(image, portrait of Robert de Montesquiou por Giovanni)
(This article was originally posted in February and March 2014. Comments by Christos of Memory of Scent and Bryan Ross of From Pyrgos have been added to this reposting so that the sequence of writing and commentary is maintained.)
2/11/14 At the Center of the Web, The Fougère
Michael Edwards substantially revised his Perfume Wheel in 2011, and the genre whose placement in the Wheel changed the most was the fougère. As perfumery changes over time, and especially with the discovery of new botanicals and the creation of new chemicals, it follows that new nomenclature will arise to capture the state-of-the-art.
But back in the day, the fougère was the ur-perfume category. Every subcategory of perfume, the Orientals, the mossy woods (chypres) even the florals were considered in some manner to have derived from the fougère. The fougère was in fact the center of the wheel, meaning that not only did all categories of perfume stem from the fougère, but if it was also the supra-genre that connected any genre to any other. Tidy, eh?
Any nomenclature that seeks to capture every item that falls within its limits cannot be perfect, but as a functional model it is very effective, though I imagine Mr. Edwards must have been driven to the brink when Mugler Angel was released. Where does that perfume sit in a system based on categories changed little since the 1920s? Until about the 1990s it defined a perfume industry that hadn’t veered far from a well-worn set of genres in generations. Categorizing it would have had an air of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The Wheel must’ve had to stretch and squeeze a bit, but apparently it found a place for Angel, for Bvlgari Black, for and an ocean of aquatics. Where did it locate molecule 01, Odeur 53, Secretions Magnifiques, Dzing!? What will he do with Smell Bent, Slumberhouse…?
The difficulty of the wheel is also the feature for which is so highly praised. Its fragrance families are based on notes, characteristic scents that stand in for the natural smelly things that they emulate. Hence, flower notes ostensibly smell like flowers. Floral notes have a range of olfactory tones many actual flowers share. This is the two-step that allows us a world of aromachemicals that we believe exist only to emulate or pass for natural botanicals or animatics. What if we used aromachemicals because they are beautiful, interesting or form combinations we might not otherwise consider? The wheel traps us in a world of wanna-be.
Except for the fougère! The perfume formerly at the center of the wheel is in fact the original abstract perfume. It ‘passes for’ natural with a name like fern. Paul Parquet would have us believe that the fougère emulates the scent of fern in the same way that Rose perfumes xerox the rose and Jasmine fragrances mimic the scent of jasmine blossoms. Alas, the fern has no discernible scent. They might as well have called the perfume The Shoehorn. Still, it’s fun to think that the perfume that used to be Zeus, the one from which all others descend, was in fact in disguise all along!
I have some ideas as to how we could build and use a more effective nomenclature of perfumery and scent. Our inability to discuss the olfactory thoughtfully, creatively AND precisely is largely intrinsic. It isn’t possible to convey specific or literal meaning to groups of people with a specific scent. A system based on common denominators and similarities to known qualities might be the most precise way groups of people can communicate the olfactory. Many people are likely to have smelled a rose or “rose” notes. Sharing recognition doesn’t mean sharing a specific meaning or concept. Minus other information such as marketing, perfume doesn’t tell us stories. For humans, scent alone can’t convey narrative.
But what about considering qualities other than “smells like [insert fragrant item]”? Focussing on qualitative language helps. How does a fragrance start? How does it change over time? Does it play in ranges we might liken to ranges of sound? Color? What are the descriptors we use? Dry, sweet, dark. light, rough, smooth? Should we stick with binary descriptors? What other qualities can fragrance convey?
Most discussions of perfume still take place with the assumptions that : 1) perfumes must smell like something i.e. flowers, wood, spunk, leather or pipe; or, 2) perfumes must tell or have a story.
Number 2 bothers me to no end. It’s effectively internalized marketing: accepting the narrative that make you desire the products. Some Apocryphal stories are better than others, though:
* story: Aimée Guerlain named Jicky after a lost love. outcome: Innocuous, cute.
* story: Oscar de la Renta wanted a perfume that reminded him of his tropical youth. outcome: Ridiculous but probably served a purpose of making a Latin man palatable to east coast WASPs.
* story: Estée Lauder wanted a perfume inspired by the shrubs of her Cotes d’Azur estate. outcome: Sells aspiration and makes her seem less Brooklyn immigrant Jew. (She sold to the WASPs, too. ) Fragrant green leaves and Riviera blue sky gave us Azurée, the best and roughest of the bergamot leathers? Bullshit.
