(photo lifted from Philip-Lorca diCorcia)
The fougère is a stubborn genre. Stubbornly masculine. If you accept the premise, as I do, that no fragrance is implicitly gendered, then the questions are: 1) How do fragrance and gender become matched? 2) What characteristics of gender become associated with a fragrance and how? 3) How does this model sustain itself over time?
Question number one I can’t find an answer to no matter how hard I try. Perhaps the coumarin-lavender pairing smelled similar to something else that had already been associated with masculinity. Perhaps it was arbitrary.
Question number two has a large set of answers, and it’s probably the implicit question that I am considering whenever I write about perfume. Think of the neck tie and the scarf standing in for the fougère and the chypre. Both could be called silk accessories worn around the neck. Yet each is so charged with gender significance that wearing the one in the wrong context and around the wrong people could get you beaten or killed. Flaunting the laws of gender has consequences.
As to number three, I’m baffled. How is it that from the late 19th century into the 21st-century, the fougère remains the province of men? Men and women to at least some degree have shared the chypre genre, the Oriental and even the floral. Tobaccos, leathers. All of these genres have been accessible to both men and women, either simultaneously (Chanel pour Monsieur and Balmain Vent Vert) or at different periods of time (Caron Tabac Blond and Serge Lutens Chergui.) With very few exceptions, the fougère has been steadfastly in the men’s camp.
Nothing except the fougère has remained impervious to gender in the past hundred 50 years. Not social mores, family structures, economic systems. Not even language. The fougère might well be the Y chromosome itself. The fougère has been the masculine counterpart to many feminine fragrances. Most often, the chypre, but also the oriental, the leather, the tobacco. The inertia of the gender fiction/narrative can be tough to escape. Homemaker, breadwinner. Gatherer, Hunter. Angel, Cool Water.
So, in strokes so broad that I’m not sure I believe what I’m saying, mainstream genders have tended to support each other along the male-female axis. Accept this however you care to, vague truism, working model, god’s word. The next logical step is, let’s fuck with it. And here I have two thoughts. If the fougère remains reluctantly masculine, let’s at least focus on the homoeroticism of it. If not, let’s share. The dykes of the 1980s showed us the way when they appropriated Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir. Let’s see what happens when women take Guerlain’s Mon Guerlain (a fougère-sequel to the fruity-floral Robes Noires) out on the town for a while. Maybe Mon Guerlain could spark a gender-line dash like Jicky did in the 1890s. Maybe men will give it a go. A fougère revival could come from any direction.