History Proves Gendered Perfume Is Dumb
You’re at the fragrance counter and something catches your nose. It leads you to a shelf or kiosk that you may have missed before.
Attractive bottle, vivid description… who is that?
You draught again, more deeply. Perhaps you ask for a sample card or spritz. You plan a date together in your head, playing out your future relationship together.
Do you have the same life goals? Yup.
Do you feel safe, loved, lucky, happy- things are just better when they’re around? Most definitely.
What would my friends think? Ah.
You balk and begin to back off. Fear and doubt have entered your heart where love and pride should be. At first you’re not sure why. It slowly dawns on you: the whispers and strange looks when you’re in public together. Always waiting for the knock, with paired patience and defiance, needed to batten down against the conventional mistral.
“Boys don’t wear that.”
“I’m a girl!”
“It’s a bit gay.”
Stop me if you’ve heard those before, at school, college, or uni. At work maybe, or amongst your own friends and family. At the end of your own sentence, as parent to your self or child.
Sadly, we humans tend to ignore and resist what lies outside our little spheres… And here it comes into play once more with this soulmate of a scent. But you cannot be together. Socially, it is forbidden.
I would argue that the scent is not the point. We may not admit it but often we like that extra lift, that something noone else would wear. It's something flowery and peaceful. It's those deep aromatics, pungent woods would be new and interesting to wear.
If we go back to the third question, we are not truly asking but stating… This perfume is challenging the gender binary, so it challenges my self-image and my social status. It could even impact my standing and safety amongst the wrong crowd. Be it emotional- stares and titters in public, ‘friendly’ ribbing that goes a little too far… Or physical- you are minding your own business on your walk or public transport but are set upon for no reason.
It seems a stretch at first glance but the scents we wear aid comfort and survival within the Western gendered status quo. Exist outside of it, and you are instantly deemed less worthy of attention and respect. You are instantly seen and made unsafe. You are instantly at the mercy of a fragile, entrenched and toxic masculinity.
Because you want to wear what you like.
This speaks nothing to the experiences of those who are not cis. Who are denied proper medical care, who are denied employment, who are denied visibility and the chance to share their stories. Who are even denied their short time on this world.
I consider myself agender, and not in the Grindr bio way. I’m sometimes masc and mostly femme with gold and silver shoes to match. Biologically presenting male, benefiting from that privilege, I fail to respect why the male’s worst fear is femininity.
Femininity is versatile, and frankly often smarter and stronger. But it is restricted, policed, harassed due to that same lack of privilege. So I’ll present a gender of convenience but call me what you want.
Isn’t transphobia an extension of sexism?
Does it matter if the gender of the body you see is incongruent with the brain’s?
Is the gender binary why perfume forums and blogs bemoan samey perfume?
Beyond that, what does any of this have to do with perfume?
The fact that perfume reacts with each person’s skin according to their natural oils. The fact that those oils are more acidic for cis and trans women (due to lower testosterone levels), meaning your scent is gendered by your actual not presenting gender identity. The fact that if your presenting gender is wrong, and it hurts too much to keep it, you've the right to correct it as you see fit.
It is YOUR body. Not public approval's- the social contexts of which are shifting goalposts.
BIRTH OF THE PERFUME BINARY
The fact that gendered perfume is a relatively new concept, and the roles and connotations change with time. If we look to the Georgian merchants and nobles, an era of rigid gender roles, we actually see a freedom in fragrance. The gender roles were informal as scent was used on the basis of common sense; perfume neutralised odours of poor bathing, open sanitation. Floral oils and waters were the vogue amongst men, but would draw attention to (and inference of) a man who wore them today.
The gendered connotations of the perfume ingredients themselves can also change, with region. If we look to the Middle East, floral oils like rose and jasmine are the vogue. In the Himba tribe, women mix butterfat with red ochre and omumbiri resin. This makes the otjize- used to cover the skin and protect it from desert and sun. It is used with clay to cover the hair for beautification. It is used to clean in a region where water is scarce and the culture nomadic. New skin grows and the otjize falls away, taking dirt and dead skin with it in a show of practical perfumery. Omumbiri is a resin of myrrh, halfway to frankincense in scent. In the West, this would be masculine- depending who you ask.
It appears that as is true in the wider fight for gender equality, perfume gender is a social construct. Perfume gender is governed by practicality and locality. The West shifted to a gendered approach at an intersection of perfume and major fashion houses in the Roaring Twenties. Again, this was practical for the manufacturers- clothes had and still have rigid gender norms reflective of society. So the houses gendered the perfume as well. Commonly credited for launching the era is Chanel No. 5. The 60s and 70s further entrenched the gender divide by introducing the common taglines “for men” and “for women”.
CHANGING TIMES (OR POLITICAL EXPEDIENCE)
Things are improving today- unisex and gender-free perfumes are not uncommon. But the social intent is questionable. High prices, branding by press of such perfume making as ‘hip’ or ‘edgy’. The perfume has no narrative, lived experiences beyond this. No engagement, beyond buzzwords, with the non-binary community.
It’s cheap and slightly galling- genderless perfume is practical, not radical.
HOW PERFUMERS CAN BEGIN EARNEST CHANGE
We don't need to exclude cis scent enthusiasts- but neither should we solely pander.
We should listen to trans/non-binary wearers. All that is being asked for is what everyone else asks for- products with emotional/practical value to one's needs.
We should also phase out gendered perfume and change the language on gendered ingredients. Start by ensuring collections are mistral gender spectrums- I've done this on my own and it isn't hard or expensive.
Gender in perfume is... dumb. Because the definitions of gender flip, expand and contract with time. We can’t upend the gender construct within a generation- change is often slow, generational, and all too easily reversed.
The comfort is, as shown in the past, it will change.
CONSTRUCTIVE discussion is welcomed in the comments below or on social media.
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