exploring the relationship between perfume and gender

Katie Puckrick wants people to stop trying to define whether the fluid in a particular bottle is “for women” or “for men,” and start thinking about what makes you smell good.

by Katie Puckrick
13 June 2018, 7:39pm

When it comes to boneheaded concepts in the history of humankind, a recurring blooper is the pointless gendering of objects, activities and perceptions. It’s a fact now forgotten in the mists of time, but if you were around in the late 19th century, you unquestioningly accepted that little boys wore pink, and blue was for girls. Fin de siècle convention had it that pink was the laddish iteration of masculine red, and blue was the pious hue of the cute outfit sported by the Virgin Mary in all her selfies — and duh, how is that not screamingly obvious?

Perhaps because this supposedly set-in-stone “truth” was as random as all the other rules and regulations assigned over the years to the daily performance of being male and female hominids. Or perhaps not entirely random, since a sprinkling of social control and cultural insecurity quickly hooks flimsy folkways into hidebound habit.

Witness high-heeled shoes - foot furniture only fit for silly frilly ladies, correct? Try running that assumption past a 10th century Persian warrior horseman, and you’d get a spear in your rear. High heels were man gear for a solid 700 years in the first millennium, with King Louis IV getting a leg up on Christian Louboutin by introducing the trend for red soles on his court shoes. 4-inch stacked heels signaled masculinity and power — until suddenly, they didn’t. (By the mid-1700s, anti-dandy Enlightenment dudes instated a normcore dress code to match their philosophy of reason, scientific methodology, and sensible shoes.)

The arbitrariness of socially-accepted norms is amplified by that modern manufacturer of myths and archetypes, advertising. In the quest to trigger our urge to splurge, advertising not only tells us that we need diet cola or razors, but that we need to guzzle or defoliate with gendered products. Hence Coke Zero and Pepsi Max are missing the pesky word “diet” from their calorie-free sodas, so that husky men unsure of their masculinity will not be deterred from losing weight, since apparently only chicks diet. And disposable razors for “female hair removal” are overwhelmingly pink. You know, pink — formerly the signifier of all things boy — at least up until the 1950s, at which time the color was reestablished as exclusively feminine, thanks to the efforts of…advertising.

Having established our sheeplike tendency to toe the party line, I would like to point out that if we hew to some constipated notion of gender rigidity in everything we say, do, and wear, then we’re needlessly denying ourselves the daily pleasures that make life worth living.

And “daily pleasures that make life worth living” is my definition of perfume. Perfume is an emotional hologram rendered in scent, with no evident genitalia, at least from where I’m sitting. Yet people tie themselves up in knots trying to define whether the fluid in a particular bottle is “for women” (flowers and kitten whiskers) or “for men” (woods and butt sweat), while ignoring completely the only metric that matters: do I love me in this smell?

Sadly, fragrance lovers are scared to trust their instincts, since the seductive bludgeon of commercial marketing has successfully indoctrinated would-be frag fiends into accepting the pink vs blue division. His’n’hers fragrances didn’t even exist until the advent of 20th century marketing, when perfume companies realised that they could shift twice as much product if they convinced customers there was a difference between smelling like a lady and a gentleman. Before then, a person was free to splash a flash of violet, or lavender, or rose, or eau de cologne, regardless of the equipment they were packing in their pants.

It doesn’t help that ill-trained sale assistants bossily enforce the notion that our XX/XY chromosome combos render certain perfumes off-limits. “That’s for MEN,” I’ve been admonished countless times by clueless counter jockeys as I huff my way through a selection of leathery, tobacco-y delights aimed at gents. Nobody puts Baby in a corner, and I don’t appreciate being boiled down to some tired sugar-and-spice cliché.

While I understand that rules, no matter how slapdash, make anxious people feel safer in an unsteady world, my hope for those of you with less robust dispositions is that you’ll fly a tiny freak flag by exploring perfumes on both sides of the aisle. There is no wrong way to smell fantastic!

Would it embolden you to know that in ancient times, the wearing of fragrance was not an indication of masculinity or femininity, but of status? Only kings — and queens — had the coin to pony up for the costliest Spice Trail merch: frankincense, rose oil, black pepper. A voluptuous curl of perfume in the wake of royalty, whether he or she, signalled not gender, but godlike power.

Diehard fumeheads know well the godlike power of a good smell, and contemporary perfume brands like Frederic Malle, Le Labo, Byredo, St Giles and L’Artisan Parfumeur recognise connoisseurs’ sophistication by styling their lines as entirely unisex, or at most only vaguely gendered.

Ultimately, there’s only one thing that can make a perfume masculine or feminine.


Don’t let a label limit your chance to smell amazing — wear what you love!

To get you started, here are some tips.

Women’s scents men should try:

Christian Dior "Diorella" — A decadent twist on a classic cologne, Diorella's animal mossiness gives it an earthy vigour. Crisp lemon and almost-savoury melon are flecked with basil and nuances of peach and vetiver. Sunny and disturbing.

Hermes "Eau des Merveilles" — A puff of orange, a gust of sea air, a plank of peppery cedarwood: Eau des Merveilles makes your skin smell like you've been at the beach on a cold day. Fresh, woody and a little leathery-sweet.

Men’s scents women should try:

Guerlain "Vetiver" — Fresh, grassy and spicy, with a leathery bite. Vetiver softens into a slight soapiness in the drydown. Versatile and justifiably a classic.

Chanel "Égoïste" eau de toilette — Milky sandalwood, candied spice and soft rose shape shift between floral leather and earthy dustiness. Nuances of lavender and unlit tobacco are given a vanilla spin in this lavish, sensual fragrance.

Shared fragrances:

Bruno Acampora "Musc Oil" — A cross between forest floor and bedroom floor, this earthy, insinuating musk is the smell of dark intentions and rapturous seductions.

Escentric Molecules "Molecule 01" — Molecule 01 is a magic potion that makes everyone around you stop what they're doing and demand, “Who smells so good?” Wear this simple cedarwood/sandalwood scent, and people will chase you.

Jo Malone "Lime Basil & Mandarin" — Lime Basil & Mandarin is a three-man band that smells like a supergroup. This lightly floral, herbaceous citrus is green and fresh, but also mimics the tang of sun-salted skin.

St Giles "The Writer" — The mystical aroma of frankincense and driftwood joins forces with aromatic herbs and the unsettlingly physical odor of ink to sharpen the mind and lighten the spirit. The scent of inspiration.

Byredo "1996" — Who knew carrots could smell so sexy? Their vegetal rootiness here is toughened by leather, sweetened by amber, and deepened by patchouli. 1996 creates a cloud of wow.

Kiehl’s "Original Musk" — A sharp, soapy launch mellows into a intimate skin scent, combined with the whiff of clean, warm animal.