Smells Like the '90s

If 1991 smelled like teen spirit, by ‘96 that smell had been completely covered up by CK One. Come to think of it, Calvin Klein and his androgynous fragrance can probably be credited with number of upcoming trends including boyfriend jeans and bi-curiosity. Suddenly, your best friend smelled like your boyfriend and everyone was sexy. Between CK One and the opening of a Bath & Body Works in just about every mall in America, it would seem that, in the ‘90s, little mattered beyond smelling good.

To this day, I still think CK One smells like little plastic barrettes, baby doll tees, Kate Moss (I assume), black and white Adidas shell toes, Trapper Keepers, Delia’s catalogs, and pastel lipstick applied in the mirror of a junior high bathroom. My middle school had one of those bathrooms that discouraged underage smoking by having only the stalls behind a closed door, while the sinks and mirrors were in a little alcove off the main halls. This setup had the side effect of letting everyone know just how hard you were trying. Girls crowded around the mirrors, oblivious to the public display of their primping, and the overspray of their L.A. Looks hairspray and CK One drifted unobstructed into the hallway.

And CK One wasn’t the only scent that seemed to transcend gender. There was a chemically-enhanced citrus smell that wafted off little blond heads everywhere. Sun-In was the hair color compromise that adolescents of the ‘90s (including myself) reached with their parents. This noncommittal, spray-in hair lightener was a favorite of mousy, dishwater blondes, because in the amount of time it took to listen to a Green Day CD while lying on the trampoline in your backyard, you could get one, barely noticeable, step closer to the lovely locks of Zack Morris or Gwen Stefani.

The Sun-In ritual was one that I often shared with groups of girlfriends, as we would lounge on our towels in the sun trying to, all at once, darken our skin and lighten our hair. Our heads smelled like lemons and our greasy bodies like coconut-y Hawaiian Tropic. It was the ‘90s so we’d definitely heard of cancer, but the potential reward of looking like a California dream seemed to outweigh the potential for future skin graphs.

Bonding with my girls through reckless sun absorption was always fun, but sharing Sun-In with my boyfriend was an opportunity to make him even more blond and adorable. During Sun-In sessions, I’d lie next to him on the trampoline while Boyz II Men played on the boom box and we kissed and groped each other under our towels.

When I started high school, the more familiar fragrance was peroxide and pot. This was the signature scent of black-lit bedrooms where Shonea and I dried our freshly bleached hair and applied too much eye makeup. I would spray Victoria Secret Love Spell all over my hoodie to cover the smell of menthols I’d smoked, then go home to lie about where I’d been. 

My hair would return to health, but nothing would ever be as simple as Sun-In and CK One. 


90sLindsey Hileman