Long gone are the days when the idea of a fragrance suitable for men and women was considered a gimmick. Albeit a gimmick that, in the case of the pioneering CK One (widely regarded as the first mass market fragrance to be branded ‘unisex’), made millions in global sales.
Unisex fragrances now account for half of all new product launches worldwide. A growing number of notable perfume brands, including the likes of Tom Ford, Escentric Molecules and Aesop, have either abandoned gendered marketing of their products altogether, or actively promote them as ‘gender-neutral’.
All of this underlines how far we have come from the days when large sections of society would have sworn blind that only women can like floral scents while musk is the natural aroma of a man. It ties in with a wider questioning of gendered stereotypes across society at large.
But with fragrances, it’s also a sign of people – perfume makers, fragrance brands and their consumers – waking up to an important truth. What makes a smell ‘male’ or ‘female’, anyway? Nothing, intrinsically speaking. It’s all about perceptions and labels. And perceptions can be played with.
Furthermore, once you crack open that particular door, you’re soon confronted with another question – is it not the case, then, that all fragrances are actually gender neutral, regardless of how we’re told they smell and what name or shape of bottle they have?
Here are five very good reasons for believing the answer to that question is yes.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the process of making a fragrance. You might assume that a master perfumer wakes up one morning and says to themself, ‘Today I feel like making a women’s fragrance’, or ‘My next project will be a cologne for men.’
But it doesn’t usually work like that. A lot of fragrance making is down to purposeful experimentation resulting in something the perfumer feels is worth selling. Or, they have a fragrance in mind and set about recreating it in their lab.
How the final product is targeted at a particular audience, including men and women, is down to professional marketers. It is they who decide whether it has more aromas that are typically labelled as ‘feminine’ scents than masculine – or whether it falls right in the middle and is best suited to being sold as a unisex fragrance. Or, they might decide they have a gap in the market for, say, a product targeting young men, and pressgang the next available concoction into action.
All of which is to say that, when they start out in life before the marketers get their hands on them, most fragrances are gender-neutral by default.
Branding specialists in the fragrance industry have the power to decide what they market as male and female because there is nothing objective or absolute about a ‘masculine’ scent or a ‘feminine’ scent. Like we say, it’s all just labels.
Yes, we do load certain cultural associations onto aromas – flowers for females, musk for males being one of the most persistent and well-known. But if you want evidence that these are at best temporary trends, look no further than the way that tastes in male and female fragrances change over time.
This is especially obvious with products targeted at men. Ask most people these days what they consider to be a ‘masucline’ scent, and they will no doubt use words like heavy, smoky, musky, spicy and so on.
But go back 30 or 40 years or so, and the majority of ‘male’ fragrances on the market were actually pretty insipid. There was more of an obsession with ‘oceanic’ aromas for men than anything too bold or daring. Before that, the popular fougere style of men’s fragrances can be described as a blend of citrus and warm hay.
Fougere colognes also commonly feature the distinctly floral scent of lavender, which is a throwback to the 1930s and the fragrance widely credited with being the first marketed specifically for men. Caron’s Pour Un Homme was heavily lavender scented, and in the pre-war period that was the aroma any self-respecting dapper gentleman would choose to douse themselves in.
The story of Caron’s Pour Un Homme also leads us to another truth about fragrances and gender classification – that it’s a relatively recent invention. Yes, much of the perfume industry was targeted at women before that. But only because women were seen as the most enthusiastic consumers of perfume (you can say the same about jewellery, for example).
For most of its history, gender has had little influence on the production of fragrances. Dowsing yourself in aromatic substances was traditionally more a sign of wealth and status than gender roles. Famous historical leaders as diverse as Cleopatra, Louis XIV and Napoleon were known to be enthusiastic fragrance lovers. And they weren’t precious about the ingredients their scents contained being too girly or boyish, either – it was all about smelling good, about smelling luxurious.
Back in those good old days, you could also be sure that any fragrance contained the ingredients it smelled of. So whether it was floral rose, lavender or jasmine, herbs like rosemary or sage, citrussy bitter orange or bergamot, or exotic, spicy scents like sandalwood, oud and patchouli, those ingredients would have been used in the concoction.
Not so any more. The modern fragrance industry is heavily technical and scientific, using a wide range of (often synthetic) chemicals to create scents that smell like other things.
You’ll notice this in how fragrances are marketed. It’s all ‘notes of’ rose, ‘hints of’ bergamot. Only very rarely these days will you see ‘this fragrance contains…’ Because in most cases, it doesn’t.
Which again challenges our gendered perceptions of fragrances. We might find it hard to shake off our cultural identification of floral aromas as in some way being feminine. But if what we’re smelling is actually just a blend of chemicals, not flowers… doesn’t that just make the whole thing feel that little more artificial?
Finally, arguably the best argument for treating all fragrances as unisex is also the most simple – just go with what you like. As a guy, if you absolutely love the way a heavily floral, sweet perfume smells, who can argue with you wanting to wear it?
There are also good scientific reasons why such a fragrance might smell just as good on a man as a woman. Body chemistry dictates how fragrances behave when we put them on and explains why some fragrances smell better on some people than others. All sorts of different factors influence body chemistry, it can’t be reduced to male or female. So it’s perfectly natural that the same scent could smell equally great on both a man and a woman.
What the rise and rise of unisex fragrances has done is give us the space to reconsider our relationship with perfumes, challenge restrictive stereotypes and feel free to experiement more to find out what we really like.
If you are keen to broaden your horizons and see what could be out there for you, a great way is to order fragrance samples online. For minimal cost, you get to try out a range of fragrances that are perhaps beyond your normal comfort zone, and that way give yourself the opportunity to discover a new favourite – or even a scent that expresses a different kind of you.