properties that mark the sexes in perfume

gido

Well-known member
May 31, 2008
what exactly is it, that makes a perfume most suitable for males, females, or both? perfumes, i'm sure we all can agree, is a form of art. most of it can be appreciated by either gender. but like music for example, some of it (heavy metal, hardcore techno, most rap) is predominantly male, other stuff (ballads, bubblegum pop, r & b) has a predominantly female fanbase. of course these genres apply to perfumes too. ie, flowery is deemed feminine and fougere is thought of as rather masculine.

but if we break it down, what are the properties of these differences?
back to music for example: girls like an open sound, with lots of high-tones, songs in general, and a sexy dance-able groove.
boys' only territory, well, that's a more dark and raw sound, it's got to have 'balls', angular rhythms are appreciated as well as jamming (or tracks) instead of proper songs.

now what i would like to know most of all: what do you think are these properties in the case of perfumery?
plus, secondary: which particular perfumes are really, and i mean really, not suitable for either of the genders.. and why is that?

cheers.
 

N_Tesla

Well-known member
Apr 29, 2008
With respect, I just don't buy the gender role model scheme. More and more society is moving, albeit slowly, away from the stereotypes allowing individuals to express themselves with more freedom. Look at Base Notes where members are exploring fragrance independant of gender designation. I think to limit fragrance, art, music or people to having gender pigeon holing is a mistake. I know women who love heavy metal music and men who live for classical music and opera. Perception is individual. Describe music or art or fragrance as what they objectively are, a sensory response to visual or audio or olfactory stimuli and it's orchestrated human design. All fragrances are the artist's resources, the painting is the artistic rendition of the resources into the work of art, the canvas is the bottle, the painting complete. I guess what I am saying is that if a fragrance is floral, it's floral, not feminine. If a fragrance is heavily leathery, it's not masculine. It is what it is. If you like it, wear it. What's horrible for you is someones beauty, maifest.
 
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Trufflehunter

Well-known member
Sep 3, 2008
Personal beliefs or wishes about gender distinction aside, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that gender distinction exists at all levels of society. Gido's question is a good one, and one that has often crossed my mind. The average person (no, I don't know who that is any more than the next guy!) would immediately associate floral aldehydes with 'feminine'. Would many people not immediately put Kouros into a 'masculine' category? What is it about Kouros that has that effect? What is it about Chanel No.5 that has the opposite effect?

I've recently taken to wearing Mitsouko and I'm really starting to appreciate its brilliance. I don't think it's out of place on a guy, but I can also understand why it's considered a feminine fragrance.

I don't have the wherewithal to explain it. I hope someone can!
 

the_good_life

Basenotes Plus
Basenotes Plus
Jun 2, 2006
Once we realize that gender ascriptions are just that, it is indeed worth exploring the origins of such ideological constructions. By the further comparison of different scent cultures, their constructedness is made particualrly evident. But even within Europe there are significant differences in time and space. Nobody in the perfume business takes the male/female distinction seruously except as a marketing tool. Infact nearly identical fragrances have been sold as masculines as well as feminines.

Take florals: the association of florals with women harks from the Victorian age and its construction of women as pure morally superior and domestic creatures segregated from the male world of commerce, politics and war. The image of purity precluded the use of animalic notes, as well as strong, erotic florals, sich as indolic jasmine or heavy rose. This first changed in France, where civety Jicky became a succesful perfume by 1912. At the same time rose and white florals were typical ingredients in English men's toiletries, while masculinity-obsessed Americans at the turn-of-the century considered this whole business typically effeminately European (although US men's toiletries were of course also based on florals). You have to factor in class and race issues as well and the whole matter becomes increasingly complex. Gender images shifted more rapidly in the 20th century - Tabac Blond is a flapper fragrance and could not possibly have been created in, say, Eisenhower America.Tuberose as a typical feminine note? What about Richard James EdT? And fact is that if you wear a "women's" perfume as a man, people frequently won't think of you as smelling girly, but good, or even manly. So while it is correct that certain combinations -aldehydic floral, herbal-woody - are conventionally assigned to each gender, those conventions can be deconstructed much more simply than in the case of cross-dressing.
 
