100 Fragrances Every Frag-Head Guy Should Try, part 10: Ugliness
by, 16th September 2011 at 11:39 PM (17557 Views)
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.
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