Is the Fragrance Industry Finally Breaking the Gender Binary?

by Billy McEntee

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 22, 2021
Originally published on February 19, 2021

Is the Fragrance Industry Finally Breaking the Gender Binary?
  (Source:Getty Images)

In 2019, Old Spice released a commercial advertising its new Lavender deodorant. In the 30-second spot, which has amassed 19 million views on YouTube, actors Deon Cole and Gabrielle Dennis play a straight couple fighting over the floral new product. "It's for men," Cole says. "But I like the smell of it," Dennis retorts. The two, each holding the deodorant, refuse to let go and tighten their grips.

The commercial is one of several in Old Spice's "Men Have Skin Too" campaign, which, via the deep-voiced and muscle-armed Cole, masculinity incarnate, seeks to affirm cis, heterosexual men's ability to dabble in deodorants outside of the company's traditional catalog, comprised of Wilderness, Matterhorn, and other macho-sounding scents.

Comically reductive as its marketing may be (unpacking the nuances of how advertising has sold gendered ideals for centuries won't be accomplished in half a minute), Old Spice is not alone in its efforts. As reported by Mintel in The Guardian, "Gender-neutral fragrance launches accounted for 17% of the market in 2010; by 2018, that figure had grown to 51%, and nonconformist ideas were at the heart of some of 2019's biggest new fragrance launches, Gucci's Mémoire d'Une Odeur and Celine's 11-strong fragrance line among them."

The phrasing "gender-neutral fragrances" might seem confounding — how can a scent be gendered? Many modern fragrance companies separate genders from scents on their bottles' labels. Still, some scientists note that "sniffing out gender is something that animals" — including humans — "are built to do," as reported by Time magazine.

The article referenced a study in the journal Current Biology, conducted in China and at the University of Minnesota, in which participants, "both men and women of different sexual orientations, were exposed to male, female or neutral scents without their knowledge on three consecutive days while they viewed a series of computer dots representing a person walking." Straight men believed the dots showed a more "feminine gait" when they were exposed to the female hormone estratetraenol. The inverse was true of straight women who found the gaits "masculine" while smelling the male hormone androstadienone. The study also found "gay men responded more like the women to the two hormones, while bisexual or homosexual women showed more varied responses, between those of heterosexual men and women."

The article also noted that our human olfactory organs are not as sophisticated as some of our animal counterparts; thus, it's been difficult to trace the exact role scent plays in sexual attraction. But whether consumers believe scents are gender-coded or not, traditional marketing tactics have long associated certain smells with certain buyers. Floral, sweet scents have exuded femininity; musky, woody ingredients connoted masculinity. In this sense, consumers were not necessarily sold just aphrodisiacs but also ideals: wearing a fragrance might augment one's perception of their own gender.

Now, websites like Scent Beauty, Hermetica and Snif list fragrances — not colognes and perfumes — the interpretations for each perhaps left to the consumer. These companies, and a growing number of others, are employing various tactics to break down gender, which might more warmly welcome those whose identities are not defined by binaries.

A sampling of Christian Lewis's fragrance collection.
A sampling of Christian Lewis's fragrance collection.  (Source: Christian Lewis)

"I remember when Tom Ford came out with Black Orchid as a specifically gender-neutral fragrance. It was a really big moment for me, it felt very significant, and I felt quietly validated," says Christian Lewis (they/them), a freelance critic and Ph.D. candidate who has "about 60 fragrances collected over many years."

Lewis adds that such efforts highlight an opportunity beyond transgender and gender-nonconforming consumers: Fragrances without a gender marker tied to them "encourage people (including cis people) to re-examine how they think about how/why scents are gendered, which might even make them reconsider the same thing about fashion," they say. "Maybe, just maybe, if people have that a-ha moment of 'Oh yea, why is this cologne gendered? Or this sweater? Or these shoes?' they might even start to understand the socially constructed, false-binary elements of gender, which is a step towards public acceptance of the ideas of a gender spectrum and gender performance."

And for many who are creating products that speak to non-binary consumers, the work is personal.

'Inclusivity' is more than just a branding term.

Carta Fragrances founder and perfumer Heather D'Angelo.
Carta Fragrances founder and perfumer Heather D'Angelo.  (Source: Carta Fragrances)

Heather D'Angelo (she/her), founder and perfumer of Carta Fragrances, takes an ecological approach to fragrance design. "Throughout my life, I've naturally gravitated towards fragrances formulated for men over those formulated for women," she says. "The first perfume I ever splurged on buying for myself was one worn by a very regal man I worked with named Reggie, who not only taught me how to choose fine fragrances but also how to walk properly in high heels. Reggie smelled like woods, musk and spices, and to me, that was much more appealing and sexy than the cloying and overly flowery potions being marketed to me in magazines and department stores in the early 2000s."

