Gender and Unisex Fragrance:  The movement towards tolerance.

Gender and Unisex Fragrance: The movement towards tolerance.

Are you a boy rose or a girl rose? It’s a funny question, if you think about it.  And I have thought about for quite some time.  Way back in the early 90s, I smelled some of the first perfume I really liked.  It had a citrus lavender top note and an amber (labdanum and vanilla) base.  It smelled rich, creamy, and sophisticated all at the same time.  Surprise! It was a fragrance designed for men (Obsession for Men).  The Calvin Klein company also made an Obsession for Women, but I did not care for it.  I remember having this vague sense that I was maybe doing something a little wrong when I wore the one for men.   

Why is that?  We find that the notion of gender separation of scent, clothing, adornment, and hair has become very politics.  But really this is nothing new.  In this country there have been laws going back as far as 1845 that were called masquerade laws restricting cross dressing.  The nineteenth century French painter, Rosa Bonheur, was given permission to dress in men’s clothing so that she could sketch animal musculature at slaughterhouses without being molested.  This happened at a time when it was illegal for women to wear men’s clothing, so she carried around a card indicating she had permission.  Things have changed, and it is acceptable to for women to wear pants in most settings, but it is not acceptable for men to wear women’s clothing in many setting. 

The world of fine fragrance mirrors our culture.  Our growing knowledge of gender, biological sex, and genetics has revealed a much more complex picture of people, and with this knowledge a growing tolerance in many places.  But as I write this there are many ignorant but powerful people trying to disregard our knowledge and growing tolerance and understanding of transsexual people.  Regardless, unisex fragrances are growing, and it seems to be a consumer and industry driven trend.  My hope is that this trend mirrors a cultural trend towards greater tolerance.

But is the unisex fragrance a new thing or have we had it all along? Generally, we think of flowers such as lavender, rose, and jasmine as feminine fragrances, and musk, herbs, and tobacco as more masculine.  But in many famous colognes for men, rose, lavender, and jasmine have been ingredients.  A famous example of this is the cologne that Napoleon used.  The main ingredients were rosemary, citrus, and (yes!) lavender.  By today’s standard, this would be a very popular fragrance for women as well as men.  In fact, it has many of the ingredients found in my Calm the Flame aromatherapy product, which is my most popular blend for both men and women.  Napoleon’s wife on the other hand liked jasmine but preferred it with a musky base.  Sounds gorgeous!

Rose, one of the oldest flowers, is especially loved by people of the Islamic faith because it is Muhammad the Prophet’s flower.   In many parts of the world roses, rose petals, and rose water are used in religious ceremonies.  This spiritual association gives both men and women the freedom to adorn themselves with the rose scent. I love the combination of sandalwood (a traditionally masculine scent) and rose (considered feminine in the US) in my Compass Rose attar.

For many of my private female clients, I always find it interesting when they stray outside of their normal fragrance confines.  I made a perfume for a private client.  She was delighted by a tobacco flower base combined with the herbal and animalic clary sage absolute.  One of my male clients was surprised at how much he enjoyed jasmine in his citrus woody blend (FYI: It was divine.  I even made a little vial for myself). 

Finally, to return to my original question, “So dear flower, are you a boy rose or a girl rose?”  The rose tells us that like many flowering plants, roses have both the male and female parts, so a rose is neither and both.  This is a lovely metaphor for our understanding of fragrance and gender.  Botanicals are not confined to gender.  The confines come from the limits of our culture and knowledge.  So I rejoice when I say that all of Meet the Herb Halfway’s fragrances are gender neutral and designed to be worn by anyone who loves the aroma.