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narcus

Well-known member
Mar 9, 2005
As much as some might wish all male Basenoters to be more 'progressive' than they are, others are quite content with the choice they have in the masculine domaine (designer perfumes labeled 'for men', or perfumes that 'smell masculine'). It doesn't help to call men conservative, victim of stereotype thinking, or otherwise limited. Limitations are are often based on choice and the expression of wisdom and/or taste. Anyway, male preferences are a fact and can be determined with a high degree of reliability if the number of persons interviewed or tested is representative and large enough; and male fragrance preferences are certainly no exception.

It is easier for me to leave the question of perfume as a form of art aside, at least at the beginning of such a discussion. It cannot be denied that perfume is primarily a product that we consume to please ourselves and/or others. As social beings we strive to be loved or at least accepted by others, and at the same time our ego wants to be different and show that, too. Perfumes are one tool in that arsenal, and what we choose to wear often depends on the situation, the people we expect to be with, and the desire to adapt or stand out (I want to see the guy who can say he is 100% autonomous in his choice of fragrances).

Are flowers and aldehydes an important part of feminine preferences? I think the answer is obvious. Knowing the answer, do I want to compete with that legion of amazones? Not really. Do I have to forget flowers I love in perfumes for myself? Certainly not either, I think.

I only know one aldehydic perfume for men: Iquitos. I happen to not like it, even though it has rose which I love. I think it's more a matter of the right measure than of principle. Think of Montale rose-oudhs of which we have a variety. Why are some perceived as masculine and others as feminine? It's in the rose and in the oudh, I believe, and in the combination of both. Are flowers as a whole 'less suited' for men? No way - think of Carons' Pour un Homme which is one of the most powerful lavenders on earth and has been successful for generations. Or think of carnations which are so important in Equipage, Old Spice, and Garofano. Original Brut has been seen as a macho frag in its time, in spite of the heavy load of jasmine contained. But people didn't even recognize it as a floral perfume. It is the combination with other notes (predominant ones often) which can make a perfume masculine or feminine in people's perceptions.

In summary: to me it appears to be impossible to reduce masculinity and femininity in perfumes to a few elements of a composition. The combination of elements and their interaction make us perceive one or the other, or - that of course also exists - leave us clueless just smelling the perfume on a paper strip. In the end, of course, the wearer's overall appearance and personality have an influence on how his or her perfume will be perceived.
 
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Renato

Well-known member
Oct 21, 2002
Watch children at play in a rural or semi rural environment. Girls have a fascination with flowers and can think of dozens of useless things to do over and over with them (pick them, make chains with them, stick them in their hair). Boys have a fascination with wood - climbing trees, playing with branches, using pocket knives on fresh branches.

Is it really pure coincidence or the work of dastardly marketers or the result of cultural brainwashing that women's scents have strong floral bases and men's scents have strong woody bases?

But hand them oranges, and all that the boys and girls do is eat them. Is it pure coincidence that citrus scents are very often unisex?
Renato
 
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narcus

Well-known member
Mar 9, 2005
...Take florals: the association of florals with women harks from the Victorian age and its construction of women as pure morally superior and domestic creatures segregated from the male world of commerce, politics and war. The image of purity precluded the use of animalic notes, as well as strong, erotic florals, sich as indolic jasmine or heavy rose.
You are not talking of Continental Europe, I suppose, where the influence of the Victorian era was limited. I have not been able to find much about men and their fragrances in the whole of the 19th century in Austria, Germany and France. Spain and Italy may have had a different fragrant history then. Women however did wear florals, and archives in Grasse, or from R&G and Houbigant may hold enough information about the nature of those in the first half of that century. All the same, Guerlains Jicky and Roger & Gallet's Peau d'Espagne indicate that there were not just florals offered to ladies de la Troisième Republique Francaise ! ;)
 
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the_good_life

Basenotes Plus
Basenotes Plus
Jun 2, 2006
Watch children at play in a rural or semi rural environment. Girls have a fascination with flowers and can think of dozens of useless things to do over and over with them (pick them, make chains with them, stick them in their hair). Boys have a fascination with wood - climbing trees, playing with branches, using pocket knives on fresh branches.

