Gendered marketing accelerated in the twentieth century. Because perfume had come to be seen as a largely feminine indulgence, advertisements for men’s fragrances amped up masculine stereotypes to an almost absurd degree. In one ad from the late 1960s, for a scent called “Hai Karate,” a mild-mannered man walks through a door into a woman’s apartment. She is immediately so taken with the smell of his aftershave that she starts to attack him; he has to fend her off. The spot ends with the man, in suit and tie, frozen in a karate stance. The ad implies a fragrance so masculine that it’s almost dangerous—a kind of talisman that could transform a man into being both sexually irresistible and physically strong, someone whose masculinity was beyond question.
New colognes like Rock River Melody and H24 are, in some sense, reacting against this hyper-macho landscape. Neither smells like a men’s perfume from the 80s or 90s. “There was a whole challenge: if I’m going to talk about masculinity, what kind of masculinity am I interested in?” Raza said. “And second of all, what ingredients and notes represent that kind of masculinity?” She settled on notes of green sap, galbanum, hedera ivy, bergamot, narcissus, rose, patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, amber and musk. Rock River Melody has rich, complicated smell, one that’s fresh, spicy, and even a little bit floral and sweet. It overlays traditionally masculine and feminine elements into a portrait of gender that’s more maximalist than minimalist.
Régime des Fleurs Rock River Melody
Regime des Fleurs
H24, meanwhile, is crisp and fresh. The fragrance combines clary sage, narcissus, rosewood essence and sclarene; the result is a smell that simultaneously evokes a freshly mown lawn and the marble interior of a museum. There is something metallic about its smell as it lingers, which might be the note of sclarene, a unique synthetic molecule that Hermès perfumer Christine Nagel described to GQ as “metal so polished it becomes sensual.”
Hermès H24 Eau de toilette
Nagel described her vision of the man who would wear H24 as “anchored in his time and his energy. In his mind, the digital world and new technologies co-exist harmoniously with craftsmanship and hand-crafted pieces. He is attuned to well-made, high-quality things.”
I tried to picture this man: someone who takes himself seriously but not too seriously—maybe leather shoes with brightly-colored socks. The idea that it’s possible to encompass these nuances of gender expression and performance in a fragrance is a testament to how thoroughly gender remains intertwined with perfuming. Our own associations are strongly shaped by experiences, codes, and expectations; smells like leather and tobacco might remain coded as “masculine,” while we’re coded to think of rose as “girly.” So to use these ingredients is inherently to explore gender and its attendant expectations, even if we admit they’re completely constructed.
This is true even for perfumers like Carlos Huber of Arquiste, who doesn’t categorize his fragrances by gender. The brand’s website allows you instead to filter fragrances online by scent family, places, style, or “time,” which features categories like “Medieval” and “Disco” and “Art Deco”—but not by “women” or men.” This is a conscious attempt to be gender-neutral in marketing; still, Huber find finds himself exploring elements of gender in scents like “Boutonnière No. 7.”
“Gardenias smell really feminine to me, but I was inspired by the idea of a gardenia in a man’s lapel, so I gave it a twist with a lot of masculine codes, without sacrificing the flower,” Huber said. “We’re not seeing gender as an exclusively binary thing anymore, but that doesn’t mean that we erase the colors of it.”
This was on my mind when I spritzed myself with the new version of Dior Homme. It’s spicy and woody, bearing a little more resemblance to traditional men’s fragrances. My first thought was: I smell like a boy. Trained as I am to smell along gender lines, the perfume made me think of briefcases, shaving, suits. But as I smelled again, I tried to think about what I was really there: wood, musk, pepper, bergamot, other ingredients whose names I didn’t know, all combining with my experience to make me think of men. So: I smelled like a boy and I also didn’t.