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100 Fragrances Every Frag-Head Guy Should Try, part 10: Ugliness

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This is going to be a really long post, but I really truly believe that any informed discussion of masculine scents has to acknowledge this really important truism, yet itís very rarely discussed openly. Weíre pretty deep into this crazy experiment, and I think itís time to get a bit of cultural background out of the way. Iím fully aware that Basenotes isnít the correct forum for politics, so Iíll try to keep this historical as opposed to political, but I swear this really is going to tie back in with perfumeÖ

The 70ís, especially in America, were sort of an awkward growth spurt. Much has been said of how the altruism of the 60ís faded into crass consumerism and intense narcissism with the turn of the decade, but the aspect of the 70ís that Iím most concerned with here is that of gay liberation. The 70ís were the first time you could see large numbers of openly gay people out there living their lives. There was gay fashion and gay music and gay culture, where before then, all of these things had largely existed in secret.

All politics aside, this really threw the straight male world into an awkward phase. Things that had been perfectly acceptable male behaviors were all of a sudden labeled as gay. Almost overnight, millions of straight men lost a whole bunch of things they used to be able to do. Before the 70ís, you could be an effete heterosexual intellectual, or a fashion-conscious dandy, or a quirky musician, or a pampered artist. Once gay liberation hit, all of these formerly acceptable forms of heterosexuality and many more became associated with the emerging gay lifestyle, and a whole bunch of straight guys, as well as straight male culture in general, found themselves in the really awkward position of having to redefine what it meant to be a straight man, with a bunch of formerly-acceptable behaviors now taboo.

One of the most tangible results of this revolution was the macho movement of the 70ís, a ridiculous over-statement of masculinity that encompassed everything from fashion to chest hair to speech to hobbies to how men watched sports and how they treated women.

So how does this relate to perfume? Itís actually incredibly important.

The whole idea of a man wearing a scent to smell good was seen as gay, at least subconsciously (but usually quite consciously). But the idea of a straight guys bathing in too much aftershave before heading down to the singles bar to pick up chicks was still very much acceptable heterosexual behavior. So how could they reconcile this? Clearly, they had to make masculine colognes intended for straight men smell bad somehow, so their wearers wouldnít smell all flowery and gay.

So it became acceptable for a horny trucker at a singles bar to smell like dank patchouli that was so oily it smelled like gasoline, but not like subtle spices floating on a breeze. He could feel sufficiently heterosexual smelling like menthol cough drops or overheated metal, but not like a field of flowers next to a forest.

And, thus began one of the most regrettable sagas in the history of perfumes, which is still very much with us today, the intentional addition of unattractive, intentionally bad-smelling ingredients to menís scents in order to define them as acceptably masculine.

The Ugly As Masculinity

In the 70ís, creating ugly masculine scents was easy. A masculine chypre had some ugliness intrinsic in its recipe. Turn up the volume on that Aramis-esque dark green oily herb mix and add a discomforting overdose of lavender in the topnotes and youíre pretty much there. For bonus points, use menthol to bring out medicinal undertones or waxy, unpleasant aldehydes to give a weird plastic or oily note.

With that, I give you my example:

32. Bijan for Men by Bijan

Ah, Bijan for Men. It was actually quite popular in the 80ís, seen as a status cologne. Yet time has been cruel to it, leaving it as a criticís whipping boy, generally regarded as basically terrible.

So what does it smell like? At its heart, itís a masculine chypre, with the requisite bathroom-cleaner bergamot and lavender on top and a mossy base and a huge glob of hawthorn in the middle. But itís also got ďorientalĒ facets, a sort of an old-school incense/patchouli haze that runs alongside the chypre. But itís the subtle undertones that leave Bijan so dated and allegedly awkward. Thereís a strange menthol-eucalyptus note that combines with the citrus topnotes to give the whole thing a mentholated cough drop smell. Thereís also a subtle leather note that seems to have been put there specifically to make the entire life of the scent smell more ugly than it would have been without it. Oh, and thereís also the cumin, just enough to make the person wearing it smell a little sweaty.

Bijan for Men is precision engineered not to smell pretty. No detail has been left out Ė no stereotypical masculinizing element has been ignored. As such, it was clearly made with a lot of care. Itís not a bad perfume at all. Itís well crafted and had a lot of thought put into it. It just smells bad. Very carefully and on purpose.

