The following is pretty much a summary of the presentation given at my Espionage Tea Party last week. My apologies for taking forever to put this together... I hope you find it useful and wish you all a happy and fragrant Father's Day!
Since it is Father’s Day today, and I’m sure all of you are just dying to finally get your dad to smell nice instead of getting him a tie, a toolbox or an iPad - the topic of masculine fragrances is inevitable. The thing is – we don’t really know what is it about scents that make them masculine. Somehow, we just seem to be able to tell once we smell them, yet without explanation. Is there truly a gender distinction in fragrance? Or is it just that we were programmed that way? Let’s find out.
The entire concept of gender-specific scents did not come into place until recently. India and Arabia, the two most ancient perfume civilizations that have maintined their olfactory culture to this day, pay little attention to such notions and wear whatever scents they find attractive and appealing, flowers included: Indian men love to wear jasmine, and Arab men have always adored roses.
The Western consumers, however, are obsessed with two conflicting concepts when choosing a fragrance: sexuality and cleanliness. The way this translates into the fragrance industry and the products we smell (or not) is quite fascinating. For example: Western perfumes have been for the most part gender-specific for the past 100 years or so, to the point that the world of men’s fragrance seems to have developed their own jargon, separate from the technicalities and specifications that perfumers normally would relate to. For example: you cannot, under any circumstances, expect to call a product “perfume” and expect men to buy into it. Perfume, as it turns out, is perceived as a completely girly and dainty affair. Men would only buy a scent if it’s called “aftershave”, “fragrance” or as it is most often referred to in North America - “Cologne”: a name that has very little to do with the true meaning of the term – which refers to a very light concentration of fragrance, and usually in a citrus-herbaceous category, intended for used mostly for hygienic purposes – and has direct lineage to the “Aqua Mirabillis” of medieval times.
Technicalities aside, the aesthetics of Western “masculine perfumery” pose an interesting challenge for the perfumer. The palette seems to be so much more limited than that which is “allowed” in feminine perfumes. Therefore, masculine fragrances seem to have reached a certain plateau in innovation that is only occasionally shuttered by original or slightly gender-bending scents.
So let’s break a few myths on the topic:
Myth: no. 1: “If a man wears a perfume designed for women, it will make him smell like a girl”.
Reality: Men (or women) who think that way are forgetting the last yet most important ingredient in a fragrance, which is no other than the wearer’s own skin odour!
Each skin has a completely different scent, affected by the diet and metabolism of the person, as well as their own gender’s pheromone makeup. Men and women have a different body chemistry. Therefore, what truly makes a fragrance “masculine” or “feminine” smelling is the person who is wearing it!
By nature, men have a body odour that is more musky and sharp, and women have a body odour that is more ambery and soft. If the perfumer will try to compare these into specific notes, I’d say that the closest notes to a man’s body odour might combine notes such as sandalwood, costus, cumin, hay, patchouli, vetiver, oakmoss and tonquin musk. A woman’s body odour can be best imitated with notes such as labdanum, vanilla, benzoin, civet and honey absolute.
So, don’t forget that your skin is the real “base” for your perfume, and that what matters is how it smells on it! Be adventurous, and if you like the smell of amber, rose, tuberose or violet - don’t be shy and try them on. They will smell completely different than on a woman. Take my word for that.
Myth no. 2: “floral notes are feminine and are best avoided when choosing a scent for a man”.
Reality: Attributing floral notes (or any notes, for that matter), to one gender or another is for the most part culturally based and once presented to an individual from a different culture, will likely lose its meaning (as in the example of rose and jasmine I brought earlier). If Arab men feel comfortable enough with their masculinity when wearing soft and voluptuous roses, I can’t see any reason why to avoid this note (or any other floral note, for that matter), in fragrances designed to be worn by men.
The following are just a few examples of floral notes in perfumes that could be very “masculine” in character.
Rose Geranium - the floral fruity rosy yet minty, green and herbaceous qualities make this note perfect for masculine perfumes, which is why it is used extensively in perfumes from the Fougère family.
Orange Flower Absolute - Great for colognes and citruses of all types, but it can also be used for a more surprising, even a cutting edge oriental masculine fragrance. Orange blossom is often a heart note in tobacco based scents, to add a bit of indolic sweetness, fruitiness and a sparkle to the dry tannin notes.
Jasmine Grandiflorum - sweet and well rounded, widely used in masculine perfumes to bridge between sharp top notes and musky or mossy base notes.
Jasmine Sambac – this variety is more fruity and a tad more green (but in a very delicate way) than the grandiflorum, Sambac is an interesting addition to a men's scent, thought rarely used in Western perfumery.
