Sociologist Marcello Aspria : Interview about Perfume and Gender

Yellow_rose_2_1 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.)

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33 Comments

  • Tania: Thank you to both of you for an informative and interesting interview! October 3, 2005 at 10:06am Reply

  • Robin: Very interesting interview, thank you V & M! October 3, 2005 at 11:40am Reply

  • Liz: Fascinating interview. Wonderful blog. 🙂 October 3, 2005 at 12:14pm Reply

  • mreenymo: Fascinating interview, darling. Thank you!

    Hugs! October 3, 2005 at 1:10pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Tania, you are welcome! I was glad to have an opportunity to interview Marcello. His work is absolutely fascinating. October 3, 2005 at 1:13pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, thank you! It made me think deeper about some of the issues I used to take for granted. I cannot wait to read Marcello’s work in print! October 3, 2005 at 1:14pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Thank you, Liz! I am glad that you enjoyed the interview. How would a Duchampian treat gender divisions in perfume? 🙂 October 3, 2005 at 1:15pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Thank you, R! I wish best of luck to Marcello, and I hope that his fascinating work will be published in a book form soon, for all of us to read. October 3, 2005 at 1:18pm Reply

  • Liz: I wonder what fragrance Rrose Selavy wore? 🙂 October 3, 2005 at 1:30pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: It would have to something adrogynous and gender deceptive. 🙂

    I love this readymade:
    http://www.abcgallery.com/D/duchamp/duchamp7.html October 3, 2005 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Katie: Wow! What an interview. I will be keenly interested in reading his findings in print. Sounds like it will be very thorough and thoughtfully considered, to say the least. Thanks. October 3, 2005 at 1:58pm Reply

  • Katie: D’oh! I forgot! Nice job with the slight remodel on your template. Love the flower/scroll under the date at the top. Very nicely done, and just so appealing. You have such a good eye. October 3, 2005 at 2:01pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: I cannot wait! He has clearly researched his topic well, and I am pleased to see someone treating the issues of culture of scent and gender seriously. These topics are often taken for granted.

    Did you see Scented Pages? The bibliography on fragrance is impressive to say the least! I am so glad that Marcello decided to share it, because it is very difficult to locate good sources on perfume. October 3, 2005 at 2:01pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Katie, thank you! I cannot take full credit, because I had some help with it from a person who is also patient enough to go perfume shopping with me and to be a guinea pig for my lastest creations and discoveries. 🙂 October 3, 2005 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Test Subject: Very interesting interview. I would agree with Marcello in that male interest in fragrance seems to be part of a “growing interest in male body culture.” I wonder if similar arguments might apply to something like whisky which has traditionally been a male drink often shared in the boardroom. I find that more and more women are enjoying a drop of scotch these days. Might that reflect growing capitalistic tendencies among women 🙂 Or is it that whisky producers have realized that they’re missing half the market. Regardless, a very thought-provoking interview. October 3, 2005 at 2:28pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Interesting point, P! I never thought about whisky in those terms, but it is another heavily gendered area. I wonder… We also need Tania to chime in, because she, as a whisky connoisseur, might have some thoughts on this topic. October 3, 2005 at 2:41pm Reply

  • Tania: Growing capitalistic tendencies? Ha! Well, women are in the boardroom a little more frequently these days, but from my researches I can assure you it’s not at the rate that would explain a rise in women’s scotch consumption. I don’t know if it has anything to do with whisky marketing at all, either, since if anyone is marketing whisky, I haven’t been paying attention, aside from the occasional Dewar’s ad on the train, and some Johnnie Walker ads in magazines in the ’90s. And those were all conspicuously aimed at men. Women were instead accosted with scenes of models swimming through red pools to advertise some version of Hennessy or some other venerable spirit that had been colored red and spiked with fruit juice, to make it women-friendly, as if women’s tastes were identical with the tastes of underage party drinkers.

    I started drinking scotch because, like many 20-somethings let loose in the bar scene, I just started ordering everything, trying to find “my” drink, and it turns out scotch was it. I do remember a vogue for women entering traditionally butch domains for a while, though. It was a moment of whisky and cigars, 1994 or so. I remember my oldest half-sister, 18 years older than me and the girliest of all four of my father’s daughters, coming home one night reeking of stogies and declaring that a cigar and a glass of port was the greatest repast a soul could know. She’s back to sparkling wine and frowning on smoking now, though. But I’ve sort of picked up a taste for port, actually… October 3, 2005 at 3:03pm Reply

  • Tania: P.S. But many things aimed at men get co-opted by women. Spike TV, for example, the “first cable channel for men,” splits its viewership roughly 50-50 with men and women! You don’t need a Y chromosome to like Star Trek, Ultimate Fighting, and James Bond movies, apparently. October 3, 2005 at 3:04pm Reply

  • Marina: What a superb interview…
    Why oh why didn’t I chose that subject for my thesis 😀 October 3, 2005 at 3:12pm Reply

  • Liz: V, I have a framed “Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy?” postcard hung in my living room. 🙂

    In terms of something androgynous and gender-deceptive, Tabac Blond comes to mind, but it is so perversely female that it would lose most of its humor on a man. It would still probably smell delicious though. And in the presence of a delicious-smelling man, I do not often find myself contemplating the socio-historical context of gender identity.