Personally, I actually like Bijan for Men - I have happy memories of it and I personally think it could be seen as Yataganís awkward, hairy, slightly dimwitted little brother. But it is a perfect example of something that smells quite dated and intentionally doesnít smell very good.

Getting back to the larger topic at hand of ugliness in perfumes being a mark of masculinity, in the 80ís, the advent of marine scents brought its own style of ugliness, a sort of dank green chemical stew (seriously, looked at objectively, Cool Water doesnít smell ďgoodĒ). Meanwhile, extremely popular scents like Drakkar Noir and Fahrenheit took oily gasoline notes to new heights. Modern aquatics continue the trend with that unpleasant chemical buzz reminiscent of Windex or an over-chlorinated swimming pool that hovers in the air at any nightclub or menís cologne counter at any mall.

And as far as weíve come, this industry caveat that ugly = masculine still has a profound effect on how straight men view fragrances. Conversely, it could also be easily argued that straight male insecurity is still very much a strong influence on the industry. It may as well be a chicken-or-the-egg analogy at this point, but the stark reality is that you canít read far in Basenotes before you find yet another ďcan a man wearĒ thread or the thousandth ďladies, what would you think of a man who woreĒ question, which really are just that same 70ís ďIím afraid this will make me smell gayĒ quandary, still alive and going and a huge influence on mainstream masculine perfumery, repackaged for a new century.

And decades of masculine scents being dumbed down or intentionally made ugly has unavoidably had a devastating effect on perfume as an art form. Can you imagine if great painters intentionally didnít use green paint because they were afraid the men looking at their art might get scared that people would think theyíre gay? Or if musicians avoided using certain notes in their songs - Sorry, John Lennon, you canít use b-flat in a song and still expect men to listen to it Ė everyone will assume theyíre queer! But thatís what perfume has done for 30 years now, and from an artistic point of view, thatís just sad.

For the newbieís, this is why us old folks make fun of you when you ask if a man can wear something. Once you accept perfume and scent as an art form, asking if a man can wear it is simply ignorant at best, or, at worst, an open admission that the person asking isnít secure enough in his own masculinity to be comfortable appreciating art outside of a tiny little section of "hetero-approved" scents, very few of which are the best available.


  1. Laureline's Avatar
    I find this point of view very enlightening. It may be evident to some, but I never saw it this way and this makes me understand a few things !
  2. Hob Dobson's Avatar
    Once the author started talking about gasoline notes, I expected that Fahrenheit was going to be mentioned, but I'm surprised that Knize Ten (released in the 1920s) wasn't.

    If the atmosphere of the bars, nightclubs, and pickup joints of the 1970s were even somewhat similar to the haze of smoke, stale beer and sweat of the 80s and 90s, I'd blame a lot of the coarse, loud, "ugliness" on the legitimate need for "fogcutter" fragrances.
  3. Diamondflame's Avatar
    Makes a lot of sense to me. Not unlike the way light airy clean scents of 1990s represent a backlash of sorts against the over-the-top indulgence & excesses of the 1980s. I wonder what's next...
  4. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    "And, thus began one of the most regrettable sagas in the history of perfumes, which is still very much with us today, the intentional addition of unattractive, intentionally bad-smelling ingredients to men’s scents in order to define them as acceptably masculine."
    I don't really know when this REALLY started, or even if it has occurred in some other form for women (e.g., Tabu), but I agree completely that there is a certain palette of slightly to fully disagreeable notes that are used to "man up" fragrance, and it was definitely a mistake, in retrospect.
  5. dwrestle's Avatar
    I understand your point of view, and I can see that being true, but I really don't agree with it. I think that the designers just wanted to make more distinguished masculine fragrances. As an avid powerhouse user I am glad that they did put those "ugly" notes in those fragrances.
  6. rogalal's Avatar
    Thank goodness! I knew eventually I'd get some people to disagree with me.

    Honestly, this whole post is mostly a condensed version of the opinions of Turin and Burr, with a splash of entry-level LGBT and feminist theory. I agree with them in spirit (obviously, because I wrote this), but in practice, I enjoy too many "ugly" smells to ever really write them off (as stated above, I enjoy Bijan for Men).

