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Basenote Bitch sweet pea
Courtesy of Elizabeth Renstrom

Smells like teen spirit: Basenote Bitch’s nostalgic world of retro perfumes

These fragrance reviews will make you wish you were a 90s teen wearing dELiA*s and calling your crush on the landline

The first ever fragrance I purchased for myself by Glow by JLo, bought with money given to me earlier that day by my step-grandmother. Britney Spears Fantasy, Vera Wang Princess and Gucci Rush followed over the next few years as I participated wholeheartedly in the age-old teen girl tradition of smelling like a candy shop.  

Like your first kiss, it’s hard to forget your first scent. Both occur during those heady, hormone-filled teenage years when everything is new and exciting and terrible. Today, a single whiff of the scents I used to wear will bring me straight back to that ghastly, nostalgic period of braces, crushes and angst. “We have so many big emotions at that age and we’re going through so much,” says Elizabeth Renstrom, a photographer and former senior photo editor for The New Yorker. “Perfume really marks that and I think that’s why we’re able to remember them so well. They’re associated with all these big firsts in our lives. It’s a special time and that’s why the perfume we wore then resonates so much now.” 

It’s exactly these big emotions and firsts that Renstrom taps into for her project Basenote Bitch. A photography and review series, Basenote Bitch takes retro fragrances, particularly ones beloved by teens, and lovingly satirises them alongside still-life homages to the bedroom scenes that would have been home to the perfumes. Focusing on the 80s, 90s and early aughts, the images evoke powerful nostalgia for both those who lived through the years themselves, and the younger generation who long for the rose-tinted days of landlines, dELiA*s and Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

Dazed spoke to Renstrom about the project, nostalgia and her desperate search for the Emily the Strange fragrance.

You call yourself an “unhinged frag head” which I love. When did your obsession start?

Elizabeth Remstrom: I think my obsession really began having to do gym in school. I was so concerned with smelling disgusting because I would be too mortified to shower in front of people after gym class. So I was always rolling with like eight body sprays!

Then when I got my first job, that’s when I upgraded to the perfume counters at the mall. A specific perfume has always marked where I've been at in my career and work life too. So it’s been a long journey. The collecting happened more recently, but I don’t wear a ton of fragrances that I use for the project. My personal collection of fragrances is a little bit separate.

More sophisticated?

Elizabeth Remstrom: Yeah! Although there are some that I still wear. I love Lolita Lempicka, their original fragrance is so good. And I love the Gap Dream. It is really amazing, the original formulation is really good. 

When did you decide to turn your collection into a project?

Elizabeth Remstrom: I started it right before the pandemic in February 2020. I was working on another project about how we market beauty products to women and I wanted to do an image about [Victoria’s Secret] Love Spell for that series. I shot it and I really liked it and I was like, ‘Oh, I have a couple more perfumes that I would like to reflect on in this way’. Like Sweet Pea from Bath and Body Works. 

Then it just spiralled in the pandemic, it was such a therapeutic thing for me to revisit these things when I couldn't travel. And I was having so much fun recreating this time in my life. It’s an ongoing series for me and one that I will always contribute to as long as there’s perfumes to write about. Fragrances didn’t come out as rapidly in that time period but there’s so much I haven’t explored that I would like to.

Do you think as a society currently we are particularly susceptible to nostalgia?

Elizabeth Remstrom: I think it’s easier for us to be, because of the internet. And I don’t want to give a cliché answer but I think that we are living in very uncertain times. Whenever I’m feeling uncertain about anything, I lean into the things that comforted me before and this project is a product of that. 

So I think it’s a combination of uncertainty and also access to being able to revisit and recycle trends online. I do feel like it makes us regurgitate moments in beauty and fashion so much quicker than we would have even five years ago. I don't really see it as a problem but I am curious how we will reflect on our fashion and beauty five years from now. What were we doing that was different? Or was it all just a reflection on our past? I’m not sure.

