dimanche 15 juin 2008

The Gender of Scent (I)

Are smells gendered?

Not until the late 19th century and the birth of modern perfumery. Cologne and other scented compositions are shared, although after the French Revolution, floral scents are mostly reserved to women, whom poetry links to the fragile charms of Nature and of fragrant blossoms.
This is the time when men switch to black: signs of seduction and conspicuous consumption become the exclusive province of women. While feminine perfumery explodes at the turn of the 20th century, the masculine market will only start developing after World War II.

Why are some notes, accords or families thought of as more masculine? It may be precisely because perfumery became an industry in the late 19th century: as traditional recipes turned into products with trademarked names, they had to be targeted towards a specific market.

If feminine fragrances draw on practically every available ingredient, some dominant notes seem to have veered towards the masculine to such an extent that their cultural connotations make us think of them as especially virile, at least in the Western world (in other cultures with a strong tradition in perfumery, such as India, the Middle-East or North Africa, men wear floral or animalic scents – rose, jasmine, musk, amber…).

For instance, when you look at the chronology of major launches, you notice that lavender fragrances have been targeted towards men since the early 20th century, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, then synonymous with male elegance: Guerlain’s Mouchoir de Monsieur (1904), Atkinson’s English Lavender (1910), Yardley’s Old English Lavender (1913), Mennen’s Skin Bracer (1931), Caron’s Pour un Homme (1934). The fougère family, a combination of lavender and coumarin (which smells of fresh tobacco and hay) is already firmly on the masculine side of the gender divide.

Why lavender?
For several centuries, it has been used to perfume linen and bath water – the word “lavender”, which dates back to the 13th century, comes from the same Latin root as the French word for “wash”, “laver”. It is thus associated to the very smell of cleanliness, a rising value in the middle classes, who want to distance themselves from the unwashed masses. The late 19th century is obsessed with the smells of the different social classes. Pasteur’s discoveries, as well as the democratization of hygienic practices and sanitary equipment, foster a “clean” revolution of which lavender may be the aromatic emblem.
To splash on a lavender scent – especially when it is combined with coumarin to create a soapy smell – is to demonstrate one’s impeccable hygiene, without casting aspersion’s on one’s virility.
In his Secret of Scent, Luca Turin describes one of the very first modern fragrances – modern in the sense that it is abstracts and uses the new synthetic compounds --, Houbigant’s Fougère Royale (1881), as “the reference smell of scrubbed bathrooms”, of “a freshly shaven daddy. But wait! There’s a funny thing in there, something not altogether pleasant. It’s a touch of natural civet, stuff that comes from the rear f an Asian cat and smells like it does. Suddenly I understand: we’re in a bathroom! The idea here is shit, and what’s more, someone else’s shit, that faint shock of slightly repellent intimacy you get when you go to the loo at someone’s dinner party and smell the air. Small wonder Fougère Royale was such a success. At a distance, he who wears it is everyone’s favourite son-in-law; up close, a bit of an animal.”
This whiff of civet, which can also be found in Guerlain’s immortal Jicky, may be there precisely to remind us of the organic smells denied by the salubrious lavender.

The fougère family, enriched by the aromatic fougère sub-class (epitomized by Fabergé’s best-selling Brut and Paco Rabanne Pour Homme) has practically become synonymous with masculine fragrance: even compositions initially intended for women, such as the aforementioned Jicky or Dana’s Canoe (1935), were appropriated by men.

However, notes associated with more masculine endeavours or environments – leather, tobacco, wood – are not reserved to men. But if they are included in the feminine repertoire in the 1920s with Tabac Blond, Cuir de Russie, Bois des Iles or Habanita, it is precisely to signal women’s emancipation, meaning that their masculine connotations are maintained.

Conversely, we can wonder if chypres, originally intended for women, could be launched today as feminine fragrances (notwithstanding the stringent restrictions of the use of oak moss), at any rate, the great post-war couture chypres like Bandit, Jolie Madame, Miss Dior or Diorling. Despite their floral heart, their leathery/aromatic top notes, underlined by the astringent bitterness of the oak moss base, have a harshness, a boldness that is no longer associated with feminine perfumes. Towards the late 50s, chypre ventures into masculine territory while it loses momentum in the feminine side of the aisle: Estée Lauder’s Aramis (1965) is the archetype of the virile, powerful chypres who hide their hairy chests under pinstriped shirts.

Oddly, while women have gained a greater social, economic and sexual independence – in a word, the right to wear pants – it seems as though most feminine and masculine scents had now evolved, after a series of mutations and specializations, into forms as distinctive as those that distinguish the male and female in certain insect species. Outrageous femininity on one side, bland generic fresh woodiness on the other. The parenthesis of the 60s, where the success of Dior’s Eau Sauvage seemed to herald an era of shared fragrances as “unisex” as blue jeans, has been closed.

A few mainstream launches – Dior Homme with its powdery iris, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s orange-blossomed Fleur du Mâle – are started to blur the limits of gender. But it is niche perfumery that resumes the hermaphrodite, pre-modern tradition of fragrance by offering non-gender specific compositions. If the gender divide is not entirely missing, it refers more to personal/cultural connotations: with their identical packaging, they can be picked both by women who like to steal men’s eaux de toilette, and by men who want to break free from gender restrictions.

Image: Claude Cahun (1894-1954), self-portrait, courtesy of www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com

2 commentaires:

  1. No surprise to YOU, ma belle, that I adore mixing it up...

    SO silly to 'genderize' fragrance.

    Lavender- kitty-tuchus is one of my favorite accords- sigh.

    Lovely post !

  2. Lavender kitty-tuchus post coming right up! You don't surprise me a bit. Of course I love to do a bit of olfactory gender-bending myself: Derby, Bel Ami, Eau d'Hermès, Chanel Pour Monsieur, PdeNicolaï's New York (hey, all chypres!). Though, truth be told, there a lot more good feminine fragrances out there.