Eau so Masc – Thoughts on Gender in Perfume & The Rive Gauche Rebellion

Masculine? Feminine? Does it really matter? We're conditioned to behave in ways prescribed by our genders, but I say to heck with that. There is more than one type of man and one type of woman. Gender, like sexuality, can be fluid and a person can identify with whatever feels right to them.

Masculine? Feminine? Does it really matter?

The American state of North Carolina recently passed a disgusting bill that not only removes some of the legal protections provided for LGBT employees, but also stipulates that transgender people can only use the toilet facilities correspondent to the gender on their birth certificate. To most normal humans this seems utterly absurd. People are people, right? What harm can it cause if they want to live their life as the gender they feel they truly are? The answer is none, but this goes against the wider conditioning within society that states that men and women, and boys and girls, should behave, dress and love in particular ways. It’s that old trope that baby boys must wear blue and baby girls must wear pink and you know what? It’s bullshit.

But why are we so caught up on the idea of gender, and what makes the world so uncomfortable with people living outside the conventions of ‘male’ and ‘female’? Is it fear of the unknown? Fear of change? I’m not sure I can answer, but it’s certainly driven by both fear and a lack of knowledge, and understanding. In truth, we all know, deep down, that it doesn’t matter what gender a person is because there is beauty in what we perceive to be masculine and what we perceive to be feminine, so when these lines blur, we just see something equally as beautiful, different yes, but still wonderful.

This isn’t just a trait amongst the heterosexual majority though, it’s also one seen within the gay community too. All one needs to do is download a ‘dating’ app such as Grindr to see profiles of men looking for ‘masc only’ and ‘masc 4 masc’, and proclaiming to be ‘straight acting’ a term that would almost be hilarious if it weren’t so damaging. These phrases are offensive because what they say is that, to be a man and to be feminine is unattractive and that to be desirable, a gay man must conform to the heteronormative ideas of what a real man should be. It’s actually harmful because it doesn’t reflect the way people truly are and it suppresses individuals by making them feel uncomfortable with their authentic selves.

The truth is that labels simply do not allow for the natural diversity of human beings. There are over 7 billion people on the planet, yet gender-wise we are content on splitting them into two categories based solely on biology. The world needs to grow up, move on and start to accept people for their individuality and not what it believes a person, or a man, or a woman, should be.

But what the heck has this got to do with perfume? Well, the perfume industry has historically promoted a masculine and feminine divide, playing straight into the hands of social norms. It’s understandable why this has happened though, because it’s easy to market a scent if one knows who they are marketing it to. It’s also helpful for the consumer when they walk into the store if they know exactly where to look and what to look for. The problem with this however, is that we end up offering only a certain type of smell to men, and another certain type of smell to women, and unless each half is adventurous and inquisitive, they miss out on a huge amount of wonderful fragrance.

Sure, there are unisex fragrances out there in the mainstream, many of which are good, but even they have their own style. Look at scents like CK One, Mugler’s Cologne and even the new CK2, each of which is utterly brilliant in its execution, but is also light, inoffensive and cologne-like, picking out the notes and themes found within both masculine and feminine perfumery in order to be safe enough not to offend or challenge the ideas of what fragrance should or shouldn’t be. They are a stop gap between true gender freedom and they certainly aren’t in the majority.

I’ve been that unadventurous consumer. I’ve been to department stores and I’ve picked up bottles of fragrance that I have been told are right for me, rather than the ones that I feel in my heart suit my personality. Let’s face it, I’m going to smell more at home in something like Prada Candy (a cuddly, flirtatious benzoin/caramel dream) than I ever am in a fragrance like Diesel’s Only the Brave (a standard woody citrus that is anything but brave). I’m a man, yes, but that’s not me. I’m not that kind of man. I’m a vibrant, humorous and curious man who prefers Project Runway to Match of the Day, so I’m always going to go for something different, whether the sales assistants like it or not.

