White Linen Parfum and Eau de Toilette (Estée Lauder)

Composed in 1978, White Linen presides over American perfumery like Athena Nike over the Acropolis. Designed by one woman (Sophia Grojsman) for another woman (Estée Lauder) to offer to all women, it set a new standard for clean proportions and simple beauty in fragrance-- and became a goddess in the process.

In my imaginary version of their first meeting, Lauder and Grojsman -- two vibrant, forceful Jewish women, almost a mother-daughter team -- size one another up over tea and finger sandwiches. Each has come to the table with strong preferences and opinions; neither is about to defer to the other. This must be a true collaboration-- or nothing. All they need is a common inspiration, one algorithm on which to build a shared creative code.

Lauder's gaze lights upon a massive floral arrangement on a nearby sideboard. "Look, that's us," she jokes-- indicating a marriage between the roses of YSL Paris and the greenery of Private Collection. Grojsman studies the bouquet for a moment and then asks, "But what about all the baby's breath?"

Within an hour two orders are issued: a bottle of the house's finest champagne, and a boatload of IFF's finest aldehydes.

"Flowers, ferns, and filler" may sound like a pretty generic recipe for either a bouquet or a perfume. But White Linen's flower isn't any old flower-- it's Sophia Grojsman's rose, all romance, velvet, and shadows. And its greens come not from some nameless florist's bucket, but from Estée Lauder's own bespoke scent. Imprinted so deeply with these marks of identity, this fragrance could sink under its own emotional weight... but that's where the "baby's breath" comes in. As weightless and dazzling as a layer of mica dust, aldehydes contribute a crucial lightness to White Linen, rescuing it from gravitas and transforming it from personal to universal. Any woman can wear it. Its notes are so full, so unstinting, that she will feel rich and well-rounded no matter her starting-place-- projecting the quiet confidence of an explorer who knows at all times her exact coordinates on the globe.

If White Linen parfum were a goddess, what an earth mother she'd be-- dependable, plainspoken, strong. Proud and pure against the cloudless blue sky of the American dream, her silhouette is unmistakable; faithful and heathen alike cast their eyes upwards in awe.

5STARS Small

Yet without some sort of nemesis, the goddess would be one-dimensional, and mythology would be one big long yawn. Everyone needs a bête noire to define them-- or better yet, a sinister twin whose identical features conceal radically different intentions. Enter White Linen Eau de Toilette-- the laid-back parfum's bitchy alter ego.

Though it contains all of the scent elements extant in the original, the EdT has clearly been refined to the point of declension. Sophia's romantic rose and Estée's lush greens have been forced to diet; the volume has been axed on many of the secondary support notes, and the aldehydes -- alone undiminished -- have turned strident and hysterical. The overall impression is of White Linen suffering from upper-class neurosis: still attractive, of course, but with thinner lips, narrower eyes, and a decidedly nervous mien.

In comparison to her serene sister, this version of the White Linen goddess radiates anxiety. Desperate to dazzle by any means necessary -- wit, elegance, flawless breeding, name-dropping -- she tries too hard, smiles through gritted teeth, and spoils the desired effect. Yet she always manages to make me feel worse-- tatty and déclassé. We resent each other equally for the entire duration of her stay, and we're both relieved when it's over.

So why have I given White Linen EdT four stars? Because though I despise its attitude, I can't deny the inherent high quality of its origins. It might be impoverished, but it comes from Olympian stock. I'd rather wear the parfum any day, of course. But I recognize that a parfum without its eaux and other corresponding products is, commercially speaking, as much an anomaly as a one-legged table. Without its fidgety, edgy EdT to provide contrast, White Linen proper might seem too ordinary, too much a given. We might not be able to see the epic poem for the verses.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, citrus, peach, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, lilac, iris, lily-of-the-valley, ylang-ylang, cedar, honey, amber, civet, sandalwood, tonka bean