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Why Do All Vintage Clothes Shops Smell Like That?

We asked a smell expert to explain.
Photo: Ruchira Sharma

The vintage shop smell. That thick, oppressive must. That ever-present reminder that the humans who once owned these clothes are now very old or dead.

But where exactly does the distinctive smell come from, and why is it the same in vintage clothing shops the world over? To find out, I got in touch with smell expert and founder of Aromaco – a company that creates fragrances for Italian cruise liners, Japanese car manufacturers and Colombian banks – to find out.


VICE: Hi Simon. How long have you been in the smell business?
Simon Harrop: I started the Aroma company in 1993 so getting on for 25 years. We've never been asked to recreate the smell of a vintage clothes shop, I have to say.

Is it possible to do that?
You can do a thing called gas liquid chromatography [GLC], where you take the air from a space and you put it through this chemical analyser and it will tell you the chemical compounds. You can mix exactly the same chemical compounds in a test tube to recreate the smell. It's possible that some of the chemicals present we aren't allowed to use by law for health and safety reasons

Like dead human?
We can't recreate everything, no, but we can have a pretty good go at most things.

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So this machine would tell you more or less what was in the air?
Yes, but in truth most trained perfumers would probably be able to identify these notes without needing a GLC analysis, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

So if I went into a shop with a highly trained perfumer they could tell me what was in the air?
They'd have a pretty good go at it, yes. Logically, the only difference between new and old clothes is that they've been worn and not all of them have been completely cleaned and carry natural human odours.

So it's not the chemicals used to clean clothes that give these shops their smell?
When we're using dry cleaning, it uses these solvents, so some of the smell could be due to that. But my overall impression of vintage clothes shops is not of dry cleaning fluids or of fabric conditioner; it's much more of natural human body odours, really. That slightly musty sweating aroma.


Mainly excess human fluid then?
Yes, like the body odours of those that wore them, including insensible water loss. The average human loses about one litre of water per day through the skin and respiration. This is on top of any other water loss through sweat and urine. Much of this moisture will find its way onto our clothes.

Photo: Ruchira Sharma

Is there a reason why it's the same smell in every vintage shop?
I think there probably will be minute differences, but they're not discernible by the average human nose, and probably not even by the trained human nose either, because it's an amalgamation of so many different notes.

Okay. So why does it take so many washes to get the smell out?
I think, again, I would suggest some of the clothing, coats and jackets and things can't be anything more than dry cleaned, and dry cleaning is something you only do intermittently. That means those aromas will remain over a long period of time. I suspect it is those items which aren't regularly washed that give most of the odour to a vintage clothes shop.

Will I become ill if I constantly inhale old sweat?
I could honestly say no. These are just natural human odours. If it was a preponderance of dry cleaning chemicals, then some of those aren't considered particularly healthy. Perchloroethylene, which used to be used for this, has been gradually phased out in EU countries.

Phew. Thanks, Simon.