There was a great article on vintage men’s colognes in the New York Times yesterday, an article that celebrated a renewed interest in classics like Chanel Pour Monsieur (which isn’t available in its original form in America—something that Chanel won’t tell you unless you ask), Guerlain’s Habit Rouge, and Dior’s Eau Sauvage.
The central theme of the article seemed to be that while the men’s fragrance market has changed, introducing hot-selling aquatic scents like Armani’s Acqua di Gio, there exists among men and the women who love them a longing for something more masculine, and perhaps something retro.
Fine, I’ll buy that. But something about this thesis irritated me. In the sixth paragraph, we learn that Old Spice’s “formula dates to 1938 [and] was derived from a women’s perfume.” Then, in the 13th, we’re given the notion, via a quote from a vintage fragrance salesman and echoed by Old Spice’s tagline, that men should smell like men. Ironic, then, that Old Spice—which I happen to like—smells pretty girly.
“A lot of women feel the newer fragrances for men are a little too feminine,” says Alan Berdjis, owner of Beverly Hills Perfumery. Do they? Following this quote with the Old Spice reference actually makes Berdjis sound stupid, because Old Spice doesn’t smell manly—it just has very masculine (read: nostalgic) associations.
“Their preference on a man goes back to the more masculine type of smell,” Berdjis continued. But what exactly is that masculine smell? I’ve thought about this a lot. For instance, what constitutes a sexy cologne for men, as determined by women?
The stereotype is that a men’s cologne oughtn’t contain any floral notes; it can be fresh if that means citrus, but not too fresh. For me, the quintessential manly scent is that of leather and/or smoke. Maybe tobacco.
But I take issue with the very idea that women think new men’s colognes are too feminine. What I think they’re reacting to (if we’re to take this claim seriously at all) is three things:
- Marketing. Why do people think a fragrance is masculine? Because it’s marketed that way. This is why a rather feminine oriental fragrance like Old Spice can seem masculine. But that marketing can cut both ways: if women perceive cologne marketing messages to be too homoerotic, they may start to have different associations with it—in other words, the other kind of masculinity.
And there’s another marketing problem. In many ads for many other products, men have taken the role of buffoon. Women are increasingly more educated, more financially stable and more…employed. Perhaps women want their men to start acting masculine again because of it, and maybe that means smelling like a traditional man. Which brings us to number two.
Nostalgia. Women may be thinking that men’s fragrances have been smelling less like they used to. As classic mass fragrances like Brut and Old Spice return to popularity (did they ever really leave?), others may smell too light. A casual scan of the cologne ads from the June 2011 issue of GQ yielded some very light (and not at all bad) colognes: YSL’s L’Homme, Gaultier’s Le Male, Issey Miyake’s L’Eau D’Issey Pour Homme, and Gucci by Gucci. While some are woody, none are particularly bold or heavy.
But is that all? As women take stronger roles in the workplace and the home, and men suffer greater levels of unemployment, women might start looking to the past for examples of strong masculinity. The colognes our fathers and grandfathers wore can fill this need.
Insecurity about men’s strong interest in grooming. When a man’s grooming routine includes as many steps as his girlfriend’s or wife’s—expensive skin care, eye creams, mud masks, manicures—she may find it difficult to adjust. These routines, for many women, are traditionally reserved for women. New fragrances may be a casualty of this.
Or maybe all of that is bullshit, and we’re just in the midst of a greater cultural nostalgia moment. Look at men’s fashion right now: workwear, heritage brands, plaids, suits and ties—all are directing us back to different, “simpler” times. Why wouldn’t our colognes do it too?
There are trends in perfumery just as anything else. Ten years from now, all the pink pepper and oud will smell dated. Old Spice started as a women’s scent, then became a man’s. Guerlain’s Jicky, created in 1889, has been worn by women as often as men (I’ve read that Sean Connery and Roger Moore wore it), and happens to be marketed to women right now. Anyone who makes big pronouncements on what’s masculine or feminine is merely revealing their place in time and their receptivity to the way fragrances are marketed at that moment.