What makes a fragrance masculine or feminine? In many ways, the distinction that women smell of flowers and men of citrus and musk is taken for granted, whether it is used as a guideline to select a perfume, or whether it is ignored by those of us who frequently cross olfactory gender boundaries. However, when one learns of the role of scent in other cultures, one begins to realize the sheer complexity of the issue. In the East, the scent would not have such clear gender divisions as it does in the West. In the Middle East, men wear rose based fragrances, because yellow rose is the cherished flower in Islam. In India, traditionally both men and women are perfumed with the same essences–sandalwood, jasmine, vetiver, henna flowers, attars. …
The matter of gender specificity in perfume is not trivial for Marcello Aspria, a University of Amsterdam trained sociologist whose graduate thesis focused on the rise of unisex perfumes in the early nineties. Marcello notes that during the course of his research, he “noticed there was little consensus on the origins of gendered perfumes, let alone on definitions of masculinity and femininity in perfumery.”
His current project, “Perfume and Gender Identity: Shifting Olfactory Definitions of Masculinity and Femininity in the Twentieth Century” , received wide support from the discipline, despite the fact that it deals with the relatively novel treatment of concepts in the field. The goal of the project is to explore and explain the dichotomy between gender-specific perfumes in the 20th century, its causes and its characteristic traits throughout the past century.
Scented Pages, a site maintained by Marcello, arose as an off-shot from “Perfume and Gender Identity.” The site contains an extensive bibliography on all aspects of fragrance, from the books on perfume houses and perfume creators to the culture of smell. Marcello adds that upon finishing his research proposal, he had an extensive bibliography, which he published as an online catalogue. “I added some other features, but the Library section was (and still is) the core of my site. Just a few months later, Eric launched his unsurpassed Biblioparfum, of which I am in complete awe.”
What predisposed you to undertake a project related to fragrance?
I have a fascination for cultural practices in everyday life. Frivolous, seemingly insignificant social habits are my favorite things: as much as we all enjoy them, we usually take them for granted. The use of perfume is a good example of such common, relatively underexposed practices in modern life. Many consider their habits in perfumery as a strictly individual matter, void of any social context, or as an expression of their innate personal taste. I’ve been often confronted with such views during my college years, when I developed a growing interest for perfumes. I adored sampling perfumes at local shops and department stores, but I couldn’t stand all the verbal nonsense that came with it. Being a young pain in the ass (and a big fan of Pierre Bourdieu’s work) I often found myself challenging shop assistants and their take on good taste. Perhaps some of that critical attitude still lingers in the background of my current research project, ‘Perfume and Gender Identity’; but my main objective, nowadays, is to contribute to the development of a sociology of smell. There seems to be a persistent form of anosmia among social scientists, which prevents them from taking further steps in that direction. I see a new field of interest, with many exciting opportunities.
As someone with knowledge of the socio-historical context, when do you think the feminine/masculine division in perfumery became more pronounced, solidifying into the patterns that were to persist into the 20th century?
Anthropologist Constance Classen wrote something interesting on this matter in her book Aroma (1994). She describes the emergence of a process of ‘feminization’ in the culture of smell in early 19th century Europe. It was a time of great social change in Europe: the old aristocracy made way for the upcoming bourgeoisie, and a different set of values surfaced among the new elite. While men and women made equal use of perfume under aristocratic rule, among the new bourgeoisie it was absolutely not done for men to spend their money on such “wasteful frivolities”. To put it bluntly, the modern (male) capitalist had better things to do, and to the exception of a small group of male artists and dandys, perfume became the exclusive domain of women. Meanwhile, gender differentiation became more pronounced in every other aspect of social life, too; so when men made their ‘perfume comeback’ in the 20th century, the male/female dichotomy was an indelible factor to fragrance manufacturers, much like in any other industry. The effects of that process are still noticeable today.
As a sociologist, how would you describe the contemporary feminine/masculine division in perfumery?
I won’t spill all the beans here, but it’s no surprise that my project is about shifting power balances between men and women. Both the growing acceptance of perfume by men, and the transgression of gender boundaries by women, are indicative of the fact that men and women are increasingly oriented towards each other in everyday life. As the social distance between men and women diminishes, the gender boundaries in perfume become more blurred.
How was the project of ‘Perfume and Gender Identity’ born? Was there a particular finding, speculation, discussion that provoked you into thinking about the topic in more depth?
I developed the idea for ‘Perfume and Gender Identity’ after a presentation I did at the SISWO conference in 1999. The theme of the conference was “Images of Masculinity and Femininity” . I dropped the word Images from the title, replaced it with Scents, and gave my view on an ‘iconography of smell’ and its problematic implications. Although it wasn’t planned as such, it proved to be an important preliminary step. It made me realize that if I ever wanted to explore the gender differentiation in perfumery, semantics was not the way to go. I decided to figure out the possibilities of a historical approach, and to focus on the social origins of the male/female dichotomy in perfumery. Although the concept of ‘gender identity’ may sound a little bit static, the project is really about social change.
What are the preliminary findings of your project? What was the most surprising discovery?
At this stage I’m still collecting reference material, so I have hardly any empirical data available. Even so, I’ve been forced to adjust my preconceptions of the perfume industry several times now. I’ve learned, for instance, that the fashion business has a much stronger influence on the culture of perfume than I ever imagined. In my original plans I wanted to focus on the perfume industry as an ‘independent’ entity, but I realized that by doing so, I would rule out too many important factors. The interdependencies in the luxury industry are tremendously complex.
Recently, there has been an explosion of interest in fragrance (even if one is to judge by the US coverage of the fragrance related topics). What in your opinion accounts for this change?
The new media play an important part in the current interest in fragrances, no doubt. With the advent of online retailers, market places, and communities, perfumes have become much more accessible to people, regardless of where they live. But there is perhaps an additional factor, too. My impression is that more and more men are climbing on the bandwagon. There is a growing interest in male body culture in general, and statistics show that men are spending more money on fragrances for themselves than ever before. The ‘perfume community’ is certainly becoming more diverse.
What fragrances are among your favorites?
From my own collection: Guerlain Vetiver, Annnick Goutal Eau d’Hadrien, Villoresi Uomo. I wore Frecceri’s Acqua di Genova with great pleasure, until one day I found it lying upside-down in my luggage.
Do you wear any fragrances that are specifically designated as feminine?
I regularly wore Clinique Aromatics Elixir in college, but that’s about it. I find the perfume classics for women by far superior, and I sample them with infinite pleasure. But I prefer smelling them on women.
Among your works, there is a fascinating article on Lorenzo Villoresi, Il Profumo: Cultura, storia e tecniche, Perfume: Culture, History, and Techniques). How did you encounter the Florentine perfumer and what about his creations appeals to you?
It was a lovely afternoon in Florence… no, actually. I read his book Il Profumo, and thought it was something many perfume enthusiasts would find interesting. As there is no translation available, I decided to write a synopsis for the readers of Basenotes. I contacted Grant Osborne (Mr. Basenotes), and we came up with the idea to have the article authorized by Lorenzo Villoresi himself. I sent the article to Florence for approval; much to my own surprise, Lorenzo personally read the entire text, and made some small alterations to it. He came across as a true gentleman.
I like Villoresi’s fragrances because they make me feel at home. Uomo has become a signature fragrance to me; it reminds me of the smell of Sicily, where my father was born and raised. And Vetiver, with that soothing rosewood note… I wish I could live in it!
Marcello Aspria’s extensive bibliography on all aspects of perfume can be found at Scented Pages. Moreover, he took part in an academic research project on the culture of food in The Netherlands, which can be found here (Marcello contributed to Volume 3.)