    The utterly gorgeous Monsieur Duchamp in Tabac Blond (or, for that matter, anything else)? Yum. My kingdom for a time machine. October 3, 2005 at 3:20pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: T, I am laughing out loud at “a cigar and a glass of port was the greatest repast a soul could know.” Well, a glass of port and some nice Stilton is definitely in that category for me.

    Your last comment about Spike TV made me think of women co-opting male fashions, which was a statement of having a choice to do so. I recall having this conversation with Denyse, who writes for La Couture.com, and she said something that resonated with my view, “As for gender distinction in the wearer: women appropriated men’s fragrances from the 70’s on, just as they started wearing trousers — it wasn’t perceived as transgression but as a larger range of choices and personae.” October 3, 2005 at 3:22pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marina, oh, you have read my mind! 😉 October 3, 2005 at 3:23pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Liz, I had the same postcard in my old apartment, however it got misplaced when I moved!

    Needless to say, I am laughing out loud at the comment on Duchamp in Tabac Blond and Liz forgetting about gender distinctions in perfume topic. Tabac Blond seems like a fine choice. I would also imagine the original Coty Chypre–a perfect example of blurred gender boundaries. For some reason, I see him wearing Miss Dior, if only to play on the name! October 3, 2005 at 3:26pm Reply

  • Marcello: Victoria, that comment regarding the “larger range of choices and personae” is spot-on. As contrasts between men and women diminish, the little variations in their habits, tastes, and behaviour increase. It sounds like a simple rule of thumb, but I think it’s very valid. It also explains why the “rules of the game” get more complicated (instead of becoming more uniform and simple). October 3, 2005 at 4:22pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marcello, it is true. The rules of the game, in a sense, have to become more complex in order to provide guidance in the webs of significance. Suddenly, it is more difficult to differentiate winks from twitches (a la Geertz), because the outwards expressions are not as clearcut and straightforward. October 3, 2005 at 4:43pm Reply

  • carmencanada: Dear V.,
    Thank you for a thought provoking and tantalizing interview. If I may add a few comments :
    1) the 19th century gender divide in scents is, of course, parallel to the sartorial divide. Men in black, women as display windows of conspicuous consumption. The aesthetics of dandyism played on distinction — refinement, prestige and the cultivation of details so subtle only a connaisseur would recognize them. This sense of distinction is quite perceptible in most masculine fragrances. In recent years, menswear fashion designers have been subtly reworking the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in male fashions, mostly through details (again, “distinction”), just as masculine fragrances have evolved.
    2) About gender ambiguous scents, I am thinking of Bandit, one of the few classics which remain totally modern in its composition. It was created by a woman, Germain Cellier, at a time when a trio of women dominated and revolutionized fashion : Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle Chanel. The latter, in her heyday, was responsible for introducing masculine elements in the female wardrobe.
    3) To me, Yves Saint Laurent picked up where Chanel dropped off. He made trousers acceptable for elegant women with his infamous “le smoking” — considered quite shocking at the time. In another gender-tweaking moment, he launched his “Pour Homme” fragrance in 1971 with a campaign depicting him in the nude, eroticizing the male body in a totally novel way.
    I could just go on and on about the links between fashion and fragrance…
    Marcello, email me whenever 😉 !

    Denyse October 3, 2005 at 7:15pm Reply

  • Marcello: Denyse, great remarks! I’m sure you refer to Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” (*conspicuous consumption*). I’ve got to revisit that book soon. Thanks for your valuable comments! October 3, 2005 at 7:26pm Reply

  • carmencanada: Marcello (and V., of course), you might look into a very interesting book called “Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity” by Ulrich Lehmann (The MIT Press), largely based on Walter Benjamin (he goes from Baudelaire and Mallarmé on to Dadaism and surrealism). Another fascinating work is J.C. Flügel’s “The Psychology of clothes”, written in 1930 (out of print but available). It’s still a reference, and there are great sections devoted to the modernity of female fashions in the 20’s, compared to male fashions. It made me realize what an utter shock it must’ve been to men raised in the late 19th century to see women with bare arms, legs and backs, and no corsets ! October 3, 2005 at 7:34pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: D, “Tigersprung” sounds like something I need to seek out. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” must among my favourite writings on historical materialism. “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably”–something about this statement never fails to touch me. Benjamin’s philosophy as applied to fashion is something I would love to see. Thank you for the recommendations. October 3, 2005 at 8:12pm Reply

  • Basenotes: Wonderful interview, with a wonderful person!

    Grant October 4, 2005 at 1:43am Reply

  • parislondres: Wonderful interview dear V! 🙂 October 4, 2005 at 1:49am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Grant, thank you! Marcello is such a talented individual, and I am glad to have an opportunity to learn and to write about his work. October 4, 2005 at 2:01am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Dear N, I am glad that you enjoyed it! 🙂 October 4, 2005 at 2:02am Reply

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