Champaca - this spicy and heady tea-like and somewhat fruity exotic floral blends seamlessly into masculine compositions, such as Orientals and leathery types. It’s very cost prohibitive which is why you’re unlikely to find it in mainstream fragrances though.
Rose – as I mentioned earlier, rose can be somewhat of a challenge for the Western nose, particularly if trying to use it as a main note. But it certainly has a role in many male fragrances, even if it’s not as noticeable. Up until the late 19th century, it was actually still quite popular in bouquets for handkerchief fragrances for men, including also other soft florals such as violet and iris.
Carnation - a soft spicy floral note that is commonly used in Fougères.
Myth no. 3: “some notes are masculine, and some notes are feminine”.
Reality: As you’ve seen in the previous myth-crushing segment, context is everything. More than individual notes having specific gender, I would say the manner in which they interact with one another and the mood and personality they create is what truly matters. One thing that is true though, is that if thinking of the philosophical terms of what “masculine” and “feminine” mean, we could, perhaps, make the distinction between notes that are “projective” as opposed to notes that are “receptive”. Notes that approach you as opposed to notes that draw you in. This might explain why notes such as citrus, herbs and spices are often considered more masculine and are used in abundance in masculine fragrances (they simply “come and get you”), while other notes – more round and “receptive” so to speak, such as the floral and ambery notes, can be more readily perceived as “feminine”. Still, don’t let yourself forget that what really matters is how all these notes interact with one another. The question you should ask yourself is if the perfume itself “projective” or “receptive”.
For various reasons which I’ll attempt to explain in a moment, the archetypal masculine fragrances of Western perfumery belong mostly to four major fragrance families:
Citrus, Fougère, Woody-Oriental, and the Leather/Tobacco (the latter being a sub-category of the Chypre family – which is mostly feminine otherwise). So, when you smell a scent and recognize an immediate “masculine” character, what you are in fact recognizing is a fragrance family!
There are some historical and cultural reasons for those families being so strongly associated with men’s grooming, as well as some that are founded in the nature of masculine pheromones and men’s natural body odour.
THE ART OF SHAVING
Historically speaking, the art of shaving has a great influence on modern masculine fragrances. The Romans brought men’s grooming to heights that no other civilization have dared to explore before, resulting in a more sophisticated men’s grooming culture, some of which has survived to this day.
Fragrant aftershaves serve the purpose of disinfecting scrapes, cuts and wounds that occur during shaving, as well as sooth, soften and moisturize the skin afterwards. The essential oils of citrus peels, and herbs and spices such as bay leaf, juniper, lavender and allspice have disinfecting properties, as well as softening and conditioning the skin. It is through those associations of men’s shaving and grooming rituals that we learned to associate certain scents with masculinity. For example: Bay-Rum aftershave, which is a spicy concoction of allspice, cinnamon, cloves, bayberry, bay leaves and orange peel steeped in rum has a strong connection to the composition of the classic men’s fragrance Old Spice.
Most aftershaves contain notes such as citrus and herbs, chosen originally for their astringent and antibacterial properties, and later on by association became an olfactory trademark of masculinity, which is most evident in the Fougère fragrance family – which is based on the contrast between herbaceous lavender, musky oakmoss and powdery-soft coumarin; and the citrus-fantasy fragrance family.
There is a reason why woody scents are associated with masculine scents: Sandalwood oil has a unique chemical make up that is quite similar to androstenol – a pheromone found in men’s sweat. But sandalwood is not the only woody notes found in abundance in masculine fragrances – cedarwood comes to mind, with its distinct lumber and pencil shaving aroma. Perhaps we have also learned to associate woodworking with masculinity because most of the manual labour was done by men through centuries? But who cares, as long as it smells good!
Guiacwood, with its smoky and honeyed aroma is also a prominent note in tobacco scents. Other woodsy notes commonly found in masculine fragrances are not necessarily derived from woods, for example: patchouli (the dried, cured leaves of an East Indian herb from the mint family) and vetiver, from the root of a tropical grass which comes in a range of varieties from smoky to clean and nearly citrusy.
SEXY GRASS AND SWEATY CUMIN
Some notes have a pretty literal explanation as far as the origin of their sex appeal, to the point that could verge on the vulgar if it’s not played right. Fresh cut grass resembles the scent of a certain masculine secretion, while cumin resembles the scent of men’s sweat. Both can be very appealing – or repelling, depending on the particular scent they are in and how much you apply.
The fresh cut grass note can be fresh and clean-smelling with a subtext that hints at sexual vigor and fertility yet without sending everyone screaming to the opposite direction… Cumin, with its sweet and musky tenacity, rather than smelling dirty to the point of questioning the wearer’s hygienic habits – will create a comfortable and alluring sense of intimacy.