Those obsessed with fragrance are familiar with the particular stare some sales assistants give anyone who displays a suspicious enthusiasm for and knowledge of perfumery. “It is made entirely from organic essential oils,” the sales representative might say, and when you reply: “Even the civet?” there is a look of flustered irritation. If you are a woman, the look implies you have taken too seriously the bothersome duty of pampering and perfuming your flesh. But if you are a man, things are much, much worse — you are unnatural.
North Americans have come only recently to the idea that men should smell like anything more than an honest day’s work, or, God willing, soap. Once it was decided that something more was needed, we encouraged young men to smell fresh and elemental, like rocks, wood, mountain air and sea spray. Older gentlemen were allowed to get away with the smell of proper, civilized luxuries, such as fine spirits or cocktails, leather car interiors and cigar boxes. Now we are in a transition period: some impertinent experts somewhere suggested that there might be a male market for some different fragrances.
These fragrances are being made, but we are not entirely comfortable with them yet. If you are female, you will note that the Gaultier saleswoman looks faintly relieved when you reply that you are interested in purchasing Fleur du Mâle for yourself. If you are male, the woman at the Dior counter may twitter when you comment on the powdery quality of Dior Homme. “That’s the iris,” she will tell you. “Very classy and perfect for the office.” When pressed, she might admit that iris is a flower. Do not try to point out that we are dealing with the iris root, here — let alone a synthetic! — because this will only embarrass her. In any case, some things have changed since Kevin dared the Lâncome counter: no retail worker will jeopardize a sale by openly implying a man is an eccentric metro- or homosexual for wanting to purchase a fragrance or skin care product. Regardless of your sex and sexual orientation, when you are cross-gender shopping at a department store, it might be best to hope for help from the male counter attendant. My experience is that male sales assistants do less scent policing, in terms of both target gender and age.
Say, then, you are a man blessed with a sense of adventure and the wisdom to ignore the word “femme”.* Which female fragrances do you wear? Here are my recommendations — please comment with your own.
Caron Acaciosa: A golden green, fruity jasmine nectar seeps through the base of resinous, sweetened wood in this urn perfume. Rich without sacrificing brightness, Acaciosa is a thoughtful alternative to the fabulous Caron masculines.
Chanel No. 19: When wearing a fragrance intended for the other gender, I am a staunch proponent of choosing the best concentration. No. 19 in Parfum is a lush, wild, but strangely quiet scent, beginning with a vegetal note of beautiful clarity and drying down to the smooth smell of oiled leather boots. (The dry down is reminiscent of the butteriness of Chanel Cuir de Russie, which is another wonderful choice for a man.)
Jean Patou Moment Suprême: Angela wrote that Moment Suprême could “see you through most days when you have to wear panty hose” – and oddly, yes, the scent almost has the tactile feel of nylons, simultaneously silky and textured. Since that is likely not an endorsement for you fellows out there, I hasten to add that it is a great classic, perfectly balancing the herbal, airy rasp of lavender with a caramelized amber that reminds me of Caron’s Tabac Blonde.
Gucci Rush: This is an arresting perfume: milky, intimate and soft, it nevertheless packs an aggressive, chemically heady sillage. One of my all-time favorites, Rush is an abstract marvel, a scent that smells equally weird on man, woman and child.
Ormonde Jayne Ta'if: Unfortunately, my skin chemistry turns this fragrance oddly sour, but sprayed on a piece of clothing, it is hypnotic. Dark, seductive and an excellent example of how to properly use the now ubiquitous pink pepper, Ta'if is a fragrance I would love to smell on a man.
* Even the original version of Rochas Femme has masculine possibilities. Like Mystère from the same line, Femme is a perfume that is difficult for most young women to wear, but I think a discreetly dosed man could carry off this scent’s rare and solemn warmth.