In January, 2013, while recovering from a major surgery, I was restricted, activity-wise, and spent a good deal of time on the phone with my sister. One day she mentioned she'd smelled an exquisite fragrance on a gentleman, calling it the most beautiful fragrance ever. The perfume in question was Portrait of a Lady by Frederic Malle. My curiosity piqued and being a long-time perfume enthusiast, I ordered a tiny sample right away. I was soon in love. As a fan of literature of the Edwardian and Victorian eras, the Henry James novel referenced in the name of this perfume did not go amiss with me. Turns out, POAL is one of MY favorite perfumes, now, and it is, indeed, not intended for women only. In fact, the idea of a fragrance polarized to one gender only is a relatively recent phenomenon, based largely in the mid to late twentieth century.
In the New York Times today, writer Max Berlinger writes about the new trend of gender-fluid or non-gender-specific fragrance. The author theorizes that the evolution of gender identity issues drives a consumer quest for unisex fragrances that can be found off the beaten path in niche perfumeries. The article is interesting and capably written, but we sometimes lose our way when we try to tie a larger cultural trend to small subsets of the culture. Humans ever seek connection and correlation, and the emergence of sensitivity to gender-fluid politics and culture would seem an apt impetus for shifts in aesthetic products such as cosmetics and fragrance, if unisex fragrance did not pre-date the modern era. As Berlinger says, florals tend to be associated with feminine perfumes, but that is perhaps an oversimplification at best, and a wrong idea at worst. Accords like carnation figure heavily in the classic "masculine" war-horse Old Spice, as it does in "feminine" classic Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. Comely lavender, which is a scent traditionally associated with blue haired little old ladies, figures heavy in YSL's male classic La Nuit de l'Homme. The urge to associate floral fragrances with women shows more about our frame of reference and biases than it does about what actually goes into the blending of accords for perfume.
In archaeological digs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, small vials of unguents have been found that were used in personal perfumery, as well as embalming. High-toned Egyptians of that epoch were obsessed with the form of personal presentation, and their toilet included meticulous grooming, including the plucking of all body hair, and immaculate coiffure. The false beard worn by pharaohs was fabricated of braided goat hair that was heavily pomaded with oil infused with the accord of the labdanum, commonly known as rock rose (Coco and Bleu de Chanel, both by Chanel). In addition to finding exquisite little vessels with spoon-like stoppers for fragrant oils and pastes, archaeologists found the Egyptians festooned their tombs with images of grooming practices and of the application of perfumes. These perfumes were worn by men and women, in the same way that men and women wore eyeliner: they sought to conform to a very specifically shaped perception of beauty.
Flashing forward to the Renaissance, the presentation of the best possible image was so important that the likes of Louis IX required all members of his court to practice dance for hours daily. Naturally, one needed to smell nice, and aristocracy of that era eschewed bathing, thinking it an unhealthy practice. Thus was perfume needed, and in abundance. At that time, there was no polarity to the fragrance worn by men or women-- everyone needed to smell as pretty as possible. There must have been fragrance trends at court, human nature being what it is, but generally, the Hot Number would have been worn by all and all alike.
The fragrant, beating heart of the perfume industry is the region in and around Grasse, France. Here conditions are perfect for the cultivation and processing of a vast range of floral accords that go into the blends that weave magic in the ethereal form of fragrance. Though we associate perfume with Chanel (No. 5!), the large cosmetic companies that market these household name fragrances is also a relatively new phenomenon. There are perfume houses that go back scores of years, and even centuries. Creed, an English perfumer, was founded in 1760. I Profumi di Forenza formulated their first perfume in 1194, and some of their centuries-old fragrances are still in production.
I'll write another time on the explosion of Chanel fragrances on the market, but probably about the late Edwardian era the masculine classes of Fougere and Chypre really emerged in fragrance. At this time, perfumers like Santa Maria Novella (Italy, founded 1612) produced fragrances specifically for the gentleman client, as well as fragrances for the ladies. Indeed, the original Old Spice with its complex blend of accords was formulated in 1938. Think about this issue in terms of centuries-old fragrance houses though: the span of roughly 100 years is but a trend when compared to the backdrop of four or eight centuries.
The fact is that our own individual chemistry plays a pas-de-deux with perfume, and what smells divine on me (and to me) may not smell so great on my neighbor in the next cubicle. We are complex, and finding the perfect perfume is like alchemy. The trend we see today has more to do with specificity, and a yearning to make manifest an expression of our innermost being. Just as the discriminating stylista of the Victorian/Edwardian era had disposable income for the latest trends in perfumerie, today's stylista deals with the entirely new currency of easy access to information that helps them to tailor their olfactory presentation.
To address the gender-fluid element of the article, though, it would be tragic for someone to refrain from wearing a fragrance they love simply because a perfume is "for men" or "for women." The classic 1966 "man" cologne Aramis smells AMAZING on me. This one features woody, leather, resinous notes, and is considered a chypre (MAN territory!). My DNA does and does not have everything to do with how perfume affects me and how my body affects my perfume-- the chemistry of the individual adds an entirely new set of variables to a complicated equation. Like a bottomless pachinko machine, the gender-polarity topic is going to be one that will spark lively discussion until our civilization is pounded to dust. It's an important discussion, and respect is called for when stepping through such sensitive territory, but I do not believe gender-issues are driving the market for gender-neutral fragrance. Quite the opposite: the thirst for unique expression of self is what drives that market, and that in itself is the important element of the perfume discussion.
This piece was written using cumulative information I have read and observed over the past several years, so other than the NYT article linked, I don't have a specific source to cite. For people truly interested in checking out niche perfumerie, there are some great resources available to the seeker. Every season, Lucky Scent markets a sample bag of new or popular fragrances for around $30 that can make exploration fun and more accessible, and certainly less risky than buying an entire bottle.
If you want to understand the science of scent, I strongly urge you to read the highly enjoyable Secret of Scent by Luca Turin. Also, Turin's perfume reviews are often screamingly funny. I usually(but not always) agree with him-- taste is a personal thing-- but he brings a scientific sensibility and great wit to the table when discussing his refined love of perfume.
There are many vendors who sell decants of perfumes on the internet. Some specialize in rare/hard to find. I most prefer Surrender to Chance. They have a massive selection, and if there's something rare you seek, they may have it, including old formulations of fragrances that are still on the market. Sorry, but due to European Community restrictions, some accords are strictly forbidden or have changed in classic perfumes still in production. THAT is why the Opium you buy at the department store doesn't quite smell like your Auntie did Back In The Day, alas!
If you are not of a fragile constitution and enjoy film, I highly recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. There are scenes in the film of the enfleurage method of fragrance extraction from flowers into wax.
Finally, there are a handful of fragrance databases on the web, many of which contain catalogs of tens of thousands of perfumes. There is much worthwhile reading on those sites, and you may also create a free account and participate in a forum of interest to your particular taste.