Your Perfume Does Not Have A Sex
05 Mar 2014 / Opinion / by Liam Moore
Scent does not have a gender. And so why, asks Liam Moore, should some embody masculinity whilst others embody femininity?
There exists in the perfume industry a gendered mentality toward marketing, advertising and panel-testing. For men this involves a latent “masc4masc” approach, for it seems that to be masculine a real man must exclusively, strictly, only wear fragrances marketed for him. Does it contain the synthetic raw material Ambroxan? Then it’s a man’s “aftershave”! The same applies to women. If she’s not butch, then it’s a “femme4femme” approach. We are culturally indoctrinated to accept how important perfume is in the feminine woman’s world.
It was commonplace for fragrances in 19th century Europe to smell of floral essential oils, and both sexes wore these without question. Today, a perfumer’s palette seems almost limitless, yet a strict divide between both sexes is enforced. Sometime between then and now a notion caught on that certain smells should embody femininity whereas certain other smells should embody masculinity. Perhaps it was down to François Coty at the turn of the 20th century. Lauded as a legendary perfumer and marketer, he pioneered the notion that attractive bottles sell a fragrance. Gift boxes containing identically scented items such as creams and powders at affordable prices were targeted at middle and working-class women. Thus did he secure his fortunes, and set the history of perfume on a different path.
It’s mystifying that this divide exists at all because the underlying truth is that fragrance is oblivious to gender. Like marriage being classified as only between man and woman, it is little more than the accumulation of cultural ideas about what constitutes reality, and normality. Look to the Middle East, after all, and you’ll find many men’s perfume containing staggering amounts of rose.
That said, I’d be a little shocked to see a man turn up to work in a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s. But I’d be impressed all the same, and even a little intimidated. Am I man enough to step out in heels? Probably not, but I find it admirable when anyone crosses their traditional norms with another. I am “man” enough to wear the oh-so-feminine, sheer and decadent Shalimar by Guerlain however, a game-changer of a perfume created in 1925. I am “man” enough to wear Old Spice too. I am also “man” enough to try on Channel No5 at a department store because I can’t quite decide if I like it enough to buy a small Eau de Parfum bottle of it. Look how butch I am now.
And for perfume, just get right to the heart of the matter: the smell. What does it smell like? I don’t care if Sophie Dahl is selling it, fully naked in an ad campaign. I don’t care if the sales assistant at the store tells me it’s for women – in fact I’d be annoyed. I don’t even care what people around me think, because it’s me wearing it not them. That’s not to say I spritz it on offensively to the point of starving the room of oxygen – but simply that it doesn’t matter. What are the opening notes like? Is that bergamot? I can smell the heart notes; the rose, the jasmine. And the basenotes: that lush, creamy vanilla and skanky civet dry-down. Heaven.
In any case, my choices are opened right up and I can step-out into a much more varied olfactory market of fragrances. Ever noticed how dull men’s fragrances can be? If I have to smell one more Sport flanker.. .
It’s surprising how much we are influenced by marketing. I recently took part in a blind sniff test and was stumped that what I was smelling Old Spice. I could have sworn that what was under my nose was a highly expensive, intensely French-style lady’s parfum. Something about that carnation heart note confused me and I couldn’t even recall memories of my grandfather slapping it on. I was pleasantly shaken and it reaffirmed my own misconceptions. Yet as I got to know the fragrance, blindly, taking the time to enjoy all its facets, I could appreciate it for what it really was: a well crafted olfactory piece of art.
The concept of “unisex” is gathering speed in the fragrance industry – in an ideal world the term would be done away with entirely. However, there have been other “unisexes” before. CK One, circa mid-nineties, really did change how fragrance was sold; man, woman, black, white – it didn’t matter. It brought unisex back into fashion, from the 19th century right to the forefront. I was a pre-teen at the time, but I can think how refreshing that must have seemed, the smell being a fresh oceanic wave in itself. Poetic I’m sure.
Despite Calvin Klein stumbling in recent years with this non-gender approach to CK One – why release For Him and For Her anyway? – smaller, independent perfume houses on the rise don’t even consider gender identity at all. They make fragrance for what it is, and what it ultimately is always about – the juice, the smell, the art. You won’t even see the word “masculine” or “feminine” crop up at all, despite the utter temptation I’m sure to help grow their business and translate an impression of a smell on their website.
It’s difficult to erase gender notions, like the idea of marriage being only between man and woman. But it’s slowly happening. It is changing, so after that war is fought, I think we should set our sights on the engrained notions that exist in fragrance and we can do away with “masc4masc to the front of the queue” entirely.