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