Boy Smells, and a short history of gender in perfume
The LA-based brand has launched a suite of fragrances that upend gender norms and play with the rigid boundaries of how we should smell.
The flesh of a rotting corpse releases gas molecules called indoles. Along with other gases, like cadaverine and putrescine, indoles naturally occur in the process of decay. They are present in human faeces. Also, in a bottle of Eternity by Calvin Klein.
Eternity was launched in 1988 as a scent for women. Created as a tribute to Klein’s own marriage (make of that what you will), Eternity is one of the most indolic perfumes on the market. Indoles have long been associated with feminine fragrances that employ them – Dior’s J’adore L’or or Chanel No. 5, for instance. They are found at their highest concentration in the jasmine flowers of France’s Grasse region, and can give off a whiff of mango, apricot and banana, or “cat pee”, depending on who you ask.
Perfume has been categorised as masculine or feminine ever since its creation as a commercial product. Scents are assigned a gender based solely on the aroma chemicals that make up the juice: florals are feminine and musks are masculine. Corpse is feminine, apparently; sweat is masculine.
History tells us these associations are idiotic. Theophrastus, Alexander the Great’s teacher, recommended that lighter perfumes like “rose-perfume and kypros […] seem to be the best suited to men, as also is lily-perfume. The best for women are myrrh-oil.” The Roman Emperor Nero was a floral guy: he once used the equivalent of $100,000 worth of roses in one celebration. Inside his golden palace, he had a room that would “drop perfume and rose petals down on its inhabitants”.
Yet marketing is what helped these arbitrary associations of which smell belongs to which gender to seep into our collective unconscious, doing little to help gender parity in the workplace. A 2002 study published by the European Journal of Social Psychology introduced traditionally feminine or masculine perfumes into the hiring process. The study found that applicants for a job wearing “a typically masculine perfume were employed with a higher degree of certainty than persons with a typically feminine perfume”.
It wasn’t until 1994, when Calvin Klein released CK One, the first fragrance marketed as unisex to gain wide popularity, that the industry began to dismantle those associations. It included notes of bergamot, cardamom, pineapple, papaya, jasmine, violet, rose, nutmeg, musk and amber, and came in a featureless bottle. A bestseller, CK One drove a wedge into the existing binary of gendered fragrance. Since the turn of the millennium, niche fragrance brands like Frédéric Malle, Byredo and D.S. & Durga have released their juices in inoffensive cylindrical bottles. Last year, Gucci launched its first gender-free fragrance, Mémoire d’une Odeur, with brand ambassador Harry Styles.
The binary, as far as fragrance is concerned, is now more of a spectrum. Boy Smells co-founder Matthew Herman credits the 2006 launch of Le Labo’s Rose 31 as his own personal signal that gender in fragrance was fast becoming irrelevant.
“Le Labo came out with Rose 31 and it was a rose scent for men. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It ripped open this façade of reality and I was [given] permission to access a certain kind of power,” he explains over Zoom from his Los Angeles home. “Discovering fragrance was a big part of me decompartmentalising my more feminine aspects of my personality, and allowing myself to tap into my feminine energy in a way that really served me.”
Boy Smells, the LA-based personal goods and fragrance brand, was created, Herman says, as a “big fuck you to society and the general sense of binary-ness around personal product”. They now count cologne de parfums in their line of candles and underwear. Each of their five scents contains ingredients that are typically associated with one gender, for example, and upends it by adding a note from the other end of the gender spectrum. Take Suede Pony, which has typically masculine notes of suede and musks but is lifted with an insurrection of rhubarb and pineapple. Each is also marketed around a reconstructed Greek myth. Flor de la Virgen – their scent that most closely resembles a ‘feminine’ fragrance – toys with a retelling of the myth of hermaphrodite, the male and female becoming one and bringing that out through scent.
Their approach isn’t what they’d term unisex. Nor is it genderless; they prefer “genderful”, so everyone has a point of entry. “No one should be allowed to tell you how you value yourself, or how to craft how you see yourself,” Herman says. He lists off names like David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Justin Vivian Bond – icons who take pride of place in the brand’s stable of genderful muses.
It’s easy to say we live in a post-unisex, gender-free world, or that consumers are immune to the boy/girl stereotypes marketed to them by fragrance brands. But next time you see an advertisement selling a fragrance, here’s a fun game: how is the woman holding the bottle? Is she in bed with it, or is it placed between her crotch? Is the man is in a desert surrounded by wolves, or displaying other butch behaviour?
Say we do away with these gender constructs. Do we lose the transgressiveness that comes with crossing traditional gender lines? “I believe genderless is an intention through which people create product, but it’s not something that I subscribe to,” Herman says. “We have to recognise that certain things have connotations. And that as we enter into a postmodern view of gender, it’s not about refusing gender, but realising that gender is a much larger palette and a dress-up box from which we get to play and explore every day, versus some static destination [or idea] that is unmalleable.”
Boy Smells is carrying the momentum of recognising fragrance doesn’t need to ascribe to gender. They may not be the first, but with marketing so heavily focused on expressing yourself however you define (or don’t define) your gender, they are creating a space in which to play with self-expression. Fragrance, much like gender, should kick open the boundaries of ordinary cis existence. At least while we’re alive, before us humans become corpses and indoles ourselves, why not have a little fun?