The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, in his ‘Enquiry Into Plants’, once categorically stated that floral-heady perfumes worked best for men, accentuating their masculinity, whereas heavier scents, such as spikenard, malabathrum and incense, worked best for a woman, an idea that these 2,500 years later seems to run counter to everything we take for granted in the world of perfume. Which only goes to prove just how much things have and haven’t changed since then. I’ve known plenty of men, some hypermasculine exemplars among them, who loved nothing more than, say, a lethal dose of ‘Shalimar’, and likewise, ladies who couldn’t get heady, heavy or potent enough.
Subversion, any former punk and present iconoclast will tell you, can be a wonderful thing. If by subverting certain preconceptions, as mildly or as wildly as you please, you can turn your world ever so slightly on its axis, if you can make your surroundings question their assumptions, then how can that possibly be bad?
Stick around the perfumed world long enough, and somewhere in the course of your passion, you will inevitably eye the other side of the gender divide of the perfume counter and wonder what things happen there.
Once upon a time, it was considered ever-so-slightly daring for a woman to wear a traditionally ‘masculine’ perfume. If it happened, it happened on the sly, admitted sotto voce, like the time I asked my then-teenaged sister what she was wearing, and she whispered ‘Obsession for Men.’ How scandalous! How brave! How…delicious!
Delicious, to immerse yourself in the world of fougères and woods, green and spices, to disconcert your environment that expected something floral and frilly and feminine. Just as white tie and tails – or Yves Saint Laurent’s famous ‘le smoking’ – turned a traditionally masculine concept completely on its head and accentuated sexy femininity, so can ‘masculine’ scents present a double threat – an aura that should be a butch testimony to testosterone, and instead is a testimony to female.
These days, of course, it doesn’t matter any more. In all fairness, as one famous perfumer said, the only difference between men’s and women’s perfumes is – and has always been – the ‘Pour Homme’ printed on the label. Several lines make no distinction at all, and I don’t see why you should, either.
So, ladies – spray away. Go ahead. Live a little dangerously.You know you want to!
In my own perfumed life history, I’ve loved not a few masculines – loved them enough to wear them, to gift them to boyfriends, to have fun by experiencing everything they had to offer, and in so doing to come a little closer to what I love. Below follows a few of my favorites. Some are classics, some are divisive – all of them are devastating – on either gender!
These are the Big Ones, the ones you can’t get around, the classics that have been filched from bathroom cabinets everywhere nearly since the launch date – they’re that good.
Eau Sauvage (Dior)
It may remind you of your father, it may remind you of Classic Cologne with capital Cs, but Edmond Routnitska’s Eau Sauvage was a groundbreaking scent for a reason. On women, this is Class with Sass.
If you love Green Fiends, the kind of viridian perfumed statements that brook no arguments and take no prisoners, then Guerlain’s ‘Vetiver’ is for you. It was, in fact, my own gateway into masculines, and much later, Guerlain took note and created ‘Vetiver Pour Elle’. Surely, that was unnecessary. The original is perfect just as it is.
Mouchoir de Monsieur (Guerlain)
One of my two very first proper perfume purchases was ‘Jicky’, a ground-breaking revolution in a bottle. A fougére but not, a floral but not, a slightly leathery, elusive animal, it lives somewhere in between the spaces of its contradictions, just like its sibling, ‘Mouchoir de Monsieur’. Whereas Jicky is somewhat naughty and impetuous, ‘Mouchoir’ is rather more well-behaved. Which doesn’t mean it’s not just as naughty, in a good way.
You expect something unusual from a perfume called The Anarchist. Something Piotr Kropotkin would have worn. This is orange and spice and all things nice, and the most anarchistic thing about it is its name, for turning your expectations on their heads. Another way to circumvent convention, maybe?
M7 (Yves Saint Laurent)
I have a problem with oudh. Shoot me for my lack of perfumista sophistication if you must, but something about oudh gives me a headache. Unless, like here, it’s wrapped in the kind of woody rosemary-vetiver that sands down most of the medicinal edges to a smooth, glossy finish. On a man, this is devastating. On a woman, this is a definite threat. Wear wisely, or bear the consequences! 😉
The Modern Yet Timeless
Dior Homme (Dior)
Iris – in fact, orris root – can go in one of two directions to my nose. Either it nosedives into a hairspray vibe that turns my stomach no matter what I do (Prada’s ‘Infusion d’Iris), or it is stupendously, staggeringly beautiful in a way few other floral notes can capture. I love a few iris-laden perfumes, and of them all, Dior Homme is at the very top tier of that list. Why they call it ‘Homme’, I don’t know. Chilly – as iris often is – elegant, and timeless. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better…Dior gave us-
Dior Homme Intense (Dior)
Dior Homme Intense is the dressed up for living dangerously sibling of Homme. I once managed to shock my (virtually shockproof) sister by drenching myself in this. This is heavier, an evening scent, if you will, with a definitely sweeter, smokier vanilla-cocoa vibe. I can only be grateful I have yet to meet it on an attractive man, because I’d eat him if he wore this. As it is, I can only just refrain from gnawing my own arm. Just.
Chêne (Serge Lutens)
Serge Lutens dispenses with gender labels altogether, and rightly so. Who cares? Wear what you love, but certain perfumes of his line tend to skew in either a feminine or a masculine direction, and certain others can read either way. I would never have guessed in a zillion years that I would fall so hard for a perfume, I’d write it into my novel, yet I did. A perfume named for a wood – oak – in all its sappy, smoky, slightly boozy manifestations, it is sexy on either gender. Perfect for days you feel the need for invisible armor. Wearing ‘Chêne’, I can handle anything. Anything at all.
Encens et Lavande (Serge Lutens)
Perfume names can be slightly misleading, to say the least. Yet ‘Encens et Lavande’ is perfectly named – incense and lavender. No more, no less, no need to gild this lily any further. It seems so simple and is incredibly complex, it is contemplative and it is comforting. Great on a guy, great on a gal, just plain…genius, any way you try it.
Traditional ‘masculine’ perfumes are often just as good – and in some cases better – on women, just as ladies in tuxes can be devastastingly feminine and more than slightly subversive. Marlene Dietrich in her white tie and tails could never be mistaken for anyone but Marlene Dietrich – beautiful, strong, slightly disconcerting yet still a Woman with a capital W, putting the ‘fatale’ in ‘femme’!
That’s at least part of the idea, right? 😉
Photo: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’ (Paramount, 1930).