Walk into a department store’s perfume section and the gender divide is immediately clear. Women’s fragrances, so potently floral as to almost be bursting from the (often pink, curvaceous) bottles, named things like Miss Charming, Lipstick Fever and Hypnotic Poison, seem to be for one of two women. One frolics in meadows and naps in tall grass; romantic and dainty, her hair is luscious and clean despite lying in the dirt. The other goes out at night alone in a slinky dress, carrying not her keys or purse but a single bottle of perfume. Men’s heads turn as she passes through a crowd, attracted more to the curl of trailing perfume than anything else about her.
In the (considerably smaller) men’s fragrance section, angular bottles in blue, black and grey, called things like Gentlemen Only, Wood Essence and Bad Boy tell (or rather, yell) their stories in all-caps bold sans serif. This bottle is for a man who is rugged and virile. He smells musky and smoky because he has spent the day hunting bears and lives in a log cabin. That bottle is for a man who makes his own leathergoods and drinks until pistols at dawn. These testosterone-heavy men are so powerfully seductive that women can’t help but be drawn to them.
Stereotypes such as these feel old and tired in 2021 and a weariness with traditional gender roles is reflected in the world of haute fragrance. What and how we like to smell depends on the cultural forces at play. This explains the increasing number of perfume houses — including the major fashion maisons but primarily newer, independent perfumers — either forgoing the ‘male’ and ‘female’ messaging altogether or encouraging men and women to try one another’s fragrances, thereby changing what we consider to be masculine and feminine scents.
Walking into the unisex fragrance section — where the Le Labos, the Tom Fords, the Byredos live — is to enter a realm where a decidedly unfloral and unmusky, citrusy cloud has settled into a fresh mist that speaks of hope and equality. The bottles are minimalist in design, the names straight to the point (Rose 31, Oud Wood, Black Saffron), the typefaces and colour palettes inoffensive to the eyes. This one’s for you, no matter who you are.
It’s interesting that unisex fragrance launches have increased manyfold in the past decade (the most recent available figures indicate gender-neutral perfume grew from 17 per cent of the market in 2010 to 51 per cent in 2018) because the idea of androgynous fragrance isn’t new — in fact, it’s as old as perfume itself, which is to say 4000 years old.
In the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and into the early 19th century, perfume was used to denote wealth, honour and class rather than gender. It was more important to cover unpleasant bodily odours from a lack of bathing than it was to restrict the use of florals to women and herbs to men. The opposite was often the case: during the 17th century — a time when men’s and women’s fashion was shared: think wigs, makeup, heeled shoes, lace and ribbons — men wore floral scents such as rose water.
In the 19th century, modern perfumers discovered synthetic essences, which allowed them to create more nuanced notes along the fragrance spectrum. In the 20th century, “Mad Men”-style advertising tactics convinced people ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ were opposing ends of this spectrum. Assigning gender to scent (something that has been considered as absurd as assigning gender to food) was a genius move in terms of generating sales, but the upshot is our perception of what constitutes a traditionally feminine or masculine scent remains.
The first modern Western unisex perfumes appeared in the ’90s, while grunge was in full swing (flannel shirts and Docs don’t exactly go with the scent of a fresh bouquet of flowers). To find a middle-of-the-road scent, perfumers relied heavily on green and citrus notes, pungent spices and heady florals (more jasmine than rose) or musk, amber and wood. The idea was to hit on a composition that would balance strength and softness.
Unisex scents aren’t designed to topple the market and cause the demise of women’s and men’s perfumes. For one, that would likely be impossible. It’s the easiest way for brands to market fragrance because, for so long, men and women have been conditioned to believe they are supposed to look, dress and act a certain way, and that extends to smelling a certain way.
Androgynous fragrances and the idea of experimenting with a scent on the opposite side of the gender divide brings a more playful approach to perfume. Take rose, for example. It’s one note perfumers have discovered changes completely between male and female skin. (While skin chemistry is unique for each person, women tend to have more acidic skin, while men usually have a higher surface temperature.) Not only is the chemical reaction different, so too is the cultural perception. In the West, rose is associated with femininity, yet in the Middle East it is a symbol of virile masculinity.
To separate perfume into genders isn’t accurate, but that doesn’t mean every perfume needs to be unisex. Rather, everyone should be free to travel the masculine/feminine spectrum as the mood strikes them. It’s about personal expression — choosing how you want to be perceived and how you feel; it’s about emotions and sensibility. And in that way, all perfume is genderless.