* story: Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘le parfum est mort. vive le parfum!’ outcome: Ridiculous and bullshit.
Classic French perfume house, American beauty industry juggernaut, designer perfume-as-cash cow, rarified niche parlor-house. It’s all an effort to associate perfume, aspiration and lifestyle fiction. There’s reason to be suspicious if not cynical. Of course, Thank God, there’s also plenty of room for laughter.
I hope for this page to be a work-in-progess, and I solicit the involvement of any who care to participate. Here are some points I hope to get to:
* The current line-up of fougères. How do they compare?
* How abstraction works for the perfumer and the wearer?
* Why the Fougère?
* The heyday, the 1970s.
* Where do we go, and, why look back?)
In the meantime, check out these fougères.
- Azzaro pour Homme
- Caron Troisieme Homme
- Davidoff Cool Water
- Estee Lauder Men
- Fragrances of Ireland Patrick
- Givenchy Xeryus
- Guerlain Jicky
- Guerlain Mouchoir de Monsieur
- Hermès Equipage
- Houbigant Fougere Royale
- Jacomo Anthracite
- Keiko Mecheri Les Zazous
- Kenzo Ça Sent Beau
- Mauboussin Homme
- Paco Rabanne pour Homme
- Paco Rabanne Tenere
- Parfum de Nicolai pour Homme
- Penhaligon’s Sartorial
- Tom Ford Italian Cypress
- Van Cleef and Arpels Tsar
- YSL Jazz
- YSL Kouros
- YSL Rive Gauche pour Homme
- Jean-Paul Gautier Fleur du Male
(Feb 11, 2014)
Perfume taxonomy has always baffled me. It’s my fault but I just don’t get it. I have a very selective way of smelling and what I smell is not always the entire spectrum of the composition. Lavender for instance tends to pass by my nose unnoticed. It is not that I do not smell it, I just can’t focus on it. Some people’s minds are hard-wired like Micheal Edwards. Mine is works a bit more like the mind of late Alec Lawless. He had devised a way of analysing and describing scents that classifies notes in three conceptual groups, heart, nuance and intrigue. Heart being the centre element of the composition, nuance the surrounding notes and intrigue the contradicting note used to make things more interesting. Still oversimplifying when it comes to scents but makes more sense to me.
This doesn’t mean of course that I have given up on understanding classical perfume classification, on the contrary. According to my understanding of fougeres, I can see Cool Water and Jazz belonging to this group but I cannot understand what they have in common with Mouchoir de Monsieur or even Kouros. Such animalic scents seem to devour the idea of fougere in my mind. I know the theory behind the ingredients that make a fougere but I cannot see any similarities in the end result.
From Pyrgos has an excellent post on why lavender is the core of fougere and he also elaborates by presenting lavender extract as the quintessential fougere as it contains all the ingredients that are necessary. Very interesting. I will keep an eye here to see how things progress in your project and if I manage to find the key to unlock the understanding of classical classification.
(Feb 12, 2014)
Hi, Christos! Thanks for commenting. If you’re baffled by taxonomy, then you’re likely looking at it properly. However many categories, modifiers and hybrids we might create, the Wheel, or any other means of grouping perfumes for that matter, is a loose framework. Attempts to fit a perfume that doesn’t have an implicit place on the Wheel into the diagram reveals the limits of the model.
If I could modify the diagram itself, I’d like to lay a loose rope-like line over the wheel, so that the outline would look like a bell-curve. The bell-curve and the Wheel share a great bias toward the comfortable center (normalcy) and aren’t able to capture the value of the ‘extremes’. By the same token, the Wheel doesn’t do justice to the fragrances that actively bridge genres. An in-between on the wheel can appear to be a blur, not an intentional choice, and the ‘geography’ of the wheel only supposes a possible mixing of genres next to each other, hence the hybrid. I find this last fact odd when you consider that the fougère, long at the center of the wheel, exists only by the nature of its contrasting elements! Coumarin and lavender actively oppose each other, and create a new form. This is the opposite of the ‘floriental’ sort of hybrid.
I think you’re on the right track when you understand the method of categorizing, but let your nose decide, as you mention with perfumes such as Mouchoir de Monsieur and Cool Water. I’m with you! I ‘get’ that Jicky and le Monsieur are fougères, but I don’t smell them as a part of that genre. If anything, they seem like oriental fragrances to me, and even based on ingredient list, could be considered as such.
