What Your Gap Fragrance Said About You

What Your Gap Fragrance Said About You

by Anne Helen Petersen

At some point in the mid-1990s, The Gap decided two things were very important: 1) convincing the world that swing dancing in dad khakis was fun; and 2) providing middle-school girls with the illusion of individuality.

Twenty years from now, our grandchildren will spend their Marxist phases critiquing the false consciousness that led us to believe that a “signature scent” could somehow stand in for character. But what is cheaply made, mass-marketed, and ostensibly classy perfume for if not providing insecure teenage girls with eight dollars worth of identity security.

Five fragrances; five personalities. For girls too old for American Girl dolls and their various markers of class, attitude, and diversity, yet too young to think about how to align oneself with the various post-feminisms of “Sex and the City.” The bottles were small and svelte — this wasn’t the big investment of the big department store perfume counter, and you didn’t have to worry about the fact that you never knew WHY THERE WERE COFFEE BEANS guarding the ckOne or face the ubiquitous posters of Elizabeth Taylor’s face.

The next in a series about our teenage fragrance memories.

Previously: Smell Like A Man

You could just go to the mall, get an Orange Julius, consider shoplifting something from Claire’s, and end up buying a small silver bottle of perfume and a pair of argyle socks from The Gap, which was far less scary and man-smelling than Abercrombie & Fitch but still redolent of good taste. The Gap has long been a store filled with things that are at once ostensibly fashionable and unerringly conservative. The solid v-neck, now available in aubergine! The navy polo dress, now slightly different than last year’s navy polo dress! The overpriced chemical water, now in light, feminine scents that will neither distinguish nor offend!

I can think these critical things now, but, at the age of 15, all I wanted was to not smell like myself. And thus I offer, in offensively reductive form, a connotative reading of The Glorious Gap Scents of the Mid to Late 90s.

Smelling Notes: Freshly cut grass + slight hint of Pine-Sol.

Type of Girl: The aspiring hippie too scared of patchouli; the tomboy whose family keeps putting it in her Christmas stocking; the girl so afraid of the saleslady in the bra department that she keeps wearing cotton Jockey sports bras.

The Vibe: You understand fully that no one ever really wants to smell like grass, which is precisely why you buy it.

The Future: Small liberal arts college; dabblings in Gender Studies; organic seed catalogs; Etsy iPhone covers. There’s a decent chance you never bought another item at the Gap again.


Smelling Notes: Berry-flavored soda water with a hint of periwinkle.

Type of Girl: You have great hair but no spine to talk to boys. You dress like Shoshanna from “Girls.” Your prom dress looked a lot like Anne Hathaway’s from this year’s Oscars. You know how to French braid like a boss.

The Vibe: Dreaming of a future in which you don’t have to wear the same perfume as all your friends to fit in.

The Future: Enduring great hair. Barre class. An ability to wear heels without acquiring blisters. Business or law school. Tremendous success and a predilection for Anthropologie candles. Lavender-flavored fancy cocktails. Facebook, never Twitter.


Absolutely no one remembers you.


Smelling Notes: Dryer sheets and Teen Spirit.

Type of Girl: Awesome and she knows it. Regina George in Mean Girls mixed with the Sweet Valley Twins and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Someone in your life, at some point, has called you “stuck up.”

The Vibe: Sophistication in a high-school twin set. You own many additional items from the Gap, along with the corresponding Heaven candle, soap and body wash.

The Future: Suburban plentitude, career in home decorating, affection for expensively embossed thank-you cards. You still have your last bottle of Heaven and are carefully meting it out. Will personally bankroll a revival of the line if necessary.


Smelling Notes: The least offensive of all incenses + Good Earth Tea.

Type of Girl: A simulacrum of Jessa from “Girls” and Claudia from The Babysitters Club. Long hippie skirts you stole from your mom’s trunk in the basement. Sarah McLachlan circa Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Favorite book: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

The Vibe: More bracelets on one arm than numbers in your age.

The Future: Pretending your wardrobe isn’t from Urban Outfitters, Evergreen College for two years before transferring to a state school. Midwives and natural births. Yoga and juicing retreats, but persistent problems with “staying in the moment” during savasana. Tickets to Florence + the Machine’s next show.


Smelling Notes: Emergen-C with a hint of hand sanitizer.

Type of Girl: Tracy Flick but more effective in hiding your neuroses. Type-A, Straight-A. Day planners, baked goods, fundraising committees. Teacher’s pet that the teacher may kinda hate. Constantly trying to get over how incompetent everyone is. Big plans post high school that do not include flirting with boys in the mall food court. Went to prom with a guy who was “just a good friend.”

Vibe: Sweet, innocent, total fucking ball-buster.

The Future: Law school; unmitigated success. Very few female friends. Kinda wish that Blackberries were still a thing. Carrie Matthews minus the terrorists and bipolar disorder. Moved on from Gap to Banana Republic, which you can afford to buy even when it’s not on sale. A lot of dry-cleaning, which, oddly enough, always seems to smell just a bit like the way you did at age 16.

Previously in series: Smell Like A Man

Anne Helen Petersen writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood. She wore Day and never shoplifted from Claire’s.