That’s a pretty odd question, right? How queer is your scent? I mean, we’re all just out there trying to decipher the odour profile of a scent and what the heck it smells like, not to mention whether we like it or not, or whether it has enough longevity and sillage to get us through the day, right? Let alone trying to work out how queer it is for Pete’s sake! What does that even mean, anyway? How can a scent be queer? Is that even a thing? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. Ever since i shot some queer-inspired photos for my review of Frederic Malle’s Superstitious, in fact.
Being a member of the LGBTQIA community (yes, we like our letters because it’s important to be inclusive) I have always felt that one of the key drivers for true acceptance is representation. Whether people are accepting of the community or not, it exists and queer people have the right to be represented in all mediums, whether that be in movies, music, art, or even perfume. This is something I want to explore in this little think piece, but it’s important to note though, that I am one person and not representative of the entire LGBT+ community. I am a white, cis-gendered gay male and I can only speak for me, and the community is so much more broader than any one person. So I hope we can share our varied opinions of the subject of queerness in scent, because it’s an important topic.
So what is a queer fragrance? After all, one could argue that if a perfume can’t have a gender, can it really have a sexuality? Well, to me, a queer fragrance isn’t about making a fragrance that is gay or trans, it’s about any scent that has a concept inspired by LGBT+ culture. It could be as simple as a fragrance inspired by a queer icon, or maybe one that celebrates queer art. It’s about telling the rich tapestry of stories within the history and culture of the LGBT+ community, which leads me nicely onto the subject of perfume and story telling.
Perfume is the art of storytelling via scent. Each fragrance presents an olfactory odyssey that can take one on a journey through time and space, into realms that are are either photorealistic or fantastical. Want to be taken to the town of Seville during the holy festival? Sure, no problem, there’s a scent for that! Fancy dancing with the tree spirits that tread the canopy of the New Forest? Don’t worry, perfumery has got you covered! This art can be anything it wants to be, it can tell any story that needs to be told and it can showcase any voice that there is.
There are many queer voices in the perfume world – queer perfumers, queer brand owners, and creatives, but there are very few queer perfumes. It’s a simple and sad fact. But why is this? Is it because brands are scared of alienating the majority of consumers? Does the strange fragility of masculinity mean that we can’t talk about queerness in scent for fear of not conforming to strict gender norms? Is it just because brands don’t know how to talk about queerness? Whatever the reason (and I’m sure there are many) queerness is decidedly missing from the world of fragrance – from the concepts to the advertising, which rarely even feature openly queer faces. The industry could and should do more.
So what do we have in terms of queer perfumes? Well there are a handful of queer-themed fragrances out there. We have celebrity fragrances like Cumming from bisexual actor Alan Cumming, which as you can tell by the name is hugely tongue-in-cheek. There is the brand Xyrena, which has a chocolate-hazelnut fragrance named Hellanut (more on that further down), which is a play on the idea of guys busting nuts everywhere. They also create fragrances for famous drag queens such as Trixie Mattel and Willam. There’s even an Oscar Wilde-inspired fragrance from Jardins d’Ecrivians. But in terms of queer concepts, no perfume brand is doing more than Etat Libre d’Orange. Whether they are distilling the homoerotic art of Tom of Finland into scent form, or challenging gender norms with fragrances such as Delicious Closet Queen, ELDO has pushed the boundaries. Take their flagship fragrance, Sécrétions Magnifiques, for example, a scent that boasts accords of blood, sweat, sperm and saliva. House founder Etienne de Swardt told me in an interview last year that its code name was ‘virus’, explaining that Sécrétions Magnifiques “came from the early 80s AIDS ages, when I was a teen over-scared by contaminations and the formidable duality of attraction”. So there are brands out there playing with queer themes, they are just few and far between.
I’m sure there are more queer scents that I’m forgetting, but when one thinks that there are approximately 2,000 launches per year worldwide, the amount of queer themes explored in perfumery feels somewhat lacking. There are many stories to be told and the art of olfaction is a somewhat untapped medium that could explore queerness in an entirely new and unprecedented way. It just doesn’t seem to happen.
Advertising is where brands have the biggest opportunity to tell their stories. The problem is that, even now, those stories are decidedly one-sided. In mainstream perfumery there are two themes that sell: love and sex. The idea of perfume being either a tale of lust and romance, or a tool to help you get laid (let’s just be frank here). So it stands to reason that perfume adverts often rely on these tropes, showing images of people falling in love or partaking in glossy, editorial quality sexy time, in a whole variety of ways. The only consistency is the fact that these adverts nearly always depict love, romance and sex from a heterosexual point of view. Fragrance is so often a tool of attraction but that attraction has always been about the opposite sex.
The advertising world promotes ‘appropriate codes’ of sexuality and gender but at the same time they know that LGBT+ people have a high spending power. So in the past they have subliminally courted queer people through subtle advertising that works on two levels, to promote heterosexual norms whilst appealing to LGBT+ people, ultimately without scaring anyone off. This phenomenon is called the ‘gay window’. In the book, Gender, Race and Class in Media, the gay window is defined as advertising “where images are coded with subtexts which are intended to be understood by lesbian, gay and bisexual readers as “lesbian” and/or “gay” and/or “bisexual” texts, but which are assumed to remain innocuous to heterosexual readers”. The idea is to use imagery that queer people will recognise and relate to without explicitly referencing them. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people pick up on and relate to these codes, whilst heterosexual people miss them and therefore, aren’t scared from buying the product for fear of being thought of as queer. The gay window is a safe method for brands to ensure that they have their cake and eat it.