One of your reviews is for Love’s Baby Soft and the campaign for it at the time included a very young model and the slogan “Because innocence is sexier than you think.” You must learn a lot about the culture of the time period through looking at old advertising and the way things were marketed.

Elizabeth Remstrom: Yeah, when I look at that and think about how far we’ve come it gives me a little bit of comfort and hope. Love’s Baby Soft came out in the 70s and, at the time, I don’t think it was a controversial marketing scheme because it lasted for a while. Hopefully we’re in a space where nothing like that would ever fly. But yes, you learn so much about advertising and who was in the room during that time where this could get made. 

That’s also a big part of this project: gently, sometimes not gently in the case of that one, critiquing how these things come into our hands. Because even though they’re beloved, sometimes it’s super problematic how we were reeled in to buying them. Marketing in beauty can be very predatory and I love talking about that in a lot of my reviews too. Because they are reflections, but they’re not always starry-eyed reflections. I’m not always like, ‘I loved that time period where I hated myself because I wasn’t Kate Moss’. I think it’s good to talk about how we talked about bodies in every decade. And perfume is sort of like a medium for that.

Perfume trends themselves also often reflect the cultural mood of the time they are from. In the future when we look back on today, what trends do you think will represent the decade?

Elizabeth Remstrom: I think the mid 2010s going into now we’ve been really into what I’d call personal fragrances, ones that are attuned to adjust to your personal scent or pheromones. I think that’s something that people are really interested in. And the nude neutral fragrance vibe, not to be confused with unisex although I think that’s a really big continuing trend. But I think the ‘close to you’ personal fragrance is something people are really interested in and continue to be. I've definitely been swayed by the barely there fragrance.

I completely agree, like the Glossier You fragrance.

Elizabeth Remstrom: And I love them but then I totally reject them half the time. I’m like, ‘No, I want everybody to smell me. I want to smell from 50 feet away’. That’s when I wear something like Marissa Zappas ‘Whore’. When I want to be perceived.

I think one of the best compliments you can get is when someone says ‘you smell amazing, what perfume are you wearing?’

Elizabeth Remstrom: I’m always searching for that moment. It truly only happens when I’m wearing a couple of fragrances, I always get compliments on them. It’s either Orpheon from Diptyque or recently Gris Charnel from BDK Parfums, that’s a very big compliment getter.

You mentioned that you wanted to keep going with the project – do you see it evolving?

Elizabeth Remstrom: I think I will continue to make the reviews in the way that they're going but I would also love to bring it into a more physical space in some way. Whether that’s a book or an exhibition where people can really engage with the different fragrances that are part of the projects in a setting that also shows off the period specific props. 

I’d love to conceptualise an experience for the followers and perfume enthusiasts to have a library of sorts to go through and engage with them in their own way. Maybe contribute their feelings. That is a dream of mine. I receive so many messages from my personal reviews of them, but it would be amazing for people to have their own experiences. There are olfactory art spaces in New York where I feel like that could be possible. That would be my total dream, to make something a little bit more collaborative.

I’m going to manifest that for you! Are there any perfume trends at the moment that you're excited about?

Elizabeth Remstrom: I want to manifest goth fairy fragrances coming back and having that be more of a genre. As Evanescence comes back and Indie Sleaze I’d love to see how that influences fragrance. This is not a trend, it’s just me being like ‘I want this trend’. I want more goth fairy fragrances. I want Avril Lavigne to come out with a new fragrance because she hasn’t in a long time. It’s been hard for me to find a fragrance that encapsulates the goth girl from the 2000s. The kind who had an Emily the Strange poster. There is an Emily the Strange perfume but it is so expensive. On eBay it’s like $500. I need to do a callout to see if anybody owns it and can ship it to me to be photographed!

I really hope that people just continue to engage with and be interested in fragrance. Fragrance, in general, has had a big moment the past couple of years in terms of people wanting to wear and explore them, so I really want to see that continue. And I want people to be excited about trying new fragrances because there’s so many cool indie fragrance brands. I want people to find their personal scent and get excited about it. And overspray!