When Queen Victoria married her beloved Prince Albert in 1840, she cast aside the traditions of earlier noble-born brides—and unwittingly changed the course of wedding history. For one thing, she proposed. In lieu of a velvet jewel-toned look, she chose a white dress (a trend that she is credited with starting). As for her hair, she wore a humble wreath of orange blossoms, rather than the requisite diamond-encrusted tiara. The sweet white flower is said to symbolize love and virtue, a blessing in full bloom.
Since that high-profile moment, orange blossom has remained a staple of royal nuptials in a more lasting form: perfume. For her 1981 wedding to the then Prince Charles, broadcast to a global audience of 750 million, Diana Spencer ascended the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral wearing Houbigant Quelques Fleurs eau de parfum, with orange blossom and bergamot alongside jasmine and rose. A generation later, Meghan Markle wed Diana’s son Prince Harry in a custom Floris scent, its orange blossom notes inspired by the line’s Bergamotto di Positano.
“The tradition of perfuming weddings is almost as old as weddings themselves,” says Amandine Clerc-Marie, a French perfumer whose work has been bottled up by Chloé, YSL, Mugler, and Burberry. “In ancient China, women wore a crown of fragrant orange blossoms at their wedding to ensure their fertility, and the tradition has spread to the West. That’s why orange blossom is still such a popular note for weddings.”
Geography and custom have also shaped the occasion’s olfactory palette. In the ancient Middle East, dousing oneself with agarwood (also known as oud) was a familiar pre-wedding ritual, as documented in the Old Testament’s Psalm 45:8. Incense-fumed ceremonies and flower necklaces have carried symbolic associations in certain Eastern cultures. Attending to the matrimonial scentscape is a practice that has endured to present day, when choosing a perfume has become as weighty a decision as designing the bridal bouquet.
“Over the last couple of years with social media, it has made it feel like wedding scents all of the sudden were a thing,” says Jennifer Capuano, vice president of fragrance at Macy’s. Everyone is in search of a signature fragrance, and brides are paying special attention. When Sofia Richie Grainge’s South of France wedding took TikTok by storm this past spring, the public clamored to find out what she wore—and not just her lace-embroidered Chanel haute couture dress. The fragrance of the day was reported to be a blend of two Jo Malone scents: Peony Blush and English Pear & Freesia.
“Brides put so much effort into finding a dress that you likely will only wear once,” says Clerc-Marie. “Spending some time to find the right fragrance can be equally as important.” Her latest creation—Burberry Goddess, a vanilla-and-lavender confection that launched earlier this month—is a worthy bridal contender. Practically speaking, she adds, a scent “carries with it the infinite potential to wear it repeatedly, instantly transporting you back to that special day.”
Yvan Jacqueline, president of the Americas for Parfums de Marly, a French perfume maison, echoes the point. “If there is one day you remember all your life, and you want to remember all your life, it is your wedding day,” he says. The brand’s most recent launch, Valaya, which blends lily of the valley with orange blossom and vetiver, was formulated with brides in mind.
In neurobiological terms, the olfactory sense is the one most closely connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, two parts of the brain responsible for emotion and memory. If you’ve ever been brought to your knees by the middle school montage that plays out with one whiff of Bath & Body Works Sweet Pea perfume, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. Scent offers a portal back in time, so when you select a fragrance for a special occasion, you link the two forevermore.
The wedding industry gets more opulent with every passing day, with brides routinely pulling four distinct white looks and renting out whole castles in Italy. There are shoes and veils and jewelry to think about, but if the history of wedding day fragrance teaches us anything, it is that nothing lives on quite like perfume.
Thankfully, brides are spoiled for choice, between niche fragrance brands and established houses, not to mention high-end options for a custom scent. Popular notes like orange blossom, rose, tuberose, and vanilla invariably do well, but choosing a perfume is a deeply intimate process. “Like a wedding dress, you need to try it on, see how it sits on your skin, how it moves with you,” says Clerc-Marie of the way scent reacts with the wearer. “Ask yourself, ‘Does it fit?’”
Finding a fragrance that mixes with your chemistry, suits your personality, and evokes something sentimental—such as the royal obsession with orange blossom—can take a good deal of trial and error. That said, some creations never go out of style. “One of the legacy go-to’s for wedding scents is definitely Chanel No. 5,” says Capuano. “It’s often a scent many remember a mother or grandmother wearing, and now they wear it because of the memories and nostalgia that it evokes.”
Once a selection is made, it can be worth turning up the volume. “You want people to be offended by how strong you smell,” jokes David Moltz, the perfumer behind the Brooklyn-based fragrance studio D.S. & Durga. He recommends the brand’s Rose Atlantic (with notes of rose and sea salt) and Jazmín Yucatan (a humid blend of jasmine and vetiver) as bridal scents. “You want it to be unique and specific, like you are not just smelling it everywhere,” adds cofounder Kavi Moltz—“especially if the whole point is to be reminded of that day.” On the eve of their own wedding, David presented Kavi with three custom fragrances in a series of ornate vintage vessels: one unique scent for each day of their traditional Indian ceremony. Naturally, the couple went on to launch his-and-her scents inspired by these sentimental creations: D.S. for David, with notes like sandalwood, saffron, and rose; Durga for Kavi, the requisite orange blossom mingling with tuberose and orris butter. “It should be fancy,” she continues. “It’s your fucking wedding.”
The goal is a singular sensation. Then again, some nuptials have the kind of sparkle that transforms a wedding day fragrance into a pop-culture commodity. For her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Grace Kelly commissioned a new scent from perfumer James Henry Creed— a veritable bouquet of florals, including white tuberose, violet, and rose, grounded in powdery iris and sandalwood. Called Fleurissimo, it instantly evokes midcentury glamour, and it smells exactly as you imagine a movie star turned princess would. A fragrance worthy of a fairy tale.