Many outspoken male fragrance enthusiasts share childhood memories of being captivated by their mothers’ perfume. It’s such an iconic moment among non-gender conforming male perfume connoisseurs that it deserves its own film sequence: the mother sweeping up her little boy in a cloud of No. 19, Diorella, Chloe, or Halston. And then his secret missions to her dresser to touch the heavy, sculpted bottles that simultaneously evoke femininity, maturity, mystery and love.
When it comes to playing with gender expression, perfume can offer a safely hidden, low stakes exploration, but it can also be a subtly public announcement of one’s topsy-turvy proclivities. Because scent is invisible, it is often deniable. No one can see, or ever be certain, that that guy is wearing Fracas or that that woman is rocking vintage Kouros. For the edgy gender explorer, then, wearing a daringly non-gender conforming scent can feel like a relatively safe way to step more queerly into public.
But though perfume is secret in one way, it’s brazenly open in others, especially when it comes to perfumes and scent families that are easily and widely recognizable as gender coded. For many decades now, in North America at least, white florals, aldehydes and sweet fruitchoulis have generally been assigned to women, with tobaccos, woods, and leathers pushed at men. And though many of us delight in exploring the contrasts and juxtapositions, say, of wearing Antaeus with an otherwise “feminine” presentation, such experiments are not without risk. What cruelties might be visited upon the middle-school boy who chooses Aromatics Elixir rather than Axe Phoenix, especially if he has already been marked by his peers as an incipient failure at masculinity?
How we present ourselves through scent is, then, both the most private and daringly public of choices, though this may be easy enough to forget or deny for those of us who are relatively safely situated in our gender identities and presentations. In the perfume community we often insist that “scent has no gender,” that we should wear whatever we like. But these rhetorical celebrations of tolerance may fail to do justice to the risk incurred by more vulnerable individuals — especially those whose gender credibility is already in question — who dare to grab the “wrong perfume.”
As it happens, I am a woman who has routinely reached for hard-hitting masculine scents over the decades, in addition to classic feminines. In fact, one of the first scents I selected for myself was PS by Paul Sebastian in the early 80s, a choice about which my older brother teased me in a way that made my father uncomfortable enough that he pretended not to hear. And in addition to the burly Antaeus, my current collection includes such old school bruisers as Polo, Paco Rabanne, and Aramis, as well as more contemporary masculines like Jubiliation XXV, Tuscan Leather, and Layton.
For me, though, this olfactory gender non-comformity has, for the most part, been tempered by my white skin, “respectable job,” and, for many years, a thick, long curtain of blonde hair. In fact, I doubt that, as a young woman, I would have chosen such masculine scents without the security blanket of this skin and gender privilege. We may, then, continue to blithely assert that “perfume has no gender,” but with the most visibly vulnerable gender queer folks facing increasing violence and persecution — including the ongoing murders of African-American trans women — wearing the “wrong” perfume may well be considered an impardonable offense.