Is it really pure coincidence or the work of dastardly marketers or the result of cultural brainwashing that women's scents have strong floral bases and men's scents have strong woody bases?

But hand them oranges, and all that the boys and girls do is eat them. Is it pure coincidence that citrus scents are very often unisex?
Renato

But there are plenty of cultures in the past and in the present where flowers are associated with men as well as with women - think of the rose-prominent Arabian fragrances or the European Rokkoko. It is simply not true that women and men are genetically predisposed to such a large extent (though greater physical strength on average made men the preferred warriors, e.g.) Cosmetics were used by men and women in ancient Egypt, in some cultures men do the sewing and women the fieldwork etc.
Marcello could say a lot more about this, as he is working on this topic as sociologist. Here is an interview from 2005
 

the_good_life

Basenotes Plus
Basenotes Plus
Jun 2, 2006
You are not talking of Continental Europe here, are you?

This applies to continental Europe as much as to Britain and the United States - even France: The first Guerlain, pharmaceutically educated in England, was succesful due to his talent at making light floral waters and vinegars, while tuberose, neroli, and even more so musk, civet or amber were considered immoral and left to concubines, poets and artists. Cf. G. Ohloff, Irdische Düfte, himmlische Lust. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Duftstoffe (Basel etc.: Birkhäuser, 1992) 254.
 
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Kevin Guyer

Well-known member
Nov 16, 2006
Everyday we wash and deodorize our bodies. With perfumes, colognes, body sprays, etc., we try to re-scent ourselves within the boundaries that our societies have taught us are correct according to our gender. Western societies share the same conventions, sweet for females, un-sweet for men. Mugler and Gaultier play with these conventions by subverting them. I find their subversion rather simplistic and the end result tends to reinforce cliches.
I prefer the Arabic tradition, which Lutens plays with to a certain extent, of using a set palette, ie. rose, incense, aoud, resins, etc. in different combinations and strengths to create a kaleidoscopic variety of gender possibilities.
Or we could go back to pre-historic times where men smelled like sweat and women smelled of menstrual blood. ;)
 
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narcus

Well-known member
Mar 9, 2005
This applies to continental Europe as much as to Britain and the United States - even France: The first Guerlain, pharmaceutically educated in England, was succesful due to his talent at making light floral waters and vinegars, while tuberose, neroli, and even more so musk, civet or amber were considered immoral and left to concubines, poets and artists. Cf. G. Ohloff, Irdische Düfte, himmlische Lust. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Duftstoffe (Basel etc.: Birkhäuser, 1992) 254.
I certainly appreciate learning about a new source, TGL: Thank you! I'll study that in detail, as soon as I can get to it. Civet considered immoral..., and yet Guerlain used it in 1889 :). I think we are more or less in agreement, I just don't see where French perfumery of the time would reflect British taste and influence. Guerlain's was only one perfume house among many in France, and it didn't have nearly the prestige it has now.

@Ruggles: Oudh in a Lutens?? Which one did I miss out on ?
 
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Kevin Guyer

Well-known member
Nov 16, 2006
@Ruggles: Oudh in a Lutens?? Which one did I miss out on ?
If you read my sentence closely, you will notice that it says: which Lutens plays with to a certain extent.

I quote myself: "I prefer the Arabic tradition, which Lutens plays with to a certain extent, of using a set palette, ie. rose, incense, aoud, resins, etc. in different combinations and strengths to create a kaleidoscopic variety of gender possibilities."
So, that certain extent falls short of his using aoud.
My point is that I see a different approach to gender in Arabic/Oriental perfume tradition, which I understand is based more on proportion than the Western tradition, that tends to specify specific ingredients to one or the other gender.
You are never going to find cold hard facts in the perfume world, where note pyramids are mostly fantasies and aroma technology is guarded like the gold in Fort Knox. :)
 
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Renato

Well-known member
Oct 21, 2002
But there are plenty of cultures in the past and in the present where flowers are associated with men as well as with women - think of the rose-prominent Arabian fragrances or the European Rokkoko. It is simply not true that women and men are genetically predisposed to such a large extent (though greater physical strength on average made men the preferred warriors, e.g.) Cosmetics were used by men and women in ancient Egypt, in some cultures men do the sewing and women the fieldwork etc.
Marcello could say a lot more about this, as he is working on this topic as sociologist. Here is an interview from 2005

Beats me what children play with in the middle of hot Arabian deserts - sand perhaps?
All I know I is what I observed growing up in Australia and half a world away in Italy.