And here we’re at the point of notes versus ingredients again. We are supposing an inherent truthfulness either of fact or intention between a list of notes and the actual fragrant compounds used to make the perfume. Maybe this is part of our difficulty in the first place.
2/12/14 A few more fragrances to consider.
The line between the chypre and the fougère is an interesting one, and opinions vary on how each genre is defined. Equipage (above) I threw in the mix because to some it’s a fougère and to some it’s a chypre. Two more that ride that same line are:
In fact, if you care, take a look at the whole genre of the masculine chypre. You might find that like Rochas Moustache, there are fragrances that you would call a fougère and I’d call a chypre. Tomato, tomato?
2/13/14 The Limits of the Model
For visual diagrams, we have traditionally relied on two dimensional forms. Diagrams aren’t direct visual translations, but representations, devices. They are models, and however rudimentary, they are intellectual constructs. They have rules and, like all description, they seek to reduce an object or restrict a concept to a set of identifiers. Diagrams can’t quite be said to have an intention, but by the nature of their rules, they have implicit goals.
Much of the trouble with the wheel, and the genres of fragrance that we discuss, is that they are based on the premise that ‘notes’ are a mirror reflection of components or ingredients. The implication is that a rose note signifies scent of a rose. Rose is the principal value, the constant and the other materials refer to it. Damascenones and ionones are chemically similar members of a family of aromachemicals but don’t strictly smell alike. Where the chemical system of classification groups them together, the wheel would not. Is only one accurate? If you and I sniff a perfume together and you say that it has a rose note and I say otherwise, is either of us correct? Geranium, palmarosa, rose oxides and damascones all smell rosy. So where does the note lie?
In addition we tend to consider notes to be objects rather than experiences. Objectifying a note traps it and limits the possibilities. Take five notes, imagine them as five stones placed on a table. You can place them in many different configurations. You could even place them on different tables so as to suggest another three dimensions. But you’re never merging the stones, or putting two or three together to make an entirely new object.
Replace the three stones with three aromatic substances: bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum. On the table in separate containers, they adhere to the ‘stone-model’, remaining apart like objects. Combine the three into one bottle, and all bets are off. The chypre isn’t three things. It isn’t even simply three things together. The “chypre” is the effect created when three specific things interact. You’ve reached a limit of the ‘object’ model. It doesn’t allow for the interaction of mixing and therefore excludes the outcome of synergy.
The conceit of the fragrance wheel, and its limiting factor, is that it posits that aromas are experienced like colors in the spectrum of light. The ‘geography’ of the wheel limits combinations to blending of notes that sit beside each other, i.e.. a chypre-floral (green-yellow) or a floral-oriental (yellow-orange). It ignores combinations others than objects/notes that might not ‘naturally’ sit next to each other. The wheel is based on a 19th century supposition of nature. It supposes a perfumery of mimicry that was sufficient for perfumes that used ethyl-vanillin in lieu of vanilla bean essence and synthesized coumarin by chemical process rather than harvesting it from fermented tonka beans. These chemical were still tethered, albeit tentatively, to a supposition of an essential, irrefutable “nature” as found in botanical and animal-derived materials. The cracks in this ‘natural world’ view of perfumery were apparent by the time Fougère Royale and Jicky were made, but the fallacy of perfumery recreating nature has been recycled over and over again in perfumery, its most current iteration today in the less sophisticated iterations of natural and artisinal niche perfumery. (This is not to say that botanically-based perfumery is either naive or mistaken. There are many artistically deliberate and/or ethical-based perfumers who do sophisticated and well-concidered work.)
An important point is that this diagram was created by the industry, for the industry. I question its accuracy for perfume producers, but it is their model. Its aim, its implicit goal is to identify scents and pin them down by establishing groups (families) that link them. I imagine there is research that provides evidence of its effectiveness for what it does. In fact, it could be argued that it is a viable attempt to help communicate our interactive experience of the olfactory. Still it doesn’t offer the perfume consumer much help in the discussion and fosters a tedious marketing strategy notes and fiction, from ” and floral ‘rose’ to ‘sea-glass’ and ‘serenity’. My experience of perfume has never been found inside a one-size-fits-all diagram and Michael Edwards’s Wheel doesn’t do much to square the circle.
