Neil Morris is a Boston perfumer who sometimes wears Chanel No. 5. “I love it when people compliment me on the scent and I can tell them what it is.
” In his own perfume line, he labels all of his scents “shared scents” for men and women. While this all sounds very avant-garde and cutting-edge, it's really just the opposite. Back in Europe’s early perfume heyday (in the 18th century), there was no notion at all that any scent might be reserved or more appropriate for one gender rather than another. The most powerful men wore perfume back then, including kings, dukes, and generals.
These were mostly heterosexuals and they wore perfume at some of their most solemn official occasions. The dividing line for perfume back then was based more on social class and economic buying power: the rich and famous smelled better than the poor and downtrodden. Among those who could afford perfume, there were no “masculine” versus “feminine” fragrances.
You can still see that in the world’s oldest cologne, 4711 made in Cologne, Germany. This ancient concoction is still on the market and claims to be the product that gave lighter cologne its name. It’s a citrus scent; mild and strangely contemporary despite the fact that it’s been around for centuries. Although Europeans, in particular Germans, consider 4711 to be a bit old-fashioned, it is a gender-spanning fragrance.
Men use it for aftershave, little old ladies dab it behind their ears, and American girls in Europe spray it in their hair. The notion of fragrances for gender gained traction in the early 20th century as perfume and fashion, in lockstep, ceased being the private reserve of the privileged few and became at least accessible to the middle classes. This is, not coincidentally, around the time that modern advertising started influencing consumer choices. As new fragrances came to market in the 1920s, advertisers identified women as the target demographic rather than men. Coco Chanel marketed both her fashion line and her signature fragrance to females.
This was no different than other (but perhaps less well known) perfumes of the era were doing. Think of Joy by Jean Patou, My Sin by Lanvin, Nuit de Noel by Caron, or even the Emeraude and Muguet de Bois from Coty. Fragrance was promoted mostly by fashion enterprises and the fashion world targeted female customers. While there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about products like sunglasses or watches or clothing, Chanel and other big couturiers quickly spun out a line of products exclusively for females.
Perfume just went along for the ride. These fragrances were largely cast in very feminine and elaborate containers, designed to fit well on the dressing table of a chic woman. Chanel used the clean simplistic lines of the No. 5 bottle to pay homage to the classic, un-frilled female (which mirrors her approach to clothing design).
So whether the bottle was bejeweled or colored (like the glorious cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris) or clean-lined, the bottle was also part of the appeal to the modern woman. It was no coincidence that right after the great wave of fashion came the grand era of glamorous movie stars. Marilyn Monroe, who dominated the cinema world in the 1950s, became an unpaid spokeswoman for Chanel No.
5 when asked what she wore to bed. (The answer, which is sometimes quoted as “Two drops of Chanel No. 5” still ranks high on the famous quotation lists today.
) Thus, it did not take long for perfume to be linked to fashion and glamour. (Even today, celebrities like to lend their name to line of fragrance products but perhaps the interest nowadays is more mercantile than image.) It would be hard for men to reach for that bottle of Chanel No. 5 once Marilyn cooed over it. And yet the idea of fragrances for one gender only was a relatively new concept.
For centuries before that, kings and noblemen wore perfumes (including floral scents). But a couple of years worth of hardcore advertising turned the perfume world into a women’s only party. The emergence of products like after-shave and men’s cologne (note it’s never called men’s “perfume”) were studied attempts to try to capture the attention of modern men who somehow got the notion that fragrances were not for them. These first efforts to win men back to perfume (Old Spice, Burma Shave, Aqua Velva, English Leather) embraced a utilitarian theme. These weren’t fragrances, they were products related to shaving.
Eventually, men’s colognes hit the market and more and more scents appeared on the scene. Yet the dividing line was in place in that certain fragrances were considered suitable for men—and they were definitely not florals. Men wore scents that were spicy, leathery, woodsy, light and fresh, or even musky. Again, that is a modern notion, not some venerable old tradition.
The scents that wowed the men of the French court in the 18th century were florals and citrus brews. Meanwhile, in our own day, the scents that were reserved for men only found some resonance among females. In fact, most perfume manufacturers today recognize that women have an interest in a lot of “masculine” types of scents and vice versa. The emergence of the so-called “fresh” scents may have been an attempt to try to harmonize those worlds.
Many fragrance products today are deliberately light and ambiguous, as if trying to woo women who are not thrilled with the sometimes more complex and/or flowery perfumes in the women’s section. A recent landmark in the notion of male-vs.-female fragrance occurred with Calvin Klein’s CK One. CK One was created and sold as a single product for use by men or women. It was marketed as the “one” fragrance for both men and women. Since so many people know so little about perfume, this concept was considered revolutionary.
(By the way, CK One is a citrus scent—like the original 4711 Cologne, likewise a gender-spanning fragrance, albeit from the 18th century.) The perfume company Bond No. 9 in Manhattan offers many eau-de-parfum products it labels simply “for him or her.” One of my favorite of their both-gender scents is Gramercy Park, a peppery fresh fragrance.
Most women like the scent but then ask cautiously, “Is this for women?” It’s not a typically girly-girl aroma. Fortunately, for the faint-hearted perfume-wearer, the manufacturer gives permission for men and women to put on this scent. Of course, maybe what the manufacturer says should not matter so much.
After all, perfume products are marketed by people interested in selling them, not by the people who wear them. In other words, marketers are always reaching out to a “target,” but that target is not necessarily the entire universe of people interested in the product. Apparently, it makes good marketing sense to keep the genders distinct in the perfume aisle. Right after Calvin Klein offered CK One, he came out with a scent called In2U which exists in two versions: one for each gender. The idea here is that men and women can wear the same fragrance family, but the products, of course, would have to be different.
There is really no traditional or fashion-based reason for doing that, other than the fact that it seems to make some of us feel more confident in our perfume choices. While urban dwellers, the tragically hip, and unbearable perfumistas may be deemed the most likely to cross gender lines in perfume, the fact is the line we have now is not only moving and blurry—it is largely artificial! There is no reason why women can’t wear fresh, woodsy, or leathery scents or why men need to shy away from some of the great classic perfumes. A good deal depends on how well we like the fragrances we’re wearing and how the fragrance “works” on our skin.
Beyond that, most of the people around us cannot even begin to tell whether the scent we’ve put on was manufactured and labeled for men or for women. Besides, that label doesn’t mean a thing anyway!.
Want to find out more about perfume and what will work best for you? Get your Perfume Profile at http://www.thePerfume-Reporter.com . This article is by Joanna McLaughlin, whose favorite perfume today is Neil Morris's Clear.