GEN­DER FLUID WHO’S TO SAY WHAT A WOMAN OR MAN SHOULD SMELL LIKE? The coolest new scents oc­cupy neu­tral ter­ri­tory

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - BEAUTY -

Speak­ing to a room of beauty ex­ec­u­tives this past Oc­to­ber, Linda Levy, a vice pres­i­dent at US depart­ment story Macy’s, pre­dicted the even­tual dis­ap­pear­ance of sep­a­rate men’s and women’s fra­grance coun­ters. It wasn’t as con­tro­ver­sial an idea as, say, an­other re­tailer’s de­ci­sion to do away with gen­der la­bels in its toy aisles, but it made some waves. Linda was just mak­ing a log­i­cal con­clu­sion based on mount­ing ev­i­dence that tra­di­tional gen­der lines are blur­ring: women wear men’s colognes, men are wear­ing per­fume, and niche lines like Ex Ni­hilo, Byredo and Le Labo of­ten es­chew la­bels al­to­gether, putting out strong, in­tox­i­cat­ing scents that are win­ning over both sexes. Even Calvin Klein is launch­ing a scent, ck2, that’s been dubbed ‘gen­der­free’ (not ‘uni­sex’ – but more on that later).

First, some con­text: why do men and women pre­fer dif­fer­ent fra­grances? Rachel Herz, a psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Brown Univer­sity in the US, who stud­ies the sense of smell, has a sur­pris­ing an­swer: they don’t – at least not when they’re born. ‘Al­most all odour pref­er­ences are learned, even if we don’t con­sciously re­mem­ber learn­ing them,’ she says. If you took twin ba­bies – one boy, one girl – and ex­posed them to a soft, oral per­fume and a brac­ing, aro­matic cologne, their re­sponses to both would be the same. In fact, be­fore we have mem­o­ries and as­so­ci­a­tions to in uence our pref­er­ences, we’re pretty am­biva­lent about most smells. So in­nate gen­der dif­fer­ences in scent pref­er­ence? Not a thing.

That’s prob­a­bly news to any­one who’s ever shopped for a fra­grance. By and large, men’s scents are spicy, herba­ceous, woody and leath­ery, whereas women’s are oral, fruity and sweet. In 2009, two sci­en­tists, Manuel Zarzo and David Stan­ton, even proved this: draw­ing on pre­vi­ous re­search and a col­lec­tion of 820 fra­grances, they de­vel­oped a chart plot­ting the notes used most fre­quently in per­fumery and found that 42% of women’s fra­grances were oral, while only 1% of men’s were. Con­versely, 15% of men’s colognes were woody, whereas only 2% of women’s were.

But it hasn’t al­ways been this way. In me­dieval Europe, men and women were equally fond of oral, her­bal and woody fra­grances – and you’d be glad they were, con­sid­er­ing bathing was a less fre­quent prac­tice and the scent of the tan­nery (um, that would be urine) clung to all leather ac­ces­sories.

Things didn’t change much un­til the rise of the Euro­pean middle class in the late 1800s, when fra­grance be­gan to be seen as friv­o­lous. In the book Aroma, an­thro­pol­o­gist Con­stance Classen and her coau­thors note that it was around this time that scents like rose and jas­mine be­came as­so­ci­ated with the sweeter, more ow­ery half of so­ci­ety (back then: women). ‘It’s pos­si­ble th­ese trends de­vel­oped based on cul­tural as­so­ci­a­tions – men spend­ing more time in places scented with leather and to­bacco, for ex­am­ple – but we can’t say for sure,’ Rachel says.

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