Monday, 22 November 2010

Scent and the Sexual Division of Labour

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.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting thoughts, thank you.
I, for one, am glad that the feminist movement has afforded me the right and the freedom to enjoy my femininity it whichever way I see fit. I go to business meetings smelling of roses, just as I play with my children in oud and incense. The dichtomy the marketing gurus propagate is just as contrived as the notion of Britney Spears creating a fragrance herself, and just as believable ;)

tarleisio said...

As you said yourself, the lines - both in real life and in scent - are becoming ever more blurry and diffuse. What we consider 'masculine' and 'feminine' is, I think, far more a question of conditioning - and marketing, as far as scent is concerned, and all it takes is one small slide across that continental divide - and life will never be the same again! I can remember how subversive I felt the first time I wore Guerlain's 'Vetiver', and how, once I had taken that step, it was just a matter of time before I discovered that gender labels on perfume bottles mattered far less than personal opinion. I wear Lutens' 'Fleurs d'Oranger' with female abandon, and I wear 'Dior Homme' with no less - and it matters not at all.

Interestingly, in his 'Natural History', the Roman encyclopedist Pliny held forth on gender-appropriate scents from a completely different perspective. He postulated that florals were much better suited to men, and heavier, more potent scents such as saffron, malabathrum (cinnamon leaf) and spikenard (to name a few) were so much better on women!

A rather modern viewpoint - from 2000 years ago!

Anonymous said...

Now that is one interesting post with lots of info and food for thoughts. I can remember my early youth in the 1970s, when it was considered totally inappropriate, that I "stole" my father's G-Man EdT. Today many so-called "female" fragrances smell like former times "male" fragrances. And vice versa. And that is GOOD.
regards, Martina

Michael said...

A great, thought-provoking piece, Dimitri.
I find that a quality fragrance can afford to drift towards either sex. When you've got a really cheap floral or a vile shaving cream scent, you're only going to cater towards undiscriminating women and men, respectively. But if you have a work of art e.g. Cuir de Russie or Antaeus or Eau d'Hermès, you can market it to anyone; scents like that transcend gender. They're simply "fine" befor they are feminine or masculine. And fortunately, that applies to many excellent scents which are often niche, but needn't be, as witness the pleasures of Gucci pour Homme or Envy or Pour Monsieur; mainstream, but very appealing.
Take care,

Angela Cox said...

As a teenager I wore Grey Flannel,Habit Rouge and Jicky. I am infuriated by questions on fragrance sites asking about male/female fragrances. I want my husband to wear Une Rose but something tells him to stick to cologne or citrus fragrances. Men eat the same foods as me and if they wanted to I don't care if they wear skirts ,I get to wear trousers. A gay friend of mine loves the samples I buy him of fragrances some might label for ladies but won't wear them outside. This is not cowardice considering how many of his friends have been beaten . I do love bottles that are more decorative so maybe a few more plain ones would help although it should not be like that. I have sprayed Jeff in Sa Majeste la Rose on his way out .

Valentine said...

I frequently check out fragrance reviews on Makeupalley, and one thing I've noticed is that with many scents that veer toward masculine, reviewers say that it only "blossomed" on the skin of a brother, boyfriend, husband, etc. For instance, a woman complained that a masculine scent smelled of pencil shavings on her but became beautiful, resinous, spicy, and wonderful on her husband. Or a review for Bulgari Black in which the women said both she and her SO bought bottles and that they smelled differently on each one. This makes me wonder how different chemistries, hormone levels, etc. affect fragrance creations, or whether this is all a mental thing.