As far as perfume is concerned, have you ever given much thought as to why a the scent of a peony or a rose is immediately associated with a woman, and the aroma of leather or cedar automatically attributed to a man? For the better part of a century now, men and women have been wearing scents based on an antiquated stereotype: one that advocates men as hunters / providers (without whose efforts the family unit would cease to exist); and women as compliant (docile, uneducated) nurturers / gatherers.
The partitioning of perfume by gender is a relatively recent concept. Until the mid to late 19th century, soliflore (single flower) toilet waters were used by both men and women. At that time, a perfumer's orange water, rose water, or lavender essence was considered entirely gender-neutral. The first "blended" fragrances (one of the earliest of which was Aimé Guerlain's Jicky) using a variety of essences to create perfume "narratives" is where the division of scent based on gender began to take flight. In the instance of Jicky - it was a scent well received by men, however its wide appeal to women saw to it that it was later marketed to the female sex.
So I wonder, at which point in history were single scents assigned a gender?
Lets think about it. I surmise that it came about as a result of our social and economic climate at the time. At the turn of the last century, women were considered the guardians of virtue and righteousness and were expected to comply with this concept. With only a tiny fraction of women in the workplace (most as unskilled factory workers), they were assigned traditional roles as mothers and home-makers - those given the charge of child-baring, food-gathering and food preparation. Denied education in most circumstances, women resorted to menial methods to make money; selling handcrafts, flowers and food in local markets and stalls. Could it perhaps be then that single-scents followed suit and became associated with the roles women took on in society?
Even in modern times we describe feminine scents as 'soft', 'sweet', 'delicate', 'pretty', 'floral', 'fruity'...
Men on the other hand had greater access to education and worked as labourers, merchants, hunters, tanners, agriculturists, industrialists and so on... jobs that required brains and brawn. Is there any wonder then, why scents described as 'musky', 'woody', 'spicy', 'leathery', 'earthy', are commonly attributed to masculine fragrances? As 'blended' perfumes increased in popularity in the early 20th century, might the role of the male population at the time have had an impact on the raw materials used and the gender they were assigned?
I ask you, are we doomed to reek forever of the sexual division of labour?
Well, I don't know how soon we will move on entirely, but our social consciousness has certainly evolved some over the past 50 years. The 1960's saw a steady stream of women entering colleges and universities and emerging with degrees and doctorates; arming them with great skills and even greater ambitions. Nowadays, as we strive to find a sense of balance in our lives, our gender is playing more of a peripheral role in our careers, relationships and interests. Men are now child-carers and interior decorators, and women attorneys and fighter pilots. Perhaps this gradual turnaround resulted in the barrage of unisex scents produced in the 1990's, and continues to contribute to the blurring of lines between fragrances and their respective sexes today.
Whatever the truth, the future stands to reveal our next trajectory in perfume and the perfuming arts. I only hope I stick around long enough to observe it.