If you read that a fragrance contained a blend of clementine, pineapple, bergamot, orange flower, lily of the valley, jasmine, coriander and nutmeg, would you think it was being marketed toward men or women?
There are no heavy woods and musk to signal masculinity. There are no wispy florals and powders to hint of femininity. So, now, you’re thinking unisex, but nope, this one happens to be gender-specific.
We’ll tell you the answer later.
In the meantime, let’s talk scent-gender identity.
“Scents are really in the nose of the beholder,” said Cassie Buell, owner of Cassie’s fragrance boutique in the Central West End.
“I never say this is more masculine or this is more feminine; fragrance should be about if you like it or not.”
Yet Buell said that as patrons come in and sit at her fragrance bar to sample from more than 130 potions that she custom blends into scents, one of the most frequent questions is, “Is this OK for me to wear?”
Women want to know if vetiver is too woody, or guys want to know if ginger lily is too floral.
“I give suggestions, but really scents are all gender-neutral,” she said, noting that it’s our experience that makes them otherwise.
Europeans are less likely to have a bias because most fragrances are marketed without labeling them male or female.
Laksmi Sam, Nordstrom’s beauty and fragrance director in the Midwest, agreed and noted that many of the newer fragrances combine gender-neutral elements even if the bottles scream bold dark squares for men and oval sculptures for women.
The smell of masculinity and femininity have become less overt. A feminine scent might have a stronger burst of sweet florals, or a masculine scent might have a base of warm woods, but each might contain the same blend of grapefruit and spice.
“The unisex scents (that are labeled as such) tend to be fresher in nature, not musky or floral,” Sam said. “A lot of common things you’ll find (in unisex fragrances) are citrus and aromatics, bergamot or cedar or pine or resin.”
These vaguely gendered concoctions are gaining more of a following. CK One was the first scent to have huge success by blurring gender lines in the United States in 1994. Now, the D & G Fragrance Anthology, a collection of five scents for her and him from Dolce & Gabbana, is riding the same wave.
“The packaging and everything about the presentation (of the D & G scents) is really about everyone putting aside the name of the fragrance and how it looks and about expressing yourself. It’s more of an emotional way to choose fragrance,” Sam said.
Buell said that she’s thrilled when she can help clients express themselves with a signature scent, whether a woman is looking for cotton candy sweetness or burnt wood musk.
It’s this philosophy that’s making the term unisex less favorable. The terms “gender neutral” or ’shared scent” (meaning shared by men and women) are more appropriate. Other ambiguous terms are “clean,” “crisp,” “fresh” and “aquatic.”
Buell tries to assure anyone afraid of tarnishing their gender identity that perceptions about scents are so subjective that you’ll never get a roomful of people to agree, so you’re better off spritzing on something you love.
She’s been working in scents for 20 years, and she had the perfect education — a psychology degree.
“You wouldn’t believe how useful it’s been,” Buell said. “Scents are personal and psychological, and there are no absolutes. Often it’s a person’s bad experience with a fragrance that ultimately decides what they like today.”
For that reason, she said that it often helps when they start with what scents a person hates to narrow down what they might like.
Ultimately, she agreed that wearing a cross-gender fragrance can be infinitely more gender-affirming than sticking to traditional cues.
By that we mean that a girl wearing a distinctly masculine scent might appear to be wearing her boyfriend’s or spouse’s cologne and the effort can easily be perceived as ultra-feminine, much like the girl who wears her boyfriend’s cardigan to the store. Whereas a man in a floral scent distinguishes himself from the guys who bathe in manly men aftershave and, in turn, he can appear more confident because the scent is surprising.