Beyond “sugar and spice”: The queer side of niche perfume

The world of perfume exhibits some of the most regressive and progressive tendencies when it comes to gender. On the one hand, mainstream designer offerings are typically rigidly segregated by gender with “women’s releases” constituting a vomitus of pink fruity florals in shapely bottles and men’s offerings focused on synthetic woods, ambers and leathers in chunky dark bottles. And, of course, these two sharply delineated perfume groupings are often made to occupy entirely different departments. In the (admittedly substandard) Macy’s in my town, for example, the women’s perfume is attractively and spaciously arrayed on the first floor, along with vast arrays of beauty products, while men’s perfume is relegated to a minuscule section on the second floor next to men’s underwear.

And you may have noticed that the segregation is more than superficial; it is, like so much of our gendered society, gently, but insistently, policed. As a more or less feminine-presenting woman — sometimes more, sometimes less — when I visit the men’s perfume section (especially in smaller cities), it is all but certain that I will be asked by the sales associate if I’m buying for my husband or son. I have, in fact, lied on occasion — “for my father” — just to see if it reduced tensions or shifted the pitch of the conversation. Though some of us may imagine that gender fluidity is becoming the norm in these oh-so-enlightened contemporary times, these conversations with sales associates can be still be remarkably awkward, not unlike buying one’s first box of tampons.

And though mainstream men’s perfume is less rigorously enforced than it used to be, sharing with sales associates that you actually enjoy these fragrances for yourself can end up feeling like an admission or confession, like coming out as abnormal in some fundamental way. To be clear, the situation can be even more awkward for non-heteronormative men at the women’s counter. There, not only is it generally presumed, of course, that men are sniffing on behalf of women, less gender normative folks, a category into which I sometimes fall, are likely to disrupt the normal sales banter, focused as it often is on “femininity,” “softness,” and other heteronormative claptrap.

The fact that merely entering department store perfume sections can be stressful for many of us underscores why the niche and indie perfume worlds, as well as much of the online perfume community, feels like such a gift to so many of us. Not only does there tend to be an explicit emphasis on “unisex” fragrances and “wearing whatever you like,” the product lines themselves are often offered in gender-neutral formats. There is, then, far less of the tedious and reproaching segregation that typically occurs with mainstream designer fare. Anyone who wonders why there seems to be an apparent over representation of gay men in the perfume world — and I base this claim solely on my own observation of list serves, blogs, and vlogs — need wonder no more. In a society that still proves itself willing to torture and kill those who refuse to wear the correct gender uniform, the relative gender fluidity of niche perfume is a godsend.

Delightfully, this gender blurring can even be detected in the work of some of the more bro-appearing perfume reviewers, for example, Simply Put Scents, Mr. Smelly, Max Forti, and Big Beard Business, all of whom make regular efforts to challenge their audience’s commitment to perfume gender conformity to some degree. In much of the perfume world, see influential blogs such as Now Smell This, Bois de Jasmin, The Perfume Posse, and CafleurBon, as well as Fragrantica and Basenotes, an expansive approach to gender is simply assumed and normalized. Ditto for popular perfume vloggers such as Smelling Great Fragrance Reviews, Redolessence, Brooklyn Fragrance Lover, and Ouch110, all of whom bring a refreshingly contemporary and inclusive approach to gender and perfume.

All is not unicorns and rainbows, of course. Gender essentialist voices rise up to defend traditional gender lines, especially in the comments sections of some of these same sites. A male reviewer might take issue, for example, with previous claims that a fragrance was unisex, insisting that “this is ladies shit. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.” And a deep thread of more sophisticated gender essentializing abounds, one that I explore further in a future OtherWise post, according to which it is asserted that men and women have different “body chemistries” such that, as one woman put it “I’d love to smell this on a man because I think it’s really meant for their bodies.”

Further, and also the subject of an upcoming OtherWise essay, there is an abiding attachment among some male reviewers to a fairly stereotypical hyper masculine or sexist descriptors, for example, perfumes that are “beast mode performers” or “panty droppers.” In fact, the extraordinary focus on capturing “compliments from the ladies” in some of the more mainstream perfume blogs can come across as sad, silly, and obsolete. It is jarring to see otherwise thoughtful perfume aficionados reduced to describing scents in terms that seem to be straight from a high school locker room or, perhaps, a Viagra commercial.

Still, as a micro-culture, the perfume world is, like so many artistic communities, firmly situated on the more progressive, expansive end of things. It is a realm in which there is space for traditionally masculine men to fondly recall sniffing their mother’s handbags as they now rock Dior Homme Parfum, with its lipstick vibe, or Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, an animalic, but floral, leather. It is a place where we can explore scent motivated by curiosity and adventure, rather than a mere desire to attract others or fulfill their narrow expectations of how women and men are supposed to be. In short, if the mainstream consumer perfume market is still largely one of constriction and conformity, the sometimes quirky perfume community has an air of gender fluidity bordering on queerness that deserves to be celebrated.

I’m curious: How free do you feel to defy the gender boundaries that mass market perfume houses typically draw? What sorts of experiences have you had with sales associates, or friends and families, when you appear to be breaking the gender rules? If you’re a non-gender conforming individual, what is your experience at the perfume counter like?

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