At least twice a week on my way to work, I pass a man on the street who is wearing Guerlain Mitsouko. This guy is Asian, young, dressed in “Seattle style” (baggy jeans and a sensible coat and backpack). I want to say “hi” and let him know I like Mitsouko too, but since it’s always 5:30 a.m. when I smell him, I keep quiet. (It would be weird to strike up a conversation about perfume on a dark street with a stranger — at the crack of dawn, especially with the implication: ‘you smell good’ hanging in the air.)
Since I’ve been writing for Now Smell This, LOTS of men have written me wondering why I’m “prejudiced” against men wearing women’s perfumes. I was surprised at this “interpretation” of my articles. Do I sometimes imply men’s colognes are for men and women’s perfumes are for women?
Men who wear “feminine” scents come in many ‘types.’ There’s the natural, confident man who wears what he likes, be it Drakkar Noir or Yves Saint Laurent Paris. Then there’s the exhibitionist/militant who drenches himself in, say, Fracas — and if you don’t ask about his scent, he’ll start flailing his arms and rearranging his scarf (better to disperse the heavy aroma in your direction) and if that fails to elicit a comment, he offers: “Do you like my perfume? It’s Fracas by Robert Piguet…it’s for WOMEN but I love it so….” (Yes, the dialogue is stilted, but often, so is he.) Some men have told me they wear women’s perfumes “at home”…afraid people will get the ‘wrong impression’ if they wear rose-y, tuberose-y scents in public. Then, there are men who do wear women’s perfumes in public, but in miniscule quantity (“a drop only for me to smell”). There’s nothing wrong with any of these “types” and I’ve fallen into all categories except No. 2. (well…perhaps even category No. 2 in my salad days).
One misconception about men who wear women’s perfumes: they’re gay. I’ve known many straight men who wear women’s perfumes. My roommate in college, a tennis jock who chased every skirt in the dorm, wore Calvin Klein Obsession for women. I remember reading Ilie Năstase wore Fracas proudly (something about those tennis men). A construction foreman my father knew wore all the perfumes in his wife’s formidable Avon collection (she bought them for the bottles, not the scents). One gay man I know says he doesn’t wear women’s perfumes because he does not want to “feed stereotypes” about gay men “wanting to be women”! So you see, this is a complex subject, ripe for contention and woe.
I do wear “feminine” perfumes that suit my tastes (no soliflores of the soft/sweet, “angelic” type, no tween-y fruity-florals, or tuberose-rich perfumes, thank you); in fact, with a few of my choices, I think I go to the head of the class…the class of men who wear feminine fragrances with their heads held high.
The first women’s perfume I wore was my mother’s Chanel No. 5; it was kept in a wicker basket in the bathroom, surrounded by Kleenex, Q-tips and cotton balls. I was a child and I thought it smelled good (my parents, as ever, let me do as I pleased and said not a word about Chanel No. 5 being “for girls”). After reading The Secret of Chanel No. 5, I got a quarter ounce of Chanel No. 5 parfum; it’s delightful…and strong. I’ll probably follow Marilyn Monroe’s lead and wear it in the privacy of my bed after a warm shower. Chanel No. 5 has always smelled clean to me and “clean” is for everybody.
I once, not too long ago, thought Chanel Bois des Iles was a scent that should only be worn by women. Not anymore. It’s a warm, sunny fragrance that allows me to wear a Chanel No. 5-type perfume “in public.” Cuir de Russie? My love of that perfume brings me to: Molinard Habanita. Thanks to the onslaught of unisex/niche fragrances over the last decade, Cuir de Russie and Habanita no longer smell “womanly” in the least, though they’re still classified as feminine perfumes by the companies who make them. Men are no longer fearful of rose, orange blossom, iris, even jasmine, in fragrances, and the powder and leather in these scents makes me feel pampered and a bit louche at the same time.
I’ve been wearing Robert Piguet Bandit longer than any other feminine fragrance; its mix of notes produces an aroma that reminds me of cigarette ash and narcissus blossoms — an acquired taste perhaps, but Bandit is an original; I’ve never mistaken it for another fragrance.
On a trip south of the border during college, I encountered a bottle of Ivoire de Balmain; back when I bought it, Ivoire de Balmain came in a much nicer bottle than it does today and it didn’t smell as “pure” (and “thin”) as it does now. If I rough it up (layer it) with some musky, cumin-y, or leather perfume, it still works for me. Balmain also makes the great Jolie Madame; there’s nothing feminine about its vibrant green-violet-leather aroma. (Men: if asked what you’re wearing, and you’re too embarrassed to say Jolie Madame, you can always respond ‘Bel Monsieur.’)
I wear several of Guerlain’s (they of the treacly romance-novel storylines/PR) “feminine” fragrances: Jicky (which debuted as a fragrance for all and that’s suitable for a man in each of its formulations — Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, Parfum); Shalimar Eau de Parfum (no ball gown and tuxedoed companion necessary for its enjoyment); and Mitsouko (nix the rice face powder and kimono…if you wish).
Serge Lutens fragrances have always come with “permission” for both men and women to wear them, but a few of the perfumes in the line attract women more than men; enter: Rahat Loukoum. With its Bosphorus barbershop-cum-candy store aromas, who says a man can’t wear it? Men love the scents of talc and desserts so why can’t we smell delectable ourselves? Another pow(d)er-house feminine scent I wear — in minimal dosage — is Lorenzo Villoresi Alamut — despised by many, but appreciated by the perfume cognoscenti (with desensitized gag reflexes).
I recently discovered the pleasures of Jean Patou 1000 Eau de Toilette and Joy Parfum. 1000’s scent reminds me of fresh bread and osmanthus 'jam' (a neat combo) and I wear it and Joy (which many compare to Chanel No. 5 in its “feminine factor”) outside the bedroom. The first day I wore Joy, I was walking at the arboretum; the wind off the lake was strong and frigid, but two things warmed me up: the scent of Joy’s hothouse flowers and the sight of a Fox terrier mix running off leash. That little dog, scampering along the rocky shore, happy, vivacious, in his prime, seemed to challenge the choppy waves of the lake to come ashore and catch him. He ran up to every dog and person in his path, delighting in the moment. Watching him frolic, I decided only one word fit his mood: JOY, and then I realized I was wearing a fragrance made to embody that mood. A serendipitous encounter between a dog and a perfume produced a moment of happiness in me.
I may never know how the “Mitsouko Man” I often see and smell came to love that fragrance, but I can ask you, men and women, to answer a few questions. Men: what women’s perfumes do you (dare to) wear, where do you wear them? What comments, if any, do you receive? Women: do any of your male friends and family wear women’s perfumes? Do you give them a hard time if they do?
Note: top left image of Georgia O’Keeffe (a person who would no doubt wear whatever fragrance she wanted, where and when she wanted to wear it) and top right image of a camellia (yes, there are many scented varieties) via Wikimedia Commons.