Monday, August 4, 2008

Perfume for the Occasion: Gender Bending

Pretty boys in pink boas smiling coyly at passers-by this Saturday at Amsterdam’s Gay Parade, fashion magazine spreads filled with boyfriend jeans, mannish jackets, re-incarnations of Le Smoking and wide legged pantsuits, and perhaps most of all, reader PinstripedZebra’s comment the other day on the appropriateness of wearing an orange blossom scent all got me thinking about devoting this month’s Perfume for the Occasion to breaking gender rules when it comes to scent.

Let’s start by taking a look at the question that spurred me to write this post in the first place. (Originally found in the comments section of Learning to Love Orange Part 1)

PinstripedZebra said...

Dear Divina,

when i smelled Eau de Fleurs d’Oranger i was amazed! That is a very interesting and amazing fragrance. I presume it is made for females or would you say also males can use it?


Divina said...

Hello my dearest Zebra :) As you see from the post, the scent of the orange blossom was originally preferred by a king, so men have been indeed favoring the beautiful aroma through the ages. Of course this alone doesn't say much for how things currently stand, for at the time men were also wearing considerably more make-up than is the norm nowadays. I do believe in freedom when choosing a personal scent and as you know have worn masculine scents myself in the past. The reverse is perfectly acceptable in my eyes and it greatly depends on the wearer and of course the scent itself. There are certain feminine scents I could never imagine on a man and vice-versa, but having said that, a great majority of the feminine scents really DO work on men. (Unfortunately the reverse is not true, since fashion has forced men's scents into a greatly uniform wave of ozonic-marine freshness and insipid fougere blandness for the most part) This particular scent would probably work well in small amounts with a casual linen outfit and sandals during a hot summer evening, but safer yet would be a scent combining the blossom with a little leather or a little lavender for example. My advice is to try and see! And do come back on Wednesday, since Part 3 of the learning to love orange series focuses on masculine orange blossom scents!

My reply to PinstripedZebra’s comment alludes to the fact that gender distinctions in perfume have not always been present in the same fashion as we now know them. Additionally, gender distinctions both evolve over time and even currently differ in different parts of the world. Perhaps the most well known example would be that of rose scents, which are currently considered traditionally feminine in western societies, but which are still seen as traditionally masculine in eastern Muslim societies: perfume peddlers can be found outside mosques and men anoint themselves with rose before attending religious services, since the rose is the scent of the prophet. Too, as sociologist Marcello Aspria mentions in his interview with Victoria Frolova of Bois de Jasmin, if we are to understand gender distinctions in perfume, we have to see them in their historical context of fashion:

“(...) I’ve been forced to adjust my preconceptions of the perfume industry several times now. I’ve learned, for instance, that the fashion business has a much stronger influence on the culture of perfume than I ever imagined. In my original plans I wanted to focus on the perfume industry as an ‘independent’ entity, but I realized that by doing so, I would rule out too many important factors. The interdependencies in the luxury industry are tremendously complex.”

Where does the current rigidity in masculine and feminine fragrance fashions stem from? It was in fact in the late eighteenth century that the ‘fashionable’, or ‘foppish’ male begun to be satirized and ridiculed by popular culture, a reaction going against the grain of ‘habit à la française’, French taste. During the Enlightenment, the body and in turn fashion, become dominated by ideas of hygiene. Even French philosophers consider luxury to have enervating effects on the body.

“From the 1760s Rousseau and the philosophes’ circle attacked the urbanity of mode and manners characteristic of court society with a focus on that masculine transgressor, the ‘petit- maître’, the macaroni’s French counterpart. In literature and art the petit-maître occupied the “feminized” space of the toilette and the boudoir, female zones and practices which corrupted men’s reason. The petit- maître, it was claimed, deferred to women not only in matters of dress and deportment, but in literature and statecraft. His effeminate behavior, the philosophes argued, led to a corruption of the corporeal body and the body politic, and a set of moral and health discourses were mobilized against him.”

