Sweet, Sweet Fantasy: Why Sticky, Sexy Fragrances Will Be Everywhere In 2023

The psychology behind our new infatutation with Vanilla fragrances

Described as “sexy,” “edible” and “addictive,” gourmand fragrances are the sweet, milky, vanilla-based scents that demand a second sniff.

Often associated with the first fragrances of young girls any fragrance aficionado knows that there’s more to gourmands than the can of Impulse, Vanilla Kisses kept in so many school bags of the late 90s and early 2000s. Gourmands are many and varied, and in the year of the Y2K revival when everything mid 00s has become utterly compelling, they’ve experienced a resurgence.

Britney Spears Fantasy: Our First Gourmand 

Fantasy by Britney Spears perfectly captures the gourmand category’s duelling association with sex and girlhood. In 2005, Fantasy oozed notes of white chocolate, kiwi fruit, cupcake, and lychee onto the dancefloor, as millennials dripping in edible body glitter writhed to 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.”

The launch, which was one-part Disney Princess, two-parts libidinal fever dream, ran with the tagline “fantasy, everybody has one,” and to this day, the fragrance still holds a discrete place in many a millennial woman’s fragrance collection.

One friend of POPSUGAR Australia shared (under the condition of anonymity): “I still mix a spritz of Fantasy with my Baccarat Rouge 540, to keep me humble.” 

The Rise of the Gourmand:

Gourmand in French refers to a greedy, sensual person. Perhaps our onscreen heroes of the 2000s, like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on “The Simple Life” or Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) and Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson) on “The O.C” weren’t what the French had in mind, but they did have a certain “let them eat cake” energy we were enraptured by.

Then came 2007, and along with it, the Global Financial Crisis. The world as we knew it crashed around us, bringing on a new collective sense that perhaps opulence, greed, and subprime loans weren’t, well, good.

As greed and opulence went out of style, so did our favourite gourmands. The 2010’s saw gourmands replaced by fresh scents like Chanel Bleau, and the Kate Middleton-endorsed Jo Malone English Pear and Freesia, per Fragrantica. As late as 2018, breezy scents like Maison Margiela Sailing Day and Replica Beach Walk topped best-seller lists.

Three Y2K gourmand icons: Birtney Spears, Fantasy, Lolita Lempicka and Escada, Island Kiss
2005 fragrance packaging was a triumph of the imagination, Image Credit: Revlon, Lolita Lempicka, Escada

As we emerge from lockdowns and back into the world, though, there’s been a dramatic shift.

The Kyra Gen Z State of Beauty 2022 found that Gen Z’s top scents in 2022 included vanilla, pineapple, and cinnamon. Meanwhile, gourmands dominated the Who What Wear list of top fragrances, and major brands brought countless new gourmands to market — think the cocktail-inspired YSL Black Opium Illicit Green, or Lancôme Idôle Nectar, which is redolent with notes of popcorn.

Michael Marzano, National Education Manager for Agence de Parfum, has seen a rise in interest in gourmand fragrances in 2022. He noted that they’re a little more sophisticated than Escada Island Kiss (unimaginable!), with a spike in sales for scents like 1270 by Frapin, (ripe raisin, coffee, and chocolate) and Maison Tahite, a gourmand collection that plays traditional vanilla and cocoa notes against salts, fresh florals, and citruses.

Why Are Gourmands in Their Comeback Era, and What Do Our Snake-Brains Have to Do With It?

Britney Spears Fantasy, the popularity of vanilla and our reptilian brains.
….she still gets it Image Credit: Getty Images/Kevin Mazur/Wire Images

Several hours deep in fragrance sales and search data, I began to wonder, ‘why the sudden turn?’ Unlike shimmery lipgloss and belt skirts, the fine fragrances currently trending cost hundreds of dollars, and they’re deeply personal.

Fragrance engages our limbic system which includes the “reptilian brain.” Evocatively titled, the reptilian brain is responsible for the impulses that drive us to seek food, sex and shelter, and other core functions like heart rate and… breathing. The reptilian brain passes information along to the mammalian amygdala, which plays host to the more complicated world of feelings and memory. Scent is one of the senses that informs the reptilian brain which passes information for interpretation by the amygdala. Basically? Your reptilian brain is what makes you feel panicked when someone sprays your high school bully’s perfume near you.

Related: There’s a Psychological Reason You Should Wear Your Favorite Perfume Every Day

As I examined this year’s launches, dominated by scents as sticky and sweet and delectable as a Lancôme Juicy Tube, I was reminded of one of the fragrance industry’s most infamous “reptilian brain” studies: the Pumpkin Pie erection study (henceforth: PPES), the earliest mention of which appears in a 1995 edition of New York Magazine.

