Feminine, masculine? Does it really matter when it comes to perfume? I wander over to Sephora’s masculine section and bravely spray Ralph Lauren Polo on my wrist. After all, I had to wear Drakkar Noir as a perfumery student to learn its nuances and once spent a whole day drenched in Paco Rabanne, which a friend described as burly and virile. Neither of those words has ever been applied to me, but as I get a piney leathery waft of Polo I start to fidget. As much as I want to be open minded about disregarding gendered divisions, some smells seem too masculine to be comfortable for me. The biggest offenders are the fougère style fragrances like Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir, Davidoff Cool Water and Yves Saint Laurent Kouros–the style which combines the aromatic richness of lavender with citrus, geranium, amber, musk and oakmoss.
While there is nothing intrinsically masculine about the smell of lavender, citrus and geranium, their presence in fragrances marketed for men sets a boundary that few women are willing to cross. Few women in the West, I would add. During my travels in the Middle East I have been offered an array of scents to perfume myself after meals that sometimes included Polo and Old Spice. At the Indian attar shop I once asked whether there is a difference between scents worn by men and women. The elderly owner thought about it for a moment, pulled on his thick moustache and replied, “if it smells good, they wear them all.” I can confirm that to walk past a handsome man redolent of honeyed roses is an unforgettable experience. In an unexpected and surprising manner, it is also very sexy.
A perfect perfume should feel like it is a part of my skin and my natural aura. When I reach for Serge Lutens A La Nuit and it wraps me into its heavy jasmine veil, I am immediately comforted. Jasmine, as you might guess from my blog’s name, is one of my favorite scents. I know its perfume intimately. Polo, as impressive and attractive as it is, feels dissonant on my skin. The patchouli is rough and earthy, the leather is like a sharp snap. It makes me think of an acquaintance who wears it with panache. On him, it smells distinctive and elegant, a cross between James Dean and Al Pacino. The moment I get home I wash Polo off my skin. Today is my day off, I am not a student nor am I interested in changing my cultural DNA. I simply want a perfume to make my day more beautiful.
Still, the idea of olfactory cross-dressing is tantalizing because it can provide the most poignant sense of discovery. As a floral lover, I was surprised to discover how much I loved dry woods like Knize Ten, L’Artisan L’Eau du Navigateur (discontinued, alas), Comme des Garçons 2 Ma and Idole de Lubin. Christian Dior Eau Sauvage ended up as one of the most elegant perfumes in my wardrobe, while Guerlain Habit Rouge one of the most suave. Handsome and cool, they avoid standard masculine clichés like the shrill artificial lavender, neon bright citrus and clean musk. For experiences such as what these fragrances offer, I am willing to continue my raids on the masculine counter. Meanwhile, no one has called me burly or virile.
For what perfumes would you be willing to cross the gender lines? What perfumes do you associate with men and women in your life so strongly that you would not be likely to wear them?
Image: Marlene Dietrich with Paul Porcasi in Morocco, a film from 1930.