At the dawn of the 19th century, male fashion had taken a sharp turn towards an increasingly English, practical, restrained, hardwearing and long-lasting ideal and against anything that could be considered effeminate, extravagant, or superficial, in other words, against anything that could be associated with the “decadence” of France. From this, formal masculine attire, even to this day, has never really recovered. There can be little doubt on the effects that this turn of events has had on masculine perfume fashions.

The effects of this trend on perfumery can be traced today at the severely restricted selection of masculine perfumes at beauty counters. What’s worse than a limited selection however, is the limited range of smells offered to men: variations of boring/bland citrus, woods, traditional fougere and -perhaps most dominant of all nowadays- marine/ozonic colognes with absolutely nothing new to offer. Even though the emerging trend of the niche sector with its more peculiar offerings is gaining all the time, it still seems widely undiscovered in comparison. Fortunately, many men and women are now more than ever experimenting with fragrances that are marketed to the opposite sex. Yes, it is true that some feminine fragrances are too frilly or girly for a man, as it is true that most of the butch, marine blasts at the men’s fragrance section won’t really do anything for a woman. But the key word here is experimentation. We should have fun with scent. Who cares if something is seen as traditionally masculine or feminine? If wearing it gives you joy, by all means, go for it! If wearing it makes you feel beautiful, relish it! If wearing your boyfriend’s cologne makes you feel sexy, why let anyone stop you? Without further ado, here are a few ideas to help you get started if you haven’t dabbled in a little perfumed gender bending before but feel like trying something new and unexpected.

Men: Enhance your black suit with a little rose sex appeal: try Rosine’s Twill Rose. If you’re looking for a sea-breeze scent, why not give Eau des Merveilles a try? It’s much more subtle than anything marine at the men’s fragrance counter, and it won’t burn your epithelium. Play with Jean Desprez’ Bal à Versailles and Cabochard if you want to feel beautiful and don’t be afraid to try anything by Sisley. If you’re looking for the feminine answer to Kouros, Montana Parfum de Peau raises the ante with its urinous qualities and fur appeal. A little waterfruit up top, a little dirty play in the middle and a deep woody patchouli finish make Tom Ford’s Black Orchid a likely candidate. Floris’ Edwardian Bouquet will satisfy dandies. Lastly, don’t be afraid of white florals: A gardenia scent will update your tapered dressy trousers, while a skunky, indolic white floral like jasmine or orange blossom will be sexier with your summer linen outfits than a traditional masculine cologne.

Women: Things get a little harder here since a good masculine scent is hard to come by already, let alone one that would perfectly suit a woman. Look for scents that heavily feature either gourmand, leather, incense, vetiver or amber notes. A great place to start (unless that is, you’ve had the misfortune of living/growing up in an area were it used to be notoriously ubiquitous), is the much-maligned Joop! Homme, which is simply stunning on women that have the sense to apply with a light hand. Fleur du Malle is a gorgeous beauty that I am probably going to buy for myself one of these days. Wear Encre Noir with your leather jacket and roar, or apply a mild citrusy fougere of your choice on your collarbone to make a white linen pantsuit smile. Try anything by L.T. Piver, paying special attention to Cuir de Russie and try to discover the whole range of masculine Maître Parfumeur et Gantier fragrances, which outshines their feminine collection by far. The masculine Divine scents should also be sampled - I've noticed they are very popular with women and I have to concur that they are both beautiful.

Images: Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smokin photographed by Helmut Newton, wikipedia.
Yakshagana, man dressed as a woman, India by
Lord Foppington, wikipedia
Robert de Montesquiou, wikipedia
Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy wikipedia
Fake mustaches, sold at

Quotes: comment section, and Shoes by Riello and McNeil, Berg, 2006


PinstripedZebra said...

Wow, a whole post about my question! I am humbled and excited at thesame time and don't forget educated by another one of your intersting posts! Keep them coming i would say.

Thankx for answering so extensively Divina.


Divina said...

Thank you for being the impetus :)

Anonymous said...