So what do we do with these models? I don’t have an answer for how we use them to communicate, but I do have a working model for myself. I employ them when they’re effective, I disregard them when they’re not, and I look closely to see why they don’t work. Then I try to learn from what I find. I guess my approach is simply not to hold too tightly to them.
I swear to god, this post will soon discuss the fougère more directly.
(Feb 13, 2014)
Funny you mention Moustache, I was just reading a blog post about it from a blog I’d never heard of before:
I hold a degree in graphic design, and I’ve been toying with the idea of creating my own genealogy chart for masculine fragrances. The only thing holding me back is the scope of my knowledge – a good chart would incorporate at least 150 – 200 fragrances, and I doubt I’ve smelled enough classic masculines to fully inform the grid. However, it is a pending project, something that might be made as a subjective “revision” to the Fragrance Wheel and the H&R chart.
I want to extend some thoughts to Christos as well. Christos, you say that you can see Cool Water and Jazz being classified as fougeres, but things like Mouchoir de Monsieur and Kouros don’t seem to relate (I wager you’re indirectly asking, how can they also be fougeres lumped in with the other two) – I have a few thoughts on that. My understanding of fougeres is that they inhabit two different worlds, and there are “bridges” between those worlds that historically connect them to each other. The first world is for the “traditional fougere, while the second is for the “aromatic fougere.” Traditional fougeres make heavy use of lavender and other mints, coumarin, musk, and ambery wood notes. Aromatic Fougeres take the same structure but play around with countless variations of lavender “freshness,” coumarin’s “grassy warmth,” and the “earthiness” of musk and wood notes. So you have things like Dunhill and Moustache and Arden Sandalwood in the traditional category, and Cool Water and Kouros in the aromatic category. Bridging them are things like Brut, Agua Brava, and Paco Rabanne – these “bridges” maintain more traditional components than their offspring, but also show evolutionary signs of breaking from tradition in their compositions.
(Feb 13, 2014)
Interesting points, Bryan. The wide range of experiences that the fougère category offers is what has intrigued me for so long. I’m interested in the way you place the fougère as an evolving and historic form. I’m often at a loss distinguishing an aromatic fougère from a traditional fougère. And Cool Water baffles me. I can understand that it is technically a fougère, but its aquatic note changes the balance enough that it seems like a whole new genre to my nose. It doesn’t ‘feel’ like a fougère, but compositionally it is.
So with the Jicky/Mouchoir business at one end of the discussion, and Coolwater at the other, the fougère seems to be a very broad and inclusive category.
(Feb 16, 2014)
This is a wonderful discussion guys!
@jtd, I think our brain is hard-wired to detect notes, even if it smells ingredients. The human brain is incapable of registering “new” stimuli even if it comes into contact with them for the first time. It will either capture a sketchy, blurred image of it and forget about it or it will transcribe it to something already familiar, a note in the case of perfumes. The new stimulus will be registered as such only after repeated exposure and identification. To take the idea a little further, all fragrant ingredients in a bottle will be combined in each person’s brain in different ways, filtered by their personal experience, and pictured in a different way, much like through a lens or a camera obscura (I know Bryan does not agree with my theory completely)
@ Bryan, I recently smelled a very interesting scent, DSH Le Smoking. A sample is only $5 so I would be very interested to hear what you have to say about it because it is labelled as a green chypre but in the drydown it smells like a a fougere to me.
(Feb 17, 2014)
Hijack away, guys! This is just the discussion I’ve been looking for, and is actually the reason that I couple it (eventually) with a discussion of the fougère. In many respects, because the basic recipe for a fougère is so simple, it is a good practical way to look at notes, aromatic substances and what we make of them.
@ Bryan. I agree with your 10% thought. We know that the chemistry of perfumes is ‘hard’ in that it is measurable and repeatable. Here’s part of the power that perfumers hold over bloggers and critics; they know the science and we, even if we’re chemists, don’t know the proprietary secrets of perfume making. Where we fumies are on a more equal ground with the perfumers is that everyone is leary of pointing to the objective not of the perfume, but of our sensory experience of it. Not our aesthetic, interpretive experience of it, but the objective sensory.