In Germany, did you observe lots of male children endlessly engaged in making daisy chains and walking around with flowers in their hair? Did you observe female children continuously climbing trees and playing with sticks, making spears? Is it the boy of the girl who hounds their father to get a pocket knife to whittle wood with?

Renato
 

Kevin Guyer

Well-known member
Nov 16, 2006
In Germany, did you observe lots of male children endlessly engaged in making daisy chains and walking around with flowers in their hair? Did you observe female children continuously climbing trees and playing with sticks, making spears? Is it the boy of the girl who hounds their father to get a pocket knife to whittle wood with?
Renato
Growing up in America with two sisters, I noticed a lot of doll playing and getting into mother's make-up on their part. So if your theory holds any truth, I'd have to say Dior Homme, with its make-up smell and Commes des Garcons synthetic Series should be considered American girlie scents.
I have never witnessed a female or male child making a daisy chain, only a few stoned hippies.
As a kid, I didn't want a knife, I wanted a chemistry set so I could make a bomb. ;)
 
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Perfume_Addict

Well-known member
Apr 19, 2002
Watch children at play in a rural or semi rural environment. Girls have a fascination with flowers and can think of dozens of useless things to do over and over with them (pick them, make chains with them, stick them in their hair). Boys have a fascination with wood - climbing trees, playing with branches, using pocket knives on fresh branches.

Is it really pure coincidence or the work of dastardly marketers or the result of cultural brainwashing that women's scents have strong floral bases and men's scents have strong woody bases?

But hand them oranges, and all that the boys and girls do is eat them. Is it pure coincidence that citrus scents are very often unisex?
Renato

If you think behaviors aren't learned - even from the earliest days of life - you're kidding yourself. Girly-Girls play with flowers and frilly things when they get positive reinforcement from parents and other role models. I don't think appreciation of floral scents is necessarily inate to girls or absent from boys. Think too about contexts in which its socially okay to appreciate floral fragrance - e.g. when a woman you're with is wearing it. For example, my boyfriend enjoys Chanel No. 19, Un Parfum d'Ailleurs et Fleurs and Cacharel Eden on me, but wouldn't wear them himself.

FYI, I liked trees and streams more than flowers as a kid, and like my share of woody fragrances too.
 
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Marcello

Well-known member
Oct 30, 2003
But there are plenty of cultures in the past and in the present where flowers are associated with men as well as with women - think of the rose-prominent Arabian fragrances or the European Rokkoko.[...] Marcello could say a lot more about this, as he is working on this topic as sociologist. Here is an interview from 2005

Like you, I think of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' as social constructions. I found that the best way to answer Gido's main question was to delve into the history of perfumery, which means taking the cultural approach. For me, that's the only way to make sense of the changing preferences/customs/etc that occurred through time (and which are indeed also very apparent between cultures). Recently I've immersed myself in theories on gender and sexuality, so now I'm more aware of other theoretical perspectives and approaches as well. Essentially, it's a topic that will always remain open to debate.

When I started researching the gender distinction in perfumery (more than ten years ago), many people in the industry either didn't care much about the whole issue, saying it was "just marketing", or gave rather inconsistent explanations. The more people I asked, the more confused I got. I was hoping to find a definitive answer from "insiders", but clearly that didn't work.

I did end up finding several sensible explanations. Gido, since you read Dutch you may be interested in an article on the origins of male perfumes which I wrote for a sociology journal:

Marcello Aspria
Geuren van mannelijkheid. De verbreiding van parfumgebruik door mannen in de twintigste eeuw.
In: Sociologie, vol. 3, issue 1, pp. 12-32. Amsterdam/Meppel: Uitgeverij Boom (2007)

In the end, when you study culture you're always pushing forward new hypotheses, based on new insights, or actual evidence of some sort. That article is based on a specific sociological perspective, which people will either find useful or not. One thing I'll add to this thread, is that if we consider gender differences as a social construction, that doesn't make those differences any less "real". The very notion of "construction" implies that they have a history of their own, that they are not "arbitrary" or "meaningless".
 
