Fragrance And Feminism

Today I shall be bringing feminism into your boudoirs, so no-one is going to be having a good time. As I was consulting the latest UK Vogue, I came across an article about this very issue by Sali Hughes and thought I might also have one or two things to say about the topic.

As you might have guessed, most perfume creators are men. Being a famous nose or perfumeur has traditionally been insanely exclusive and very, very male. Since in the beginning of time it were only the men wearing the stuff anyway, it probably made sense that they created the juices as well. Very, very early early on, as in Old Testament -early on, respectable women were not to use perfume at all, they were to smell of virtue only. It was only the biggest sinner who had the strongest stench of all – the whore. (The etymology of many Latin language words for “whore” (pute in French) is derived from putere, “to stink”.)

Things were pretty unisex, perfume-wise, until Marie Antoinette’s head was chopped off. It started the era of gendered fragrances, and the industrialisation of perfumery quickly followed – to the point of mass production. If you ever wondered why everything smells the same in department stores, it’s because most of the fragrances of the big houses are each other’s imitations.

When a nose is hired to create a commercial perfume hit, he or she will go for what the consumers like, and the consumers like stuff they are familiar with: bestselling fragrances, shower gels, washing detergents and shampoos. Then endless “remixes” of the best sellers follow, and in the end everything smells the same.

Anyway, back to the actual topic. Having a woman behind a big perfume house is still very rare. Hermès has one, Swiss Christine Nagel, ditto Cartier. Frédéric Malle’s latest Sale Gosse is created by Fanny Bal. And I am pleased to share with you that one of my long-time loves, Diptyque’s Philosykos was created by Olivia Giacobetti. We are still really talking about a handful of female createurs, much like in fashion.

Does it matter who has put together a perfume, as in which sex? Because in the end, objectively speaking, isn’t it all about how the juice smells and makes you feel, not whether it was concocted by a man or a woman?

Probably this really isn’t the end of the world, but it is interesting to see how women are starting to claim ground also in the ancient olfactory universe. In the end it would be odd if still in the 21st Century it were only the men who got to define how women should smell.

My latest perfume finds have been at Celine, which famously recently changed chief designer from Phoebe Philo to Hedi Slimane. Californian Slimane introduced dramatic changes in his first collections, but the S/S20 is already looking more Celine-y (or possibly Philo-y). Slimane also brought about a collection of 9 perfumes, available at their spanking new accessories store in Paris.

I was able to get samples of my two favourites, Saint- Germain-des-Prés EdP and Eau de Californie EdP. All perfumes are unisex as is often the case these days. The bottles are sublime and come in 100ml and 200ml. There is a lot of powdery iris, which comes across more androgynous than girly. And all perfumes reflect Slimane’s personal journey through California and Paris. Of course. Note: Slimane is not the nose behind the perfumes. They have been developed under his artistic direction. So it might even be that one or two of the scents actually have been created by a woman.

While I will not discriminate, I will try to look up female createurs and try their perfumes more in the future. If you have any interest in the topic, I warmly recommend an easy-reading, entertaining history of perfume and a sneak peek behind the industry scenes, The Perfume Lover by Denyse Beaulieu. Else, read Hughes’ article in the December Vogue.

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