One Thousand Scents

Friday, February 08, 2008

Young Lady: Eau de Dali

Marko writes regarding last week's fragrance:

Where do you "draw the line" on gender specific fragrances? I know in the past you have reviewed and admitted to wearing/enjoying scents that are marketed to women, yet at the end of this week's blog entry you are very specific as to what's appropriate for a man and what isn't. I know this is a complicated subject (and there really isn't any hard and fast rules to go by), but from one male perfume-lover to another, how do you justify when something is "too feminine" to pull off?

It's tricky, isn't it?

It isn't tricky for everybody. Most people, I think, can see where the line is drawn; women's scents are for women and men's scents are for men, and it would never occur to them to cross the aisle. That really is a pity; there are some scents that are heavily gendered in one direction or the other (most of them, just as is the case with clothing, on the women's side), but most fragrances could be read either way, or neither way at all. There's really only one actual category of scent that says "woman" to everyone in the West, and that's the floral scent. And of course even there you can find exceptions; Rochas Man, with all that jasmine, is a men's floral scent, as are Malmison by Floris (carnation), Fleur du Mâle by Gaultier (orange blossom), and more than a few others. Purely floral scents are considered the province of women in Western culture, and yet many, perhaps most, men's scents have floral notes of some sort in them. Rose and jasmine are almost universally considered beautiful, and so they find their way into a lot of masculine perfumery, though usually only as a grace note; often you're not even aware of their presence. Other scents are unabashedly floral--Old Spice, for instance--but constructed in such a way that they still read as masculine.

The distinction for me is the word "pretty". If I smell a scent and the word "pretty" comes to mind, then it's a sure bet that the scent is created for women, easily interpreted as a women's scent, and therefore (for most people) off limits for men. This, of course, opens another can of worms; what's "pretty"? And that's where I'll have to quote Potter Stewart on pornography: "I know it when I see it." Different people will have different opinions on what "pretty" is, but most people, I think, could instantly know when a scent is specifically tailored to women, as opposed to those that aren't so drastically marked for gender. It seems to me that societally, there's quite a lot of overlap between the elements of what's allowed in men's and women's fragrances, but the construction of the scents is very polarized.

My own personal rule is, I guess, as follows: if a scent seems predominantly floral, and more so, floral without any of the usual masculine or genderless markers such as oriental notes, then I'd feel kind of odd wearing it. It doesn't mean that a man can't wear it; it's just that I suspect it would read as particularly feminine to most people, and therefore I couldn't wear it with any comfort, any more than I could wear a dress. (I'm not sure I could even wear a kilt, which is unimpeachably men's clothing.) It's stupid, I know, and it shows how deeply I've been socialized, but I have been socialized, and I don't think that's likely to change.

I have worn many women's scents over the years, and still do. If a scent reads as unisex, or genderless, or masculine, or at the very least not indubitably feminine, then it doesn't much matter what the marketers say; I'll wear it any time and anywhere, because it brings me pleasure. Other scents I couldn't be comfortable wearing in public; I'd feel conspicuous, which is something I don't like to be. Patou's Joy, for instance, is a stunningly good scent, probably the best rose scent ever, but as much as I admire it, I'd feel very strange smelling of it at work. (This is why I love Midnight Poison so extravagantly; because in addition to being a very inviting rose scent, it also smells unexpectedly masculine--it's all that cleaned-up patchouli--and so I can wear it and feel comfortable in it.)

I don't pretend that my attitude, in either direction, is universal. There are many people who are much more stringent than I am about gender divisions in scent, and no doubt there are cultures in which Joy (or, I don't know, Love's Baby Soft or Vera Wang Princess) would smell masculine or unmarked for gender. But it's how I feel.

And that brings us to this week's wonderful thing.

The original Salvador Dali was a bit of a shock; it was launched in 1984, before the modern surfeit of fragrances with non-designer names attached to them, and since Dali was still alive at the time (he died in 1989), it wasn't hard to imagine that he'd had a surrealist hand in the scent, and that it smelled of bowling balls and dryer lint and an alarm clock. (It didn't.)

In 1995, the company launched Eau de Dali, and the packaging alone would be enough to tell you what was inside. The bottle, a by-then iconic pair of lips surmounted by a cap made of a nose, and the box, bearing a Dali painting on which the bottle was based, were identical to the original Salvador Dali, but muted, the whole thing reinterpreted in a delicate palette of pinks and peaches. Dali was for grownups; this was for the young.

Let's look at some lists of notes, which is always fun. The first one is in some vague approximation of alphabetical order, which is useless, but it still gives us an idea of what's in there:

Fragrance notes: amber, boysenberry, honeysuckle, bushflower, apple, bergamot, cedar, cedarwood, grapefruit, iris, jasmine, lemon, peach, pineapple, rose, sandal, tangerine, vanilla.

There's nothing in there that couldn't be used in a men's scent, but all those fruit and flower notes suggest that we're looking at something in the modern mode of women's perfumery, the now-omnipresent fruity floral.

These next two lists are better. First, from Osmoz:

Top note : Bergamot, Lemon, Green note, Peach

Middle note : Lily of the valley, Rose, Jasmine, Orris

Base note : Cedar, Musk, Amber

And then from a website called (that's Denmark):

Head Notes: Lemon Tangerine Grapefruit Peach Green Leaves Bergamot Petitgrain Pineapple Prune

Heart Note: Lily of the Valley Jasmine Iris Rose Ylang-Ylang

Base Notes : Vanilla Sandalwood Cedarwood Amber Plum-tree Evernia

Lots of overlap, some divergence. So what does it smell like?

The top is bright, fresh, and bracing; a lot of lemon and bergamot, rounded out with other fruits, mostly peach. Immediately underneath that--really underneath, not more than a minute away--is a large floral bouquet thoroughly dominated by lily of the valley (or muguet, as the French call it) and rose, with some other flowers and fruit notes tucked around the edges. The balance of the flowers is lovely; it suggests a young woman, just past girlhood, in a white dress in a meadow. There are hints of greenery among the flowers, something slightly piercing, that keep the scent from becoming overwhelmingly flowery. It is enchanting.

The drydown is unexpectedly light, despite those heavy-sounding base notes; as the flowers begin to die away, a few hours in, they're joined and supplanted by a warm glow, an undefined aura with a vanillic overtone and a suggestion of creamy wood, very much in keeping with the prettiness of the middle notes.

As I said last week, I honestly don't see how a man could wear this. I have no trouble with rose- and jasmine-based men's scents, but something that's composed mostly of lily of the valley seems insurmountable; of all flowers, that one seems to me to speak most directly of young womanhood. Has anyone ever made a muguet scent for men? Is such a thing even possible? Can that fresh, lovely white-floral scent ever be masculinized?

Perhaps. Perfumers and their allied chemists are magicians. But I doubt it.


  • Thanks for the explanation, and as usual, another great review. I hope my comments from last week's blog didn't upset you - I honestly was just curious....this is a subject I struggle with sometimes, and it helps to hear how others approach the topic.

    Coincidently, last month I happened upon a bottle of Crabtree and Evelyn Lily of the Valley and loved how beautiful it smelled. I purchased it and wore it to an event that evening. By the end of the night, I thought it was almost vulgar in it's obnoxious floral sillage, but I received multiple complements on how "fresh" I smelled. Hmmmmm.....maybe floral = fresh???? What does "fresh" mean? Is fresh the same as soapy?

    More to ponder....


    By Blogger Marko, at 2:38 PM  

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