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AnnaSa

Well-known member
Feb 10, 2008
I have never witnessed a female or male child making a daisy chain, only a few stoned hippies.
As a kid, I didn't want a knife, I wanted a chemistry set so I could make a bomb. ;)

Ruggles, I think I love you!

And, on the subject of girls liking to do useless things with flowers and listen to bubble-gum pop - where on earth do you get these ideas?
 

HDS1963

Well-known member
Oct 26, 2007
Actually in the Victorian era men did wear florals particularly rose based. Florals became far more targetted at women around the turn of the last century, leaving men with a relatively sparse flower range normally lavender based.

These days there's so much cross over in male/female scents it's only nominal gender identifying for a lot of fragrances. Take Hermes Caleche for example, I would wear that without thinking twice about it.

Hammam Bouquet is considered a gentleman's fragrance but is sweet with Turkish Rose - there are many female fragrances which would be considered macho next to it.

Thankfully there seem to be more male florals coming on to the market which will hopefully mean the death of the "zesty, citrus, fresh" descriptions endlessly cited by SAs.
 

narcus

Well-known member
Mar 9, 2005
Actually in the Victorian era men did wear florals particularly rose based. Florals became far more targetted at women around the turn of the last century, leaving men with a relatively sparse flower range normally lavender based.
Since I have joined Basenotes five years ago, I have heard similar statements before, and I have occasionally asked questions for more details or posters' sources. But to this day I have not been able to verify more than a few unrelated pieces from this puzzle.

Who were these men and which class(es) and country, or countries are we talking about ? I would be happy to learn more about the past three centuries, or the Victorian Era (the Belle Epoque in France and adjacent states) in particular. But anybody who has looked into books on perfumery knows that these deal with feminine perfume wearers (almost) exclusively. If you know of reliable sources for men wearing floral (rose) fragrances, and/or others in Great Britain or the Americas between, say between 1850 and 1914, I would be happy if you could point to them.
 
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HDS1963

Well-known member
Oct 26, 2007
Since I have joined Basenotes five years ago, I have heard similar statements before, and I have occasionally asked questions for more details or posters' sources. But to this day I have not been able to verify more than a few unrelated pieces from this puzzle.

Who were these men and which class(es) and country, or countries are we talking about ? I would be happy to learn more about the past three centuries, or the Victorian Era (the Belle Epoque in France and adjacent states) in particular. But anybody who has looked into books on perfumery knows that these deal with feminine perfume wearers (almost) exclusively. If you know of reliable sources for men wearing floral (rose) fragrances, and/or others in Great Britain or the Americas between, say between 1850 and 1914, I would be happy if you could point to them.


Try Penhaligon's for starters, Hammam Bouquet was designed for the men's market in 1872 to evoke the Turkish Baths of Jermyn street.
 

narcus

Well-known member
Mar 9, 2005
Try Penhaligon's for starters, Hammam Bouquet was designed for the men's market in 1872 to evoke the Turkish Baths of Jermyn street.
The Turkish Baths of Jermyn Street...that alone would raise my unlimited curiosity. I think I sampled Hammam Bouquet once and found it rather sweet. But they say it wasn't that sweet before. Rose here could be seen as derived from Oriental traditions. So far the BN directory has been my best source for the masculines of the 19th century, and it is obvious that English Gentlemen were off much better than men in Continental Europe. However who were they? Nobility? Artists, Officers? Was wearing perfumes considered elegant, was it widespread, or an extravaganza? I somehow guessed that the culture of fragrancing was developed in barbershops and the known brands were only the top of the iceberg?
 
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irish

Well-known member
Jun 18, 2007
Every time I lift my bottles and see their "bottoms" there is nothing in them to say that they are either feminine or masculine... except for the bottles of Jean Paul Gaultier of course.
:grin: (I don't care what you think, that was funny)

I do not think there is 1 single element (flowers, vanilla, tobacco, powder, etc) element that makes them smell that way, but there is a combination of factors which make them to appear feminine or masculine. Sometimes that element is as subtle as skin chemistry.
 

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