmand scents have been popular for years, but some of 2014’s scents are positively drowning in sugar. Earlier this year, Viktor & Rolf released Bonbon, a caramel-drizzled confection; the sticky stuff also sweetens fall’s Prada Candy Florale. Jimmy Choo Stars features a toffee note, while Agent Provocateur Fatale mixes chocolate and vanilla with musk.

We’re living with a virtual dessert tray of perfumes. But to understand why many of us crave sweet-smelling fragrances, you have to go back to 1992, when Thierry Mugler’s Angel ushered in the era of sweetness. “It’s the first ‘gourmand’ perfume,” says perfume historian Barbara Herman, author of Scent and Subversion. “That is, a perfume that has confectionary notes of vanilla, chocolate, or honey, for example.”

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It’s not that perfumes didn’t use sweet notes before Angel—Herman points to the vanilla base of Shalimar, from the 1920s—but Angel was groundbreaking. “It had dripping sweet accords of honey, berries, vanilla, chocolate and caramel, along with an unusual cotton candy accord,” she says. “But it was also overdosed with patchouli, a dark, slightly medicinal/camphor-y note that has a ‘masculine’ feel on its own.” Sweet, yes, but challenging too.

Fragrance expert Elena Vosnaki notes that after Angel shook up the scene, the industry was quick to develop more gourmands. “[Angel] was highly different then, and therefore its market success shaped the market,” she says. Perfumes such as Lolita Lempicka and Aquolina Pink Sugar developed cult followings in their own right, and new scents aimed to incorporate the essence of frosting (Vera Wang Princess) and cupcakes (Jessica Simpson’s defunct Dessert line). 

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Still, it’s been more than 20 years since Angel’s debut. Why has the allure of dessert scents only grown stronger? And what does it mean about modern womanhood if we want to smell like lollipops and gummy bears?

The obvious answer is that to millions of people, straightforward gourmands just smell good. “They’re ‘easy,’ they’re crowd-pleasers, and women have heard that men’s favorite scent is pumpkin pie,” Herman says. “So they think if they smell like one, it will have the men lining up.” 

Another thing to consider, says Vosnaki, is that the under-40 crowd has been groomed to enjoy “food” smells in a way our mothers were not. As an example, she points to Bath & Body Works, which has incorporated scents like candied apples and pumpkin pecan waffles into their soaps and lotions. “Incorporating flavor ingredients into body products has accustomed the customers to very sweet scents in their shower gels and body lotions,” Vosnaki says. “[That makes] them positively disposed to finding similar notes in their fine fragrance.”

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Surprisingly, a wobbly economy may also explain the popularity of dessert scents. “The economic crisis in 2008 brought us back to the fetal position, seeking comfort where we could find it,” she says. “What’s more comforting that a scent that reminds you of baking cookies with your mother? So there you go, a generation brought up in vanilla, cupcakes, and cotton candy.”

Herman agrees that for women expected to “have it all,” the value of comfort can’t be underestimated. “Perhaps their lives are already tough enough—busy, complex, demanding—that they just want something that smells like dessert,” she says.

And as talk of “strong women” dominates the culture, sweet perfumes can give off a non-threatening vibe. “Perhaps there’s a cultural exhaustion with feminism now, a sense of not wanting to feel embattled or project ‘tough’ or even complex,” Herman says. “Perfume reflects that with a return to an unchallenging category.” Gourmands add softness, she notes: Yes, I may be a high-powered attorney, but my perfume says I’m easy to get along with. I don’t bite. (“Not the original Angel, though,” she adds. “It had some bite to it.”)

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A little edge, says Herman, is necessary for a gourmand to be great. “There’s got to be something to balance the sweetness,” she says. “Otherwise, they can just seem one-dimensional.” For those who like a little more complexity with their “dessert,” she recommends Sables by Annick Goutal (“It smells like a spice market covered with brown sugar and set on fire”) and Exotic by Boadicea the Victorious, a truffled chocolate creation that she deems a compliment magnet. 

Of course, if you prefer to smell exactly like the season’s most popular treat, a Bath and Body Works fragrance mist smells of pumpkin spice lattes and marshmallows. Its name is no surprise: Comfort.