We give more credence to Pantone 2247-C or 261.6 Hz, middle C, than we do methyl inonone gamma 80, yet the relationship of the stimulus to the sensory perception effectively the same. I see green and you see green. Our language is based on the fact we perceive the same color. The same objectivity, and the assumption of its reproducibility should apply to the olfactory, but our language doesn’t support objectivity, even though an adehyde by any other name should smell as sweet. We work with the false assumption that if an aroma molecule smells like pine to you and like lemon to me that each of us is correct because the olfactory is entirely subjective.
Here’s where we should stop. You have to be taught what is cobalt blue and what is chartreuse, why should we not be taught how to recognize scent and use it similarly? Interesting note. A nasty spore-forming bacterium called clostridium difficile causes a particular diarrhea that any hospital nurse learns to identify. Multiple studies have shown that nurses’ nose identify the bug as well as or better than the standard diagnostic test used in most hospitals. That smell might register differentlly to each of us nurses, but we can spot it an name it effectively.
@ Christos. Christos, I don’t think the above contradicts what you say about a bottle that contains number of aromachemicals registering differently to a number of people who experience it. Once we’re beyond the point of sensory identification there are other processes at work in the mind/brain. If you and I see the same tone of red, it is a shared perception, and we could both probably identify it again within a few seconds if shown it again.. If we each see the same glowing red light, you might think, ‘stop the car’ and I might think, ‘we’re in the prostitution district.’
2/18/14 The Fougère: Genre or Tease
I agree that the simplicity of the fougère accord is what makes it both so fascinating and ultimately difficult to categorize at the limits. The lavender/coumarin combination, as basic as it sounds, seems to create a synergy (call it fougère, call it happenstance) that is more complex than either lavender or coumarin. But that complexity is rife with all the possibilities that have made it such fertile ground for the past 125 years or so. It’s the magic accord, really, and its perpetual reinvention is just one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by it. The fougère is a binary with poles on each of the lavender and coumarin sides. Bend it one way or the other and quantitative changes quickly become qualitative, another function of the ‘magic’ accord. Add other elements entirely such as flowers, fruits and balsams and see where it takes you. Rather than emphasizing either of the ‘poles’, these added elements create a richness that the basic accord supports. An example is Azzaro pour Homme, which squeezes resins, flowers, spices and god knows what else into the lavender/coumarin sandwich, creating an enormous, harmonious beast.
When I write I sometimes refer to a genre to convey the qualities a genre might capture. eg.’The raspy quality of the floral headnotes make the perfume seem like a 1970s green chypre.’ But for points of discussion I also recognize the value of having common reference points, and a more formal, structural use of genre is helpful. So, if a perfume is built with lavender and coumarin, it is a fougère for purposes of naming and communication. (For the sake of simplicity here, I set aside aside the ‘second tier’ of components, moss and musk.) But genre also acts as a frame for personal consideration. While I don’t doubt that the elements that make a fougère are in Guerlain’s Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur, they are not in the same in my experience as, say, Paco Rabanne pour Homme or YSL Jazz. Their similarity to Guerlain Shalimar, held up as the consummate oriental perfume, is more important to me.
The fougère is a rich and mighty genre. I’m willing to accept the ambiguity that on one side we need effective terms to communicate our thoughts, and on the other, that I need to trust my nose. The fougère is not a ‘high maintenance’ genre, but is a bit of a tease. Accept its many faces, or scream in frustration. The fougère isn’t the only genre that elicits these discussions. Take a look at the emotional bouts online regarding the definition of a classic chypre or what are the required elements of an oriental fragrance.
The implicit problem for perfumery is that our definition of a genre is purely compositional. We use descriptive terms from outside of perfumery, but when we say brutalist or impressionist, we are borrowing loosely from the genres of other art forms. We can all name the attributes of a given genre. “Fougère” might not point to the specifics, but any fougère fan will know about coumarin and lavender. The Fruity-floral is just a more upfront name. We don’t define perfumes by purpose, intent or effect as other art forms do. But then again, perfumery doesn’t have ‘movements’ per se. Olivia Giacobetti, Josh Lobb, Pierre Guillame are guided by their own intentions to create thoughtful works of art. But we do not have post-facto movements, of the sort named once changes to a form give rise to a set of principles, such as ‘modernism.’ And despite the boys at Etat Libre cursing the heavens, we really do not have artistic movements guided by intention to bring about social change, such as mid-20th century folk music, or Nazi propaganda film.
Defining perfume genres is a difficult task and fragrance lends itself to many interpretations. The fougère captures this notion perfectly. The