A history of modern perfume

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There is no such thing as masculine perfume, or feminine perfume.

Men used to wear rose scents; women wore cologne. The idea that fragrance can be divided into male and female is purely a product of 50 years of marketing.

This was brought home during a curator’s tour of the new Perfume exhibition at Somerset House in London - which myself and a handful of beauty writers were invited on recently.

The exhibition aims to tell the story of 21st century perfume (so far), using 10 scents released in that period that demonstrate different ways the industry is heading.

The twist is don’t know what any of the scents are. Each has a room to itself, with some visual cues as to its inspiration and an interview with the perfumer playing on loudspeaker.

But there is no text, no packaging, no marketing. Only at the halfway and end points of the exhibition are you told what the scents are, and why they are significant.

So there is Comme des Garcons 2, which was the first to change perceptions of what perfume could be: it didn’t have to be pretty, or aspirational; it could be dirty, even (for some) unpleasant.

There was Molecule 01, the first perfume to consist of one single (artificial) ingredient. El Cosmico by DS & Durga, one of the first scents by a self-taught perfumer.

And Dark Ride, the most modern of the lot: a fragrance that smells of a theme park, all chlorine, sunscreen and fog machines. This is part of a trend that has seen perfume reference more urban and (certainly to a younger audience) more familiar smells - asphalt, for example. 

It was fascinating for me, because although I love my perfume, I’ve never been very aware of women’s scents. Which most of these are, to most people. (Though arguably they shouldn’t be.)

After the tour we had a small session mixing our own perfumes, run by the Experimental Perfume Cluband it was interesting trying to correct ourselves every time we described a scent as being ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

Labels are powerful things, and it can be hard to pull yourself away from them, using more descriptive terms instead.

(Though of course all perfume language is necessarily limited - as I discussed here on PS with Frederic Malle a while ago. We know what it is for a scent to be flat, or large, or dry, but only after it has been explained; when we have a signified for our signifier.)

The first room also has a tour of 20th century perfume, with one scent per decade, which is equally fascinating. ‘Chypre’ may have been the first scent we would consider masculine, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that something (Eau Sauvage) was actively marketed as a male scent.

The exhibition is on until September 23rd. If you are at all interested in perfume, I highly recommend it.

Photography: Moeez Tali @moeeztali

My clothes, as per Monday's post, here. 

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Anonymous

It is a current trend, albeit flawed, to deny gender or sex based bias in preference. I understand that some may appeal to a wide range (Calvin Klein etc.). However fragrances such as Eau Savage, Aramis, Creed Royal English Leather appeal, in the main to the male buyer. The light, floral and, in my view, slightly acidic ranges for women have little appeal to male buyers – otherwise we would be buying them. Whilst marketing did push heavy gender specific messaging in the 60’s to 80’s it is just as disingenuous to push ‘this is for everyone’ messages around modern fragrances. It is simply aimed to widen the buying market. There is certainly a trend toward wider male buyer inclusion in the ‘beauty industry’ but to claim that there is no buyer preference (‘there is no such thing as masculine perfume’)…is nonsense and is not backed by any evidence such as buying trends or sales figures. Moreover the fragrance blends, despite claims, continue to be aimed at different groups. I understand your point re. marketing but the counter is that none of us will inherently wear a fragrance that we find unpleasant or disagreeable. If it were not the case Chanel no. 5 would be worn by many more men.

BespokeNYC

Really fascinating – I completely agree there’s no reason some types of fragrance should be more masculine than others, and yet I think I’d really struggle to ever think of famous women’s scents like Chanel No 5 as masculine. Beyond the power of marketing, there’s been some pretty interesting research about the power of cultural conditioning on how we perceive certain tastes (which are mostly based on smell anyway.) Most Westerners balk at the the idea of eating witchetty grubs or other insects, and yet have no problem eating shrimp – but they’re not all that dissimilar when you you really think about it! I wonder if there are similar cultural expectations around certain types of scent that make us gravitate to calling them masculine or feminine…?

Jack Floyd

I recall an article that said that Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion, told some Caswell-Massey executives that he wore their “Red Jasmin” cologne. Apparently it was then marketed as women’s perfume. No one said anything to Dempsey, of course, but they DID call the factory and tell them to make up “Red Jasmin Cologne for Men” labels, and slap them on bottles very fast

David

Much play is made on PS about dressing correctly for the occasion.
With that mantra in mind, it is interesting to consider when one would actually wear this humdinger of a cardigan.
In the previous thread it was suggested mainly at home. Personally I have doubts, it may prove a bridge too far for my wife and dogs. There is also the possibility of neighbours passing by and catching me in it.
Here we see it on a play date doing fragrance sniffing and I have to say I think it
looks quite in keeping.
Given that fragrance sniffing is probably not a mass pass time I looked for other opportunities and thought of the great Native American Pow Wow that takes place in the fourth week of April in Alberquerque each year.
It would look fantastic in the tomahawk throwing competition. Given we have time on hand perhaps Simon could commission a bespoke pair of deerskin fringed trousers to go with it?

