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Lee Suckling: The problem with gender and perfume

Why do you think the men's fragrance area at any high-end store is hidden in a corner? Photo / 123RF

It’s okay for a woman to smell like a man but men don’t want to smell like women, writes Lee Suckling.

Fragrance – whether you call it perfume, cologne, or something else – remains a gendered commercial product. There are fragrances for men and fragrances for women. There’s the occasional unisex scent, but they’re rare. We all tend to reach for the bottles labelled “elle” or “homme”.

When Calvin Klein’s CK One was released in 1994, it was marketed as the original “shared” fragrance. Something both women and men could wear together. It smelled like a combination of fresh flowers and musk; a fusion of the two stereotypical gendered scents often used in fragrance-making.

Fragrances are curious when it comes to spraying them on our bodies. Aside from something really obvious like basic citrus, we often rely on being told what something smells like to acknowledge its scent. Do you really know what bergamot smells like? I sure don’t. What about bitter almond? Wouldn’t have a clue. Is bergamot inherently a feminine smell and bitter almond a manly one? Only if you read it on the box and connect the label “for her” or “for him” to it.

Tom Ford is helping me forget the difference between “masculine” and “feminine” smells. When walking into department stores, the designer’s Private Blend range is intentionally non-gendered. There’s no asking the shop assistant, “is this for men?” because you’ll be met with a confused look: Tom Ford’s fragrances are for everybody.

Now spring has sprung, my daily fragrance is Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino. It smells, to me, like a Campari spritz under an Italian orange tree. I can’t figure out whether it’s manly or not because I’m forcing myself to stop caring. It smells delicious and everyone I encounter – male or female – also seem to think so.

I appreciate Mr Ford’s efforts in de-gendering fragrance (even though his prices are exorbitant) because perfume and cologne are only gendered for marketing purposes. Like pink razor blades or blue baby rompers, fragrances are put into sex-based categories because they will sell better that way.

Why are we more comfortable buying personal hygiene products like this when they are specifically for our gender? Men, in particular, can be nervous when shopping. We often like neatly defined zones to tell us where we should and shouldn’t browse.

Why do you think the men’s fragrance area at any high-end store often has darker lighting, black and silver accents, and is hidden in a corner? Apparently, that’s where we men know to buy our scents. The women’s fragrance area, conversely, is front and centre, fluro-lit, and eye-burningly clinical or spa-like. Men are supposed to know they’re in the wrong place when they’re there.

Underneath this is the fear of being perceived as feminine. It’s okay for a woman to smell like a man (which is why many have no problem wearing men’s cologne), but men don’t want to smell like women. Society has taught us that girly is bad.

I’m not immune to this sentiment myself. Despite holding deep beliefs that there’s nothing shameful about being feminine or effeminate, I don’t want to smell like a woman. I even checked myself on this recently when I bought a cheap unisex eau de parfum simply named “smoke”; a scent, you will probably guess, which is more on the masculine end of the scale than the feminine.

Generally, I don’t actually like female-specific fragrances (but as a gay man, this may have something to do with my genes and the pheromones I’m attracted to). However, there is one exception: Chanel No. 5. I think it smells clean and soapy and really fresh. I’d have no problem wearing it myself because I love that just-washed smell.

So watch out ladies and gentlemen, next time I’m fragrance shopping, I’m going to buy it. I will rock up to that fluorescent counter that is bookended with images of Margot Robbie or Nicole Kidman (or whomever is the latest uber-femme Chanel No. 5 ambassador) and buy a bottle. I have nothing to prove about the state of my masculinity. I should put my money where my mouth is and boldly spray on something not unisex, but intended entirely for the opposite sex. Simply because I like the smell.