I’m reminded of a time not long ago when I took a trip into a local department store to pick up a bottle of YSL’s Rive Gauche. I wanted this metallic and aldehydic floral because it’s a beautiful relic of the 1970s that is so evocative of Saint Laurent’s classic fashions, and I want to wear it so I can be transported back to that glamorous time. It also paints a picture, through perfume, of power dressing and at times, I need some sprayable confidence in my life.

So off I go to the counter, prepped to find myself a bottle of Rive Gauche however, I had one obstacle I had not accounted for: the sales assistant. I pick up a tester, give it a sniff to make sure that yes, I do want to power dress with my perfume, but the sales assistant is having none of it.

“Sir, can I interest you in our new fragrance: ‘L’Homme Something or Other?’ (there are a bajillion flankers of L’Homme and I can’t remember which particular one she was hawking at that time)” she offers.

“No, thank you, I’d like a bottle of the Rive Gauche, please. Do you have a 30ml?” I reply.

“Are you looking for a gift, or for yourself?” she asks.

“For myself” I say.

“In that case, how about our M7 Oud Absolu, it’s a lovely one for men. It’s very popular” she says.

“I know, it’s lovely and I have a bottle, but I’d like a bottle of the Rive Gauche if at all possible” I respond, smiling angelically.

“We do have a masculine version if you would prefer that” she replies, becoming increasingly more irritated as my smile grows.

“Yes, I know and I have a bottle already, but what I would really like is the Rive Gauche because that is what I have come in to buy” I say, my face hurting from my ever widening smile. It is painful to kill with kindness, you know.

“Sir, I’m not sure you are aware, but this fragrance is not for men, it’s for women” she says, resting bitch face fully in position. Well played, sales assistant, well played.

“Yes, I know that this is a fragrance designed for women however, I would very much like to buy a bottle because I want to wear it.”  I say as my smile breaks into a deadpan stare.

“That’ll be £30, please” she curtly states, finally relenting.

I leave victorious but annoyed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that I’m in the minority and that not every man is going to walk into a store with as open a mind as I am, but surely, a sale is a sale, no matter whether it’s the sale one would like or not. I feel that consumers should be allowed to use their noses to find out what they want. Perfume should be more accessible and we should be more accepting of the fact that people are more open about the duality of their gender, so the fragrances they want to wear are going to be more defined in theirs.

The industry is moving with the tide though and with the rise of niche fragrance we have seen a movement that seeks to do with away with the idea of gender, with many houses simply offering fragrances without any pre-defined label of male, female or even unisex. These perfumes are for those that wish to wear them and ultimately, that’s what it is all about – smelling good and feeling good, and we should all encourage ourselves and others to follow this mantra.

Yes there are historically masculine and feminine themes in perfumery and these are interesting. As a writer, I am intrigued by how a modern masculine fougere compares with a classic, for example, but please know that whether a fragrance is ‘for men’ or ‘for women will have no bearing on whether I wear it or not. I’m as comfortable in Juicy Couture as I am in Kouros. Ultimately, I’m not suggesting that we should do away with the idea of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ perfumery and I get that a fragrance is created with a particular person in mind, instead it’s simply about guiding people to the perfumes they love, not what we think they should love. It’s about accessibility, a lack of judgement, openness and diversity.

So I say all of this just to remind the perfume wearers of the world of one key thing that is essential in the world of perfumery: wear whatever the heck you like. Be your own person, not a shill for marketing. Never apologise for what you wear, whether it’s as cheap as chips or causes you to remortgage. If it makes you happy that’s all that matters. What I love and what you love may not be the same but we are united by our passion and that’s something worth celebrating. Let’s embrace our diversity and be fearless with our fragrance, and maybe the world will follow suit.

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30 thoughts on “Eau so Masc – Thoughts on Gender in Perfume & The Rive Gauche Rebellion

  1. Typical of sales assistant. I remember the cashier’s uncomfortable ‘moment’ followed by a quick ‘do not stare’ from him when I insisted that the Terre d’Hermes bargain on TK Maxx’s shelves was not a gift, but for me. He only wanted to make conversation, but got a bit of a surprise.