Dearest Divina,
A fascinating post and with SO much information and so many ideas... I try to be as open minded as possible when selecting fragrance, and for myself have Dzing! and Bulgari Black. I think equally stunning on a man or woman? I also like Penhaligon's Quercus: and on the other hand...
My DK Summer fragrance, given to me by husband, is now also used by himself, as he loves its freshness and almost juniper berry note!
I hope that you are well and enjoying August,
Linda ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for--as so many scent fans have--pointing out the cultural influences upon masculine/feminine, and raising questions about what is masculine/feminine. I, too, look forward to the day when we simply define a perfume (or lotion or whatever) using olfactory notes and whatnot without invoking gender prescriptives.

I want to make a pithy comment about the link between this discussion and the fact that a certain fast food chain has reverted to asking "girl toy, or boy?" when taking orders for a youthful "meal," but I am so frustrated, I just say ... AUGH!!! Cultural influences lurk in many corners...

Now, off to find something orange for the kings in my family!


Anonymous said...

I'm female and I love some male-identified scents such as SL Chergui and several of the Andy Tauer scents (Lonestar Memories) and, especially, L'Artisan's Mechant Loup, which the SA did not even want to sell to me because it was in the "masculine" part of their line. However I had a French gentleman friend with me and he said it smelled great on me. "Buy the BIG bottle!" he exclaimed enthusiastically.

Jenavira13 said...

The JPG one is quite nice, but at times is just too sweet for me. But there are three scents that I think men could pull of beautifully Stella Rose Absolute, Jolie Madama, and Ava Luxe Midnight Violets.

italian girl said...

I agree with the poster Jenavira13, Jolie Madame probably would smell better on my husband than on me anyday.
I wear his Burberry weekend all the time, he bought me the womens Weekend and I cannot stand it.
I have to say that if he knew a fragrance he was wearing was a "women's perfume" he would NOT wear it.
YES, I think it is all mental.. it is all in the way one perceives it to smell. I feel guilty wearing his Weekend.. but the scent on me makes the guilt just melt away.

Divina said...

Dearest Linda, I *love* your picks and props to your DH for not being afraid to share your fragrance wardrobe! And yes, I totally agree with you that both Bulgrari Black and Dzing! are perfect for both sexes... Isn't Black gorgeous btw? I've missed it, rarely see it nowadays in the stores around here. The whole Bulgari line is practically flawless in my opinion btw. Maybe there aren't too many groundbreaking frags in their lineup, but hey, they don't have a single scrubber either.

Divina said...

Ah, ScentSelf, I know what you mean. It can be very frustrating. Worse of all (when it comes to toys and colors) is that according to research, parents and other people in childrens' lives tend to be very condemning when a boy makes the "wrong" choice for a toy, outfit or color, but just put it down to 'cuteness' when a girl does the same. How far should we go to nurture a young boy's sexual identity? I don't know the answer to that, but a big part of me thinks that we don't even have to. We are born what we are.. Things straighten themselves out as we grow up. What a sensitive subject.

Thank you for the very thought-provoking comment - HUGS!

Divina said...

Calypso, love your choices - bet you ML smells wonderful on you :) And yes, Andy's scents were in my mind a lot when I was writing this, his scents are so flattering on both sexes. His scents are beautiful period :)

Divina said...

Oh Jen, quite right, I'd love to smell Jolie Madame on a man. I adore Ava Luxe scents (she's so talented!), but unfortunately Midnight Violets is one I never managed to love, even though I realize it is probably one of her most loved scents. The hemlock smell is just not for me - I've noticed that with other scents too. (was it Ormonde Jayne woman now? I have huge problems with that one as well, for the same reason)

Divina said...

Heheheh Italian Girl, love it that you sneak your man's cologne ;) I mostly feel guilty for asking dbf to NOT wear some scents I don't like. Like you, the guilt just melts away as my discomfort heightens :P As for weekend, it's strange: I like smelling the nozzle of the bottle, but not the scent on my skin.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I prefer Guerlain L'Instant Homme (extreme is my fave) and Lolita Lempicka Homme much better than their female counterparts. They're both luscious and not male-ish to my nose at all.