The study demonstrated that pumpkin pie — the dessert of every good American family Christmas — caused a 40 percent increase in penile blood flow in men aged 18 to 64. In a year where human phenomena like flirting by making eye contact, and less traditional, very homemade love potions have become sexy viral beauty trends, are gourmand fragrances are another example of our attempt to grease the social wheel following a reported dip in hooking up?

Scent and Sensuality, or, Does Scent Make Us Sexier?

Vanilla in particular is frequently touted as a aphrodisiac scent
Tom Ford would like us to think so, Image Credit: Tom Ford

According to Marzono, history is on the side of vanilla, the base note of most gourmand fragrances, being an aphrodisiac.

“There has long been a connection between the sweet, alluring aroma of vanilla and sexual arousal, [it originates] in Meso American cultures, where it was offered to newly unified couples or as an initiation beverage to youth who had reached sexual maturity,” he explained.

As a professional drinker of beauty industry Kool-Aid, I was loving this theory.

Emboldened, I decided to run my theory by Dr Rachel Herz, neuroscientist, author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell“, and global expert on the psychological science of scent.

To my sorrow, she dismissed the pumpkin pie study out of hand with a quick “unfounded, forget about that.”

While it saddened me to wave goodbye to one of the funniest studies in the industry, the paucity of nightmare American family Christmas stories and a total absence of a lucrative pumpkin pie-based erection-enhancing market had already prompted some doubts.

Related: Leave Lynx in the Bottom Draw With These 10 Modern Fragrances for Men

As noted in by researchers in “The Scent of Attraction and The Smell of Success“, published in “Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications”, it’s as natural that fragrance marketers want us to believe in the aphrodisiac and confidence-boosting properties of scents, as it is that we wish we could spritz charisma and confidence on. After all, Baccarat Rouge is still cheaper than regular therapy or a Faustian pact with the devil.

However, Herz does agree there is COVID-related component to our sudden affinity with sweet scents.

It’s just a little more sweet than sexy.

The Atavistic Pull of Vanilla Fragrance: Self Soothing

Vanilla fragrance and the psychology behind Britney Spears, Fantasy enduring appeal.
Just buy the fragrance Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classic, Elizabeth Arden Label

“The most guaranteed positive scent is vanilla,” said Herz. Vanilla has an atavistic lure because it’s connected with an experience more universal than pumpkin pie: breast milk. Scent is one of our first senses to develop in utero, Herz explained. We’re born with a fully developed sense of smell, and much like an animal, our reptilian brain is sending scent to our amygdala from the day we are born.

“Vanilla is a compound present in both breast milk and breast milk formula,” Herz said, which creates a link between it and “our first experiences of physical intimacy and nurturing.” This relationship is reinforced by our earliest rewards — that choc top at our first movie, the Caramello Koala following good behaviour at the grocery shop. In this way, fragrance notes like vanilla, musk, and heliotropin bring pleasant memories of nurturing and care to the surface, offering a sense of relaxation and ease with every sniff. It’s self-soothing for adults in the way thumb-sucking is for infants.

There may even be an indirect aphrodisiac benefit, as you’ll undoubtedly look and feel more attractive when you’re not audibly grinding your teeth.

Vanilla Fragrance as Social Lubricant:

While animals rely on pheromones to communicate and suss each other out, humans use Spotify Wrapped, needling questions about reading lists and “Peepshow” quotes (because, arguably, we’re the worst). We also use non-verbal signals, like beauty and fashion, to express our desires and identity.

Herz said that our fragrance choices function in a similar way.

“Our use of fine fragrance is very analogous to fashion,” she explains, “we use fragrance to make a statement about ourselves. Am I iconoclastic? Or am I cleaving to the crowd?”

Herz’s statement explains why so many people are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on fragrances that virtually everyone is wearing. It’s interesting, Herz noted, that after a dip in fragrance sales during the pandemic, we are now returning to “real life”, and marking that return with “bigger, bolder, sweeter scents, that announce we’re part of a peer group.”

2023, Should You Buy Britney Spears Fantasy or Just Suck Your Thumb?

Herz’ comments are backed up by several findings in the initial Gen Z report, which reported that 28 percent of Gen Zs shop for scents that will help them relax, and 48% are most likely to purchase scents they’ve smelt on someone else in person, underscoring the social, as well as psychological significance of scent.

So, if you’re lonely and stressed, should you re-engage with the Freudian oral fixations of your childhood, or just shop Britney?

Fantasy is going gangbusters, so it seems we’ve made our choice.

A note on experts:

Dr Rachel Herz is a neuroscientist and world-leading expert on the psychological science of smell. She is the author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell.” You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, and TikTok.

Michael Marzano is National Education Manager at Agence De Parfum. Agence De Parfum, Australia’s most esteemed, niche perfume supplier. Their retail arm Libertine Parfumerie ranges fine fragrances from around the world including Amouage, Initio, Frapin, Maion Tahite, and Trudon.

Related Posts
Latest Beauty
The End.

The next story, coming up!