  2. Well, you could have my bottle of Rive Gauche! I find it to be an old-style chypre, which I am not a fan of, like Chanel or White Linen; herbal and bit bitter like tea tree oil.

  3. Excellent – wish I could hug you! I first wore Rive Gauche in 1978 and at that time it felt daringly androgynous- in fact, I always thought it’s what David Bowie would smell like 🙂

    In a recent Sephora visit I blew the mind of one of their hip young associates by spritzing Tom Ford Grey Vetiver. She came over to “help” me with fragrance selection and commented, “Ooh, you already smell great!”
    “Thanks, I replied, it’s Grey Vetiver.”
    She looked puzzled, so I pointed it out over on the “men’s” side of the wall. She was astonished, and sheepishly admitted she’d never tried anything “Over There”! To her credit, she did say she would start. So I feel like I did a teeny little something, as a middle-aged straight woman, to combat the maddening trend you so rightly identified.

    • Yes, I totally get the David Bowie reference! It’s so angular and sharp it would have suited him to a t!

      Your Grey Vetiver story is great. I think you opened the sales assistant’s eyes to a whole new world!

  4. Thanks Thomas, great article! Sadly the frag industry and community has also bought into the dreaded heteronormative paradigm and that is so sad to me. Look at the number of FB forum members who are always asking “is it too femme for me?” Alas As a gay man of a certain age, I too am guilty of the “It skews feminine for me…” phrase when talking/writing about a certain scent.
    Like yourself, I feel just as comfortable wearing a huge floral as well as a more “traditional” wood/moss chypre-centric perfume. For me it comes down to the perfume industry has boxed themselves into a certain ingredient list for each sex, with almost twice as many notes available for women rather than men. Stupid archaic thinking.

    As for the dreaded SA, i have mastered the art of arching my left eyebrow WAAAY the fuck up there, and asking. “Excuse me Miss…..are you DICTATING to me what I can and cannot buy???” Works every time. Their shoulders drop, and they slink off to finish my purchase. Fait accompli!😜

    • I know. I’ve seen those discussions and the dreaded ‘what’s the best panty-dropper’ threads. I despair!

      My advice to those would be wear what feels comfortable to you. If you’re asking whether it’s too feminine to wear, it’s probably not something you’re going to be comfortable in. Luckily for us perfume nerds, most people won’t be able to decipher what is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ on you. They’ll just know whether it smells good or not!

  5. I’m usually a silent lurker of your postings, but, I say to you, “Bravo!” As a gay, butch-leaning genderqueer, I, too, have dealt with this kind of attitude from young sales-assistants when venturing “on the other side” of the perfume counter. It gets annoying. Also annoying are the ones who just smile curtly in amusement and then go off to whisper into a nearby co-worker’s ear, leaving me to spritz and swoon in peace yet feeling like I’m a specimen on a stage. I just want to shop for what I like- like everyone else! Thankfully, now and again, I do encounter assistants (usually older and more-mature) who are truly passionate about their wares, and are right at my side through the exploration- makes for much-better memories!

    • Thank you for lurking and de-lurking, Pelicano!

      There definitely are some sales assistants who ‘get it’ and I really don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. I remember when I was early on in my perfume journey, the lady on the Guerlain counter in House of Fraser talked me through the collection many times, never once leaning me towards the masculines of feminines in particular. In fact, she really wanted me to buy a bottle of Shalimar because that’s what I liked best.

  6. Love your post!
    I tend to like some ‘masculine’ perfumes because I love the way they smell on me but being a woman, I think SAs assume I’m buying for a male in my life.
    That said, age also plays a role. I remember when I wanted to try Shalimar and the SA told me that it wasn’t something for me, that it’s for old ladies. 🙂

  7. Honestly, there are two genders, male and female, then whatever people decide they want to be, is their problem.m they shouldn’t expect other people to embrace their twisted conceptions of sexual identity.. There is enough confusion in the world, we don’t need to accommodate people’ delirious psyche!!? I am raising four sons, like boys, like it is supposed to be…I don’t see what benefits would come to them to screw up their minds with all that gender bender non sense..
    people are loosing the common sense, and their identity as a male, or female…because homosexuality is now empowered to the point that being gay is just another choice..just a dangerous road to take..
    My opinion

    • Have you considered that perhaps you are reading the wrong blog if you think that homosexuality is a dangerous road to take?

      My parents had gay friends as far back as I can remember. I believe it was explained to me thusly: “Bob and Mary are a couple who love each other and Robb and Kevin are also a couple who love each other.” No confusion whatsoever. It was as easy for me to grasp that men could love women or men in the same way as it was for me to grasp that you could love mint chocolate chip ice cream or butter pecan ice cream (or both, really). I don’t think you are giving kids enough credit.

  8. I am a woman and proud wearer of A*Men because you brought me up properly to both break fragrance gender rules and to love Mugler

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  10. Well it took me a few detours through your other posts to get here but I’ve read it at last!

    A lot of the reason I was so interested to read this is I’m transgender, and recently I’ve come back to the world of fragrance and started learning about what makes perfumes tick for the first time. But I started my re-entry well after I finished transition, which means I’m now looking at the fragrance world from the “for men” side of the divide. It’s a headtrip, certainly – much as you can have any colour you like in menswear as long as it’s grey, navy or beige, you can have any note you like in your For Men fragrance as long as it’s drowned by barrels of comforting citrus and wood. I’ve started combing Basenotes for scents male reviewers complain are “too feminine”.

    Back in the 90s my “perfect evening out” scent was Dune; it meant all the best things about life as a woman to me. I have fond memories of it and retested it after my transition only to be put off by how incredibly feminine it smelled. Today, spurred on at least in part by discovering this blog and your unrepentant “wear what makes you feel good” philosophy, I decided to go back and visit it again – and was startled to discover that not only does it have a slew of very unisex notes in it but that one Basenotes reviewer complains it’s too masculine. Clearly my pre-transition self knew exactly what she was doing. It’s amazing what your own personal associations with a perfume can make you see in it.

    I’m still learning about notes and about my own taste and trying to sketch out what my new fragrance wardrobe will ultimately be. So at present I’m mostly sniffing everything I can get near, however mundane, but I think I needed a push to disregard gender boundaries and look at a fragrance based on what’s really there, and you’ve provided it. It’s also amazing what a sense of freedom a bit of validation can give. So thank you for this wonderful site and for getting out there and being who you are – I’m sitting here right now wearing Dune, and thanks to you I feel like I’m actually allowed to.

    • Hi Felix. Thank you for your comment! I honestly think this is one of the most rewarding comments I’ve ever received, so thank you. I’m glad to have given you a scented little push!

      BTW, Dune is a beautiful fragrance and I’m sure you rock it like nobody else!

      • I know what you mean. I sometimes get similar comments on my fiction, and they make my year 🙂

        Although I’d forgotten how light a hand you have to use with Dune..! It’s a little different on me now my chemistry’s changed (I get the grassy notes more than I used to), but good grief it’s powerful. I’d forgotten that 🙂 Still so unique though – there’s nothing else even similar to it out there, as far as I can tell.

        How ironic that you’re up in Cambridge so often – perhaps we’ll bump into each other in Penhaligons and never even know…

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  13. I love this! Wearing what makes you happy and comfortable is what’s most important. I worked at the Chanel counter and a SA at the Elizabeth Arden counter would always come spray on a spritz of Chance Eau Fraiche and Bleu. The combination of these two was perfect on her. I find myself very comfortable in men’s fragrances, Paco Rabbane One Million Intense being my favorite. Do what makes you happy!

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