For decades perfume has been sold to us in two categories: for men and for women. In Western countries, we believe men should wear clean or woody fragrances and women should wear sweet, floral and fruity fragrances. It’s certainly a great way to market products, but it’s flawed and no longer makes sense in today’s changing world. In the new modern day era of gender neutrality and equality, fragrance should be genderless and here’s why.
Cultures and Smell
Now we’re talking here about fragrance in the Western world. Fragrance is a very cultural thing. The fragrance gender stereotypes that we experience don’t exist in other parts of the world. In the Middle East, for example, both men and women wear strong, spicy, powerful fragrances. Men also typically wear floral oils such as rose and jasmine which are regarded as quite typically feminine by male Westerners. There’s a lot to say for what ingredients certain countries have access to and the societal associations that have developed within each country, but that hasn’t stopped brands and ad agencies from creating a gender divide to push products.
Because men can wear florals too.
The more we hear that ‘wood’ is for boys the more we start to believe it. It’s a bit like being told that blue is for boys. It eventually becomes second nature to have these thoughts and believe in them without question.
Your childhood memories might have been scented with your dad wearing Brut and your mum wearing Chanel NO. 5. You’re then naturally going to grow up with associations and reinforcements of those smells with a certain role and gender. Remember that the link between scent and memories is one of the most powerful of them all!
So when did gender come into play with fragrances? In the Medieval Times knights would wear the same scent as their female partners when going into battle as a form of honour, so there was no gender in fragrance then.
Some say it was Napoleon that introduced gender, forcing himself and his male military men to wear a cologne that was a complete contrast to his Empress. Others say it was the rise of the middle class during the 19th Century when up until then you were either rich or poor doing similar duties, but the middle class came with more gender-defined roles. Those men would be working in the cities and the women at home baking whilst tending to their flowers. The scents associated with these environments slowly leaking into the gender roles of fragrance.
The Target For Consumption
Gender in fragrances is mainly a modern concept and something you can associate with the rise of marketing and branding in perfumery, starting a hundred years ago when fashion labels began creating perfumes. Some believe it was the creation of Chanel No.5 alongside the new fashion of the 1920s that sparked a new scent of femininity. Fashion has long been focused on gender, so bring these two worlds together and you have a powerhouse of ‘gender norms’. Men were given the grooming world and women perfume.
Now don’t forget that up until this time fragrance was still considered a luxury. For it to go mass market it needed to be a point of conversation for women, the new target market. And so the gender divide began being reinforced largely during the 60s-70s, campaign after campaign, with the slogan “for men”, “for women”.
An example of the “genderisation” of fragrance in modern marketing is Jicky by Guerlain, one of the oldest fragrances still marketed today. Jicky was created in 1889 as one of the first “modern” fragrances at the time, using both natural and synthetic ingredients and a fragrance that pioneered the Fougere category – a family that is widely recognised to fit masculine taste (lavender, coumarin, bergamot). Jicky was inspired by a love story between the perfumer and a woman, but the fragrance was favoured by men at its beginning, to later be marketed again to women.
Even the word “perfume” comes with a gender. In French, “parfum”, the translation of the word “perfume”, describes both female and male fragrances. For an English speaker, perfume will relate to a fragrance for women. Men will use words such as Cologne or Aftershave to describe a fragrance marketed for men. Yet it should all be the same!
Even within the gender of women, there are fragrance associations! In centuries gone by, a ‘good girl’ would wear soft scents such as violet to hide her sexuality where as a prostitute would proudly wear the oh so sensual jasmine.
Work In Progress
Some brands have started to create fragrances that encompass both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ notes in order to appeal to both. Newer brands such as Eccentric Molecule, Le Labo, Aesop and our collection Layers are either sold as unisex or non-gendered. The message is here’s our fragrance and if YOU like it you can wear it. And this is slowly becoming more and more welcomed.
It can be hard to get over that gender hurdle when we first smell certain scents. For example, at the lab, we hear a lot of people saying ‘oh that smells like a man’ or ‘that’s quite feminine’ yet they go on to chose to these ingredients in their fragrance despite their gender associations. We love this! We don’t believe in gendering our ingredients and always tell people to approach a fragrance with an open nose and be confident to wear what you like.
Whilst we are still seeing articles ‘the best perfume for men and women this season’ we’re hoping things will change as consumers become more educated and more open to the world of fragrance. If Britney Spears can release a unisex fragrance then there’s hope for the future.