    Hob Dobson, I agree with you about smelly bars and clubs being the force behind the strength of scents back in the 80's, but not necessarily the use of ugly notes. If you've sniffed Estee Lauder's Beautiful, it's a fantastic mix of peachy flowers that's FUCKING LOUD. It, along with many other feminine scents of the day (and of course the good men's powerhouses), proved that you could have really loud powerhouses that smelled great.

    In a way, I didn't make my point very well, because it's hard to make the distinction: Some scents use an artful interplay between the beautiful and the ugly, which can be utterly transcendent when done well (like the poop in Shalimar or the interplay between "oriental" elements and the sharp piney woods of Yatagan). Other scents have an overdose of ugly, a sort of aesthetic mismatch that favors gross over pretty (like Azzaro's horrifying nostril-burning windex-overdose Chrome, which will actually be one of my must-sniffs later on). It's the basic idea that, for a scent to be marketed to men, the industry has tended to err on the side of gross instead of attractive. The problem isn't specifically Bijan or Chrome or Fierce, it's the overarching mindset.

    Oh, and regarding Knize Ten, I think that's another perfect example of an incredibly well-done interplay between ugly and beautiful, not an example of ugly for the sake of ugly.
  7. dwrestle's Avatar
    I think it was a money move myself. I think they looked at the mens fragrances that were selling well which at the time was probably Brut, Aramis, Old Spice ect, and decided to make fragrances targeted at men with the same type of vibes that those fragrances had.
  8. mr. reasonable's Avatar
    Interesting - I had never seen it from this perspective, just never occurred to me.

    I always thought the upsurge in masculine targetted perfumery that went beyond the classic fougere approach was perhaps tipped by the late 60s / early 70s 'Woodstock Generation' and the haze of patchouli and other essential oils (amber, sandalwood etc.) that arrived with the sitar in Sgt. Peppers.

    My memories of the 70s were that 'the straights' wore the power stuff you describe and 'the heads' were enveloped in patchouli and stuff and then gradually the two camps met . . . maybe I'm jumping the gun but I do sense that guys like Yves St. Laurent, Olivier Creed and Jean LaPorte and others took note of the 'Purple Haze' and saw an opening to gentify the hippie aesthetic and a new evolution in perfumery for men was born of that convergence?

    As a Mysore Sandalwood person in the 70s, now I find the classic fougeres and chypres remind me of times with my father during my late teens and early 20s. Rather than 'power houses' they have an air of reassurance about them - a reminder of simpler times. I find Yatagan positively friendly.

    Just a musing from the sidelines - looking forward to the next chapter
  9. Kevin Guyer's Avatar
    I'm not sure if your theory holds water, but if taken to its logical conclusion, it would explain the move away from masculine-styled feminines, such as Bandit and Cabochard, as they could be misconstrued as being too "dykey" for the straight women, and the move towards sweet feminines, such as the original Chloť, and sweet orientals, such as Opium. As an aside, Turin wrote that Drakkar Noir was very popular with lesbians. Going to my first gay bars in the late 70's, I remember smelling a lot of Polo; preppy style was all the rage with gays, as well as straights, in the late 70s/early80s.
    I'm leaning towards Mr. Reasonable's idea that it was always more of a socio-economic thing, rather than a sexual orientation thing.
    Updated 25th September 2011 at 09:32 PM by Kevin Guyer
  10. rogalal's Avatar
    That's an interesting post, Kevin. I think I've done myself a bit of a disservice by using a powerhouse example as opposed to something like an Axe body spray, where everyone would get what I'm talking about - just the basic overarching idea that men's scents used to smell like flowers and vetiver (things that smelled good) and now smell like ammonia and hot metal (things that smell bad). It it's core, that's my basic point. Of course, perfumery relies on the combination of things that smell good and bad being artfully mixed, and that remains the case, but the main highlight of a modern mass-market masculine scent nowadays is usually some sort of gross chemical aquatic smell instead of something flowery or spicy and appealing.
  11. mikeperez23's Avatar
    Wonderful and thought provoking post!

    I wore the hell out of Bijan for Men when I was a struggling, wallflower little gay boy myself - so basically I was REALLY in the closet, eh?
  12. phi's Avatar
    I really enjoyed every second of reading this post

    You chrystallised exactly what my thoughts are with regards to how heterosexuality is perceived today and acceptable ways of expressing who you are

    As well as giving perfect descriptions of the frags in this column


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