scent (the gender of perfume)
I’m 9 or 10 and sitting in an armchair opposite my dad on the couch; we’re watching boxing on TV. Usually on Saturdays my dad is on verge of a nap, and something completely bland and fully testosterone’d is looping endlessly on screen, something like NASCAR or World Cup Sportfishing. This time, however, it’s two sweaty men duking it out in shiny satin shorts, and we’re both watching interested, exchanging comments even, like “Did you see that punch?!” and “Oo, that must’ve hurt!”.
Since my parents’ divorce, my dad has always struggled to connect with me, and so at this moment I’m feeling pretty excited to be on such a bro to bro level with him. “Boxing!”, I think, “This could be our thing.” And when the moment presents itself during a commercial break, I confess something to him that isn’t the least bit true – I tell him I’m thinking about taking boxing lessons.
My heart falls in unison with my father’s face. The TV goes quiet and the room goes go quiet too, and I see him position himself squarely on the couch. He says to me, “Emma, there are things that men do, and things that girls do. And girls don’t box”. That was it. Game over.
This wasn’t some self-defining moment. It was simply the day I realized how rooted my father is in gender roles, and that there would always be some level of otherness between us. Gender roles are arbitrary and limiting, and each time I see the lines between masculine and feminine become a little more blurred, I’m hopeful; in fact it’s one of the reasons I love fashion so much.
Beauty, and particularly the perfume industry, are still remarkably 1950’s when it comes to that male-female separation. Visit any Sephora or department store and it’s very clearly delineated – this is his and this is hers and should you venture into the wrong section, Mr. or Mrs. Perfume Expert will ask about that special man or woman in your life and by the way, have you smelled the new Chanel Bleu / Chance?
The problem is this works not just to sell perfume, but to change the way we experience it. I’m wildly passionate about perfume, in the same way that I am about good food and good wine. Smell is primal – it can unlock memories long forgotten in the far off places of your brain, and I can see no point, no logical reason really for why perfume should be gendered. I mean, I get it, there is the smell of your father’s aftershave, your boyfriend’s deodorant, that aggressively fresh and aquatic smell of a teenage boy’s first body spray, but there is also a whole slew of beautiful fragrances that can bloom on a woman’s skin should they ever get the chance.
And vice versa. I wish men weren’t so intimidated by the concept of florals or the word ‘perfume’. The most classic men’s scents contain carnation, geranium, lavender – in other words, florals – and perfume and cologne is a concentration of fragrance, not a designation of gender. I’ve just sprayed Guerlain Shalimar on Wes for the sake of argument – it’s deliciously smoky with just a hint of bergamot and vanilla on his skin, like a good bourbon. I can imagine Chanel No. 5 or Thierry Mugler Angel would smell similarly unique and sexy on a man.
So what do you say? Are you willing to try a little Guerlain Vetiver on your delicate lady skin? A soft buttery tuberose on your rippling man bod? Because the truth is there are female boxers out there in the world, some damn good ones too.