"I had no interest in smelling like a spring bouquet or raspberry soufflé, and I couldn't understand why those were my only options as a woman," she continues. "When I set out to launch my own fragrance brand, the idea to me of 'gendered' fragrances was already long out the window. I wanted to design fine fragrances that I would actually wear — and I didn't give a thought to who else might enjoy them. People should follow their taste wherever it leads them. It's been wonderful to observe how the industry does seem to be shifting towards gender fluidity; it's a positive change that is long overdue."

Another company, Snif, is also aiming for inclusivity in its marketing and branding.

Building on the try-before-you-buy model, newly launched Snif sends hopeful consumers testers for each of its fragrances. The company launched three fragrances last fall: Ex on the Beach, Way with Woods and Salty Stares, each as flirty and alluring as their titles. Individually, each 30-mL bottle costs $65, an accessible price point in an expensive industry for those the brand is perhaps aiming to reach. The scents come in a box less geared toward a gender than perhaps an age: the testers are nestled in a package of a hue slightly tanner than millennial-pink branded with playful text: "go ahead, smell us."

"It was our mission to create a brand for those who loved fragrance but felt excluded from traditional fragrance," shares Snif co-founder Phil Riportella (he/him). "It's less about 'de-gendering' the actual ingredients that make up a fragrance and more about throwing away the rules of conventional fragrance that tell us what we should and should not be wearing." This is exemplified in the fragrances' branding — not only in the scents' gender-less names but also in their descriptors.

"We want you to smell our scents for yourself and define your own experience rather than have us guide you," Riportella adds. "After all, fragrance smells different to everyone! Scent is very personal, and you should wear what makes you happy regardless of if a brand markets it masculine or feminine, perfume or cologne. If we do provide 'notes' or a description, we try to keep it clinical and simple."

Performance artist June Buck (she/they) cites Snif as a brand they enjoy, along with Malin+Goetz, their "favorite and go-to."

"My gender is pretty butch dyke right now, but because I'm trans, I don't want to get coded as male, so I'm looking for something that doesn't scream man but also isn't girly," Buck says. "This is a challenge in that it's harder to find, but I think just leads to a more engaging and interesting scent."

But while Buck knows wearing a scent to communicate gender identity might be a motivator for some in choosing certain fragrances, it is hardly the only factor involved. "I wear perfume for myself, sure, but also for others. What gender am I bringing to the table, what sexual energy, how do those things relate? How do I want them to relate today, in relation to this haircut and these pants? Are we at a dive bar or on an elegant first date? What's the vibe? There's plenty to consider beyond gender as well," they say.

Gender identity emobodies a multi-faceted spectrum; there is no monolith.

"All trans people are not inherently seeking gender neutrality. I'm a pretty binary trans woman; I have no problem with items saying they're 'for women,'" says actress L Morgan Lee (she/her). "Just changing a label does not change the process of how the scent was made or who was being thought of in the meetings and labs. Instead of trying to take away what's already in place, it'd be more productive to do the work of building new scents with different genders in mind as they're being developed. So you wouldn't be able to put a 'for women' or 'for men' label on it because it wasn't made for either specifically. At the end of the day, scents don't have genders — we put that on them."

What L Morgan Lee wears depends on the mood; when she's feeling "a bit more kittenish (a date, a party, something in the evening)," she enjoys Flowerbomb by Viktor&Rolf, also a favorite scent for performing artist Daphne Overbeck (she/her).

"I have others, but that one is like home. I just like how it sits on my body," Overbeck says.

A pink grenade of a perfume bottle, Flowerbomb delivers "an explosive floral bouquet...the essence of thousands of flowers gives rise to an ultra-feminine, delicious and sensual fragrance," per Viktor&Rolf's website. "It's pink, and it smells floral and sweet, and for me, that is affirming," Overbeck shares.

Overbeck also notes that too often, fragrances are luxury items. (Flowerbomb's mid-range bottle costs $115.) "You get to smell like Elizabeth Taylor when you wear White Diamond. That is obviously hugely gendered, but it's not just that you smell like a woman; it's you smell like a rich woman," Overbeck says. "When we discuss brands and gender-neutral fragrances, we also need to see how accessible they are: while they may be deconstructing along lines of gender, how are they also deconstructing the ways in which this industry is meant to be exclusive?"

However one approaches fragrance, Overbeck emphasizes, "It should be fun. Both gender and fragrance should be things you enjoy, and that make you happy."

The fun of spritzing on a fragrance can be personal — for no one but the wearer — but Overbeck is also keenly aware of the messages coded within certain scents.

"When I think about transness — when you decide to present externally as trans or non-binary — there is this kind of paradox that I arrive at: Well, I don't need anybody else to affirm my gender, and yet here I am performing my gender externally, and that is absolutely for me, but I also feel good when other people affirm my gender," she says. "Fragrance can be another marker of gender for people. If you are aware of that, then fantastic — I will wear Flowerbomb because it helps people understand I'm a pretty lady. But at the same time, I also take a lot of joy out of 'I just smell good right now.' It doesn't always have to be a gender marker."