James

I cant help but think you took this opportunity to comment on this cardigan here (when it was in fact the subject of the previous post) because, that post already having received 50+ comments and already moving down the archive, you felt that (inspiration having come to you a little late) we’d all do well to benefit from your astounding Wildean wit and cutting observational humour re: said cardigan. I’m sure dinner party guests regularly comment that the society sketch writers really missed out when you decided not to rake up your razor sharp pen professionally. Perhaps next time, though, make your observations to your wife (or dogs, or stuffy neighbours) and keep your boorish, unhelpful and rudely expressed thoughts out of the online resource which someone else offers you for free? Thanks.

David Craggs

Sir James,
What would possibly give you the idea that my pen time is free?
That withstanding nobody loves this site more than me and Simon’s contribution to the sartorial is, since Jason King, unequaled.
That said, we would be doing him a diservice if we were sycophantic when he errs and it is not in his or his followers interests that we risk the populous at large doubling up in a full on belly laugh were he to stride by wearing this S&H cardigan.
Now this retro piece may have its uses and locations where it would be acceptable. I was merely trying to be constructive in suggesting one.
If I have upset you in anyway I apologise without reservation – American Indian or otherwise.
Hopefully PS will be back on track soon and normal service will be resumed.
I’m sure the cardigan is just an example of a mid-style crisis and if Simon’s kept the receipt he may still be able to return it.
Hey look, nobody is perfect. I once wore flares but I lived to fight another day.
Permanent Style Forever – Fancy Dress Never! This has to be the mantra doing forward.
Regards,
David

Walter Sickinger

Simon,several weeks ago you rebuked me for a much less sarcastic comment on Hollywood top trousers. David seems to have escaped unscathed.
FYI I have been wearing Eau Sauvage since the early 70’s when my late wife,then a fashion buyer for a major Canadian department store,introduced me to it. My wife now just bought me a new bottle. It is a fragrance that for me carries the memories of a life time.
PS. Think the colour of the cardigan is great…the design a little overpowering.

David

It is interesting that Walter makes the connection between his fragrance and the great emotional tapestry of life.
This is surely the real virtue of a fragrance and the truth of the matter is that the great classics were created by the noses when they were often looking for something else.
The dynamics of the industry no longer allow for this as the whole business is launch driven and banalised beyond belief.
A man’s fragrance is like his tailor. He should find one that suits him and cherish the relationship.
I have worn Guerlain’s Habit Rouge since Nelson lost his eye and won’t be changing anytime soon.
Bouncing from one fragrance to another is a sartorial faux pas.
Now about that cardigan…..

Now, about that cardigan …..

Jim

David, why do you write like you’re an 18th century squire? Seriously, is that how you talk? You sound ridiculous.

David

Well said Simon.
It was always my fear that the S&H cardigan would attract a different type of clientele.
Regards,
David

Anonymous

Not quite correct about Eau Sauvage being the first male scent in the 60’s.

Guerlain launched Mouchoir de Monsieur in 1904, and Caron launched Pour un Homme in 1934. I believe Chanel first produced Pour Monsieur in 1955.

Anonymous

I suspect that those scents mass marketed to a male audience were probably more along the lines of Brut, Old Spice and perhaps Hai Karate. Certainly Old Spice was around way before then60’s, and I would actually question whether ES was marketed anywhere near as widely as the others.

Alec Childs

I went myself at the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Those who attend can record their thoughts (for me it was what images each scent conjured in my mind) which you can compare with the details given at the half-way and end points.

It is also good to smell some of the synthetic ingredients in the lab section and consider how they may be blended.

Nick Inkster

It’s odd because, although I often drift off into a bit of variety, I always come back to Eau Sauvage and Guerlain Vetyver, which dates from about the same era.

There is something timeless about them, and their appeal never really wanes, despite it being almost 60 years since their launch.

Nick Inkster

It might be worth adding for context that it is also about 60 years since my launch too!

Dimitrios R

Morning Simon, a wonderful post. I’ve been sharing Aqua Di Parma (for everyday use) with my wife for over 40 years, and frankly haven’t ever given it a second thought. We also share monocle scent #1. Like your (lovely) cardigan, I think there’s a time and place for everything. Wishing you a nice long weekend Dimitrios

Litigator

On “there is no such thing as masculine perfume, or feminine perfume”, I agree that this is largely a slightly historic marketing construct. Countless times in the last 5-10 years, at perfume counters in department stores (or perfumers’ own boutiques), I have asked “is this for men or women?” The sales assistant will pause for thought, tell me that both men and women wear it, either with equal prevalence or that it is favoured by one gender more than the other. It is no longer so binary.

However… marketing constructs cannot be wholly overlooked (even if they are arbitrary and artificial). If I were to turn up to a meeting at work wearing Channel No 5, my (female) boss would, rightly or wrongly, ask me questions.

My recent favourite is Frederic Malle’s L’Eau d’Hiver – probably worn by more women than men. But it transcends gender.

My name

Indeed masculinity and femininity are social constructs, but does this mean that you’re going to start wearing dresses and high heels Simon?

Anonymous

Simon,I’ve recently come across a cologne,Eau de Missions,beautiful smell,very masculine.Have you tried it and if so,what was your impression?