Tony, a 35-year-old in Washington, D.C., brags that women often stop him to breathe in his musk. Once, he says, a married woman propositioned him sexually, expressing in detail what she’d do to him if she could. On a separate occasion, another woman told him she’d “eat him up” because of how he smelled.
What the hell does Tony have that’s supposedly stopping women in their tracks? Unisex cologne. He smells neither masculine nor feminine, he says, but something in between.
Tony may be pulling my leg about the female attention. But he’s right about the fragrance: The whole concept of “masculine” and “feminine” scent is ridiculous. It’s all a marketing ploy.
Have we all been playing the scent game wrong? Is “manly” cologne bullshit? And what’s really inside the stuff we’re spraying? I talked to a professional cologne chemist, an indie perfumer and a few guys who swear by unisex cologne. Here’s what I learned.
It’s All Marketing
How did fragrances become gendered, anyway? “You’re standing on the edge of a rabbit hole, I’m afraid,” begins Neil Peters, a perfumer for the artisan perfume brand Mirus.
“Ninety percent of fragrance is packaging and marketing,” Mark Crames, a master perfumer and CEO of Demeter Fragrance Library, tells MEL. “The vast majority of prestige [fragrance] is commoditized fragrance … meaning no one would really know the difference if you changed it. All the customer cues come from the marketing. I know of no one who understands what and fragrance smells like based on its description.”
“The first thing to realize is that the lion’s share of modern fragrances, including most every brand you’ll see in a Sephora, Macy’s or Neiman Marcus, are mostly made from a set of materials that the average person has never smelled and has very little to no reference for,” Peters explains.
“No matter how many people tell you that some designer fragrance has notes of jasmine and cedar and bergamot and whatever else, it doesn’t actually smell like there’s any combination of those ingredients that could make what you’re smelling,” he adds. “Fine fragrances today are largely made from materials with names like coumarin, galaxolide, iso e super, hedione, linalool, etc.”
This is all to say that, basically, those of us uninitiated into the very precise and chemically complex world of fragrance have no idea what we’re doing. We’re being fed complex chemical compounds and merely attempting to derive meaning from them.
“A lot of people think that notes listings are an objective description of a fragrance,” Peters says.
Actually, “they are very much subjective, but you have to understand this in order to understand that many of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ smells in commercial fragrances aren’t plants or flowers, but accords of aroma chemicals that may not show up in any description of the fragrance that normal folks see.”
‘Manly’ Scents Used to Be Totally Different
Still, there are some specific scents that have been deemed “masculine” and some “feminine,” Peters says. “The classic masculine scent is probably the fougère, which is named for the fragrance ‘Fougère Royale’ by Houbigant. [It] was released in the early 1880s and was the perfumer’s idea of what what a fern should smell like.”
He adds, “The fougère accord is based on a blend of lavender, oakmoss and tonka bean usually with geranium and bergamot. … A lot of ‘barbershop’ scents are actually fougères in one shape or form.”
Though Peters says the fougère has “absolutely stood the test of time” as being a masculine fragrance, many fragrances once considered masculine have been “reformulated or changed completely in order to conform to our current fashions in fragrance,” and that “many of today’s masculine staples would likely be mistaken as women’s fragrances by a lot of people from the 1950s.”
Cultural Cues Inform Our Tastes in Scent
According to Mark Crames, “My experience has always been that scent is learned, and the current science backs that up. But it is also my experience the associations tend to be cultural, varying from place to place and from group to group.”
For example, Crames says one of his bestselling scents worldwide is “Baby Powder,” but it it doesn’t sell well in Germany or China, where baby powder smells differently from the American or Italian style. Thus, he concludes, “it is not a stretch to say gender associations with scent probably developed in a very similar manner.”
Laura Speed, a cognitive psychologist at University of York and author of “Superior olfactory language and cognition in odor-color synesthesia,” published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, says, “There is evidence suggesting odor perception can easily be influenced by contextual cues, such as language.”
For example, Speed tells MEL, experiments have shown people enjoy the same odor more if it is described as “cheese” vs. “body odor.”
“People also match colors to fragrances differently depending on whether they think it is a male or a female fragrance,” she says, which suggests marketing plays a large role in our perception of fragrances. “But there is likely to be a large influence of culture too, since fragrance trends differ a lot across cultures.”
In other words, specific scents having associations to gender — despite being chemical compounds we’d otherwise not even be able to identify — are just another product of the homogenization and marketing of gender norms.
When Peters started out in fragrancing, he was only concerned “with making fragrances that smelled nice and paying no attention to whether they smelled masculine or feminine,” which lead to an eye-opening experience.
“Inevitably,” he says, “when someone else smelled one of them, the first question they asked was ‘Is this for men or for women?'” Since Peters wasn’t making scents with gender in mind, he didn’t have an answer. But eventually, “the person would say something like, ‘This is definitely for women,’ … and then the next person to smell it would say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is totally a men’s fragrance,’ and so on.
Peters concludes, “Once you leave the realm of scents that are specifically associated with one gender or another — especially if you take away external cues — people seem to stop agreeing as readily about what’s feminine and what’s masculine.”
So if Scents Aren’t Really Gendered, What’s in ‘Unisex’ Cologne?
If specific scents are tied to gender through decades of marketing, I wondered how Crames’ company straddles the line to make “unisex” cologne.
“I think the trick is to stay away from notes with strong gender associations,” he says. “So if I was making a unisex fragrance, I would probably not use rose or tobacco as a starting point, because the gender associations are so strong.”
However, he adds, in a perfect world, frangrancers wouldn’t have to worry about that — they’d just make things that smell good. “I think unisex is a trend that cuts way beyond fragrance, and the next few generations are less likely to be affected and influenced by gender associations than past generations. They just don’t care as much. And that opens up a lot of possibilities … [to] make what we love and what we think is beautiful, and believe that should work for anyone. We simply leave the choice with the customer. … I think the future of fragrance is much more exciting than its present.”
For what it’s worth, Peter says that people can probably wear whatever strikes their fancy, since out on the street and without external marketing saying otherwise, no one can tell the difference.
“If you’re a guy and you’re wearing something that was labeled as being for women, most people will just assume that it’s a men’s fragrance and their brain will fill in the blanks to make that narrative fit,” he says.
The Future of Fragrance Knows No Gender
Guys like Tony follow Crames’ logic: They simply wear what they think smells good, even if it has a “feminine lean.”
“If a fragrance traditionally marketed toward women has a note that I love, and is not extremely floral with things like gardenia or tuberose, I am more than happy to wear it,” Tony says. “I do think that there has been a slight change in the community and men have started becoming a bit more willing to try out fragrances that are unisex or even borderline feminine.”
He’s noticed that trend in stores. “More perfumers are avoiding strict categorization of their products to increase the range of possible consumers, and thus some products that would traditionally be exclusively found in the female section at department stores now make their way to men’s sections and vice versa, like Tom Ford’s Black Orchid.”
Marc, a 26-year-old who swears by unisex cologne, likes “rose, and flowers in general,” but he also tends “to like fragrances that are original.”
“I feel a lot of the traditional mass-market male fragrances more or less smell like one another,” he says. “Female or male is more of a marketing thing in general to get people to think that if they purchase this or that fragrance, they will become more like whatever the marketing team is advertising. I believe certain notes tend to be more liked by males or females in general… but my perspective is that as society breaks away from the true masculine and feminine caricatures, unisex fragrances will become more popular.”