One Thousand Scents

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Great Divide

And god have mercy on your soul if you mix them up.

Here's a link (which I cribbed from Now Smell This) to a New York Times article about the increasing genderlessness of scent. (You'll need to register, which is a pain but probably worth it to be able to read the NYT.)

I'm not altogether sure I agree with the main thesis of the article, which is that men are becoming more fearless about buying and wearing scents labelled as women's. Most men--the huge majority, I'm sure--would never wear something called Miss Dior or Femme, and wouldn't dare go out in public smelling of the rosy-sherbety Gaultier Classique or the intensely floral Pleasures.

The fact is that with a couple of minor exceptions such as lavender, florals are considered to be the province of women in Western culture. This wasn't always so, and it isn't true worldwide--look at gardenias in Oceania or roses in the MIddle East--but it's true here and now. Any fragrance that smells strongly and mainly of flowers is immediately marked as a woman's scent, and a man wearing it might as well be wearing an evening gown.

This may be changing, a little, but I think it's going to be a while before we see a wholesale change in the way scents are marketed and worn. Just look at this list, which is supposed to feature "three masculine scents, three unisex, and three feminine options". If you read the lists of notes--not, I concede, the best way to conceive of how a scent will smell--you'll see at once that there's nothing in any of them which specifically marks them as masculine or feminine. In fact, the opposite is true: one of the women's scents features "a strong concentration of oriental notes, with animal intonations of civet and castoreum", which could as easily be a men's scent, and one of the men's scents starts with rose. Why couldn't the manufacturers simply have produced nine unisex scents? Or, better, nine scents, period?

Maybe half the scents I own are purportedly women's scents; most of them are orientals and chypres, which, unless they're also drenched in flowers, are inherently neutral. (There aren't enough men's oriental and chypre scents, but there are some good ones out there: Boucheron Pour Homme is a stunningly good chypre, classically constructed and irresistible.) Plenty of chypres, such as Estee Lauder's Knowing, don't have much in the way of gender markers; it supposedly contains floral notes such as pittosporum and jasmine, but the main thrust of the scent is that dark, honey-drenched oakmoss smell I can't get enough of. Lauder's Spellbound is likewise an oriental which, although it supposedly is flower-laden with such notes as rose, lily of the valley, and narcissus, smells on me like I've been lying next to the fireplace, that hot-skin scent that ambergris can confer: it's terrifically sexy, and could easily, I think, have been marketed as a unisex scent.

Something the article does mention is that some perfumers, mostly higher-end niche companies, are declining to make gendered scents, and good for them. For the most part--with the exception, that is, of strongly or purely floral scents--it isn't the scent itself which governs who's going to wear it, but the marketing. If men are going to wear a scent, it had better not be packaged in pink.

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