The Nose Knows: Gender Studies
May 3, 2016
Guest fragrance expert and renowned French perfumer FRANCIS KURKDJIAN considers the nature of unisex scents.
Angels have no gender—but do scents?
Until the end of the 18th century, the idea of masculinity in Western culture was defined on the battlefield — absolutely not in refined castles, where the arts of pleasant conversation and dancing were as vital for men as the art of war.
Fragrance was the prerogative of royalty, nobility, and the aristocracy. And, like many of the era’s decorative adornments — wigs, makeup, lace, ribbons, heels — fragrance was not gender specific. Men and women wore the same perfumes. Floral notes were not only for women; woods and spices weren’t relegated to men.
Then along came the French Revolution. As the rising bourgeoisie seized more control over society and brought down divisions between social classes, new conventions and social codes were established — many of which are still in place today.
In terms of fashion, the great divide began. Women continued to wear dresses, whether they were long or short, corseted or loose. Men put away their laces, wigs, and makeup. As the world became more and more industrialized, order and cleanliness became the rule of the day. The opulent, decadent fragrances of the aristocracy disappeared. For women, sheer floral scents were de rigueur, as strong fragrances were associated with women of ill repute. For men, grooming and shaving products emphasized the fresh aromatic, herbal side of the olfactory spectrum.
Jumping ahead to present day, the palette of a contemporary perfumer is comparable to the color palette of a painter, the notes of a music composer, the vocabulary of a writer, or the fabrics of a couturier. Each individual element takes on its full meaning only in the context of its surrounding elements. Case in point: Silk is neither feminine nor masculine fabric. But because of Western conventions, it is feminine in a dress, masculine in a tie.
So what constitutes a unisex fragrance today? How does one create a scent that appeals to both genders? Most men today enter the fragrance world with grooming products—their freshness equates masculinity. By extension, femininity is defined primarily through floral accords. Therefore, a unisex fragrance must oscillate between freshness, which pleases both women and men, and oriental perfumes, where any floral notes fade in the dry down. In that spirit, for my eponymous line I composed Aqua Universalis and Aqua Vitae on the fresh side of my fragrance wardrobe, and Baccarat Rouge 540 on the warmer side of the spectrum. The latest addition to my portfolio, its floral, woody, and ambery notes truly define the alchemy of the senses — for her and for him.
Four of our top fragrances for both:
CREED | Millesime Imperial Originally created for a king, a mix of sun-kissed fruits and rich musk appealing to both sexes (4.5 ounces, $37O)
BYREDO | Gypsy Water Eau de Parfum Fresh soil, deep forests, and campfire enchant every free spirit (3.4 ounces, $23O)
MAISON FRANCIS KURKDJIAN | Aqua Universalis Eau de Toilette The exquisite freshness of Calabrian bergamot, Sicilian lemon, and white bouquet (2.4 ounces, $185)
MEMO | Moon Fever Eau de Parfum Lightness and darkness balance with citrus accords, clary sage, vetiver, and leather (2.5 ounces, $21O)