For a good time, find someone who’s really into perfume and say something about “men’s cologne” or “women’s perfume.” If your mark looks particularly unlikely to offend, say something like “rose is for old ladies” or “men should never wear florals.” With any luck their blood pressure will spike and you’ll be treated to a mini rant, complete with detailed examples and historical information. They might even force you to smell something!
Classifying perfume as “for men” or “for women” is like saying Joni Mitchell is just for women or The Stones are just for men. One perfume sales rep told me that more than 60% of his female clientele buy “masculine” perfume. Women, it seems, are more confident in their ability to make White Steel Sport Extreme their own. If more men bought perfume without looking at the bottle, I’m sure you’d smell more syrupy florals in the locker room.
Many companies have wised up. These days, only the most staid labels put “for men” or “for women” on the bottle. Most niche companies never did. Serge Lutens is famous for saying that his whole line is unisex. Bona fide smell genius Mark Buxton, who essentially created the blueprint for the entire Comme des Garçons line, puts it this way, “Why can’t a man wear muguet (lily of the valley)? Is a woody note more masculine? Why the separation? I don’t get it. You wear what you like.”
Crucially, it’s hard to have much fun if you only shop in the men’s section. The palette of materials in “perfume for men” cuts out almost all of the good stuff: nothing radiant, nothing too sweet, nothing too challenging, and certainly nothing overtly floral. Moreover, since the vast majority of men’s fragrances work so hard not to offend, you’ll need to branch out if need wit, mystery, or actual romance. Generally these days, the men’s department is pretty grim.
The distinction between masculine and feminine fragrance is not completely without basis. Men and women smell differently, especially as the day goes on: the former with a diffusive, buzzy ripeness, and the latter more piquant. Therefore, masculines tend to expand with time, while feminines–the good ones at least–simply soften and glow. It’s the reason some florals disagree with me by the end of the day. The sweet rose in Une Rose or 100% Love crops up like a high-frequency peak amid my low-frequency funk. But really, so much depends on climate and culture. Middle Eastern men are famous for wearing whatever they please, while many Asian cultures avoid personal fragrance altogether.
Beyond the realm of merely unisex perfume–which, historically speaking, has existed far longer than “gendered” perfume–lies a small patch of fragrances that seem to be both masculine and feminine at once. Amouage’s Lyric Man, one of my all-time favorites, is by turns robust and gentle, vegetal and sweet. Just when you think you’ve got it pinned down it changes. All this with a deceptively simple composition, albeit one with the very best raw materials.