Just look at the vintage Paco Rabanne advert above. The image and copy tell an ambiguous story. A handsome, scantily clad male, who is wearing a criminally short towel (seriously, what is that towel even going to dry – a toe?!) talks to his lover over the phone, reminiscing about the night before. He is rich (the size of that apartment says so), musically talented and handsome. The tag line says, “what is remembered is up to you”, but the ‘what’ is more of a case of the ‘who’, and the person at the other end of the line could either be a man or a woman. It appeals to heterosexual men as much as it does gay or bisexual men. But the codes are there, I mean, “sit on a lute”, really?
Of course, as queerness is now more accepted, and if not accepted, more visible, there has been less of a requirement for brands to be more secretive, but the gay window still takes prevalence over fragrance advertising that is directly queer. More recently, the gay window has been present in the many advertisements for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Mâle. On the surface these print and film ads celebrate strength and masculinity (things held very dear by men, it seems), with bulky, be-muscled (it’s a new word, go with it) sailors finding their way back to their corseted blonde bombshells. Underneath this though, are many not so subtle hints to homosexuality. First and foremost, the sailor character of Le Mâle is more than slightly reminiscent of Querelle, a 1982 film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, all about a rather buff, very bisexual, and incredibly pretty boy sailor by the name of Querelle. But the gay references don’t stop there and Gaultier has courted with the idea of transgenderism and homosexuality in the adverts themselves, whether that be a female sailor sneaking aboard a ship disguised as a man to kiss her lover, or a handsome bunch of gents fraternising in a locker room. These adverts work on two levels, hinting at queerness but not so obviously that those insecure about their masculinity would be frightened off. This is why Le Mâle is so popular with both gay and straight men. Even the bottle appeals to both, celebrating the muscular physique that most men, gay or straight aspire to, whilst also coming across as really rather gay, let’s face it – a buff torso with a hearty bulge? C’mon guys!
Brands are decidedly shy when it comes to queer advertising and perhaps this is with good reason – they’re not always a hit. One campaign that springs to mind is Bang! by Marc Jacobs, which featured the designer sprawled naked on silver mylar with a giant factice of the fragrance between his legs. It was very David LaChapelle meets Terry Richardson, which is to say it was punchy, ridiculous, vain and fabulous. But Bang! was a commercial flop and the fragrance only lasted a few years on the market. The scent itself was a rather palatable pepper scent that should have done well with male consumers, but it didn’t. Perhaps queerness is still too niche for mainstream consumers, especially heterosexual males.
As the world becomes more accepting (which it is doing in fits and starts, it seems), LGBT+ people have found their way into more adverts more prominently. It’s now no longer unusual to see a lesbian or gay couple, or family in adverts that would have typically featured a straight couple/family before. Some may say that this is promoting alternative lifestyles, but actually it just reflects reality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people exist so it’s only right and fair that they have a place in advertising. We all want to see ourselves reflected in the mirror of society, right?
One place where LGBT+ people are completely missing within advertising is the fragrance world. As I mentioned above, it’s all about romance, sex and love, but only as long as those things are heterosexual. As a perfume lover it’s easy to feel a little bit let down by this. I want a perfume to tell me stories and yes, stories of love and romance and sex are universal, but it would be nice to see those referencing the many different types of sex and love there are out there.
For this article I trawled the internet to find a truly gay advert for a mainstream perfume. I couldn’t find one, but I was sent the video above by one of my Twitter followers. It’s the advert for Moschino Uomo? (the ‘?’ is essential here and this soft, hedione-heavy fougère plants a heavy challenge as to whether a fragrance can really have a gender – anyway, what does it mean to be a man?) and I hope you’ll agree that this advert is serving YMCA, ’90s circuit party, Kylie Minogue Your Disco Needs You realness. It’s camp af, lets be honest, but it’s still not outwardly queer and whilst I’m always here for anything camp (glitter me up and call me, Kenneth, honestly) it would be great to have other aspects of queerness promoted in perfume advertising. We are a rich and diverse community, after all, so it’s not like we’re not offering up a lot of ideas…
Queerness still feels relatively subversive, so it’s no surprise that one incredibly queer advert I found was within the indie fragrance world. Remember Hellanut? Well the advert, which is directed by the incredibly talented Killian Wells (Xyrena’s Perfumer – listen to our Fume Chat interview with Killian here) is a sight to behold. Completely NSFW (like seriously NSFW – do not open it at work), it stars TS Madison, a transgendered entertainer who guides you through how the scent gets its nutty lustre, as well as gay porn stars cracking nuts in a theatrical manner, the advert is as delightfully queer as it is hilarious and it’s the perfect thing to end this post with. So there are some queer adverts out there and perhaps the rise of niche/indie perfumery and the rise of YouTube will start a trend of wonderfully fragrant LGBT+ content to come. One can only hope.
I think that it’s fair to say that there is a distinct lack of queer perspectives in the perfume industry. Sure, we have some queer-inspired fragrances and some adverts where queerness is hinted at, but the industry could do better and there is so much opportunity to celebrate the diverse nature of the LGBT+ community, but somehow it just doesn’t seem to be happening that often. We need more queer voices in perfumery. We need more queer stories. We need more queer adverts. We need more queer scents. So maybe we have to be the ones that make them.
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All images are my own (yes, that’s my pride tattoo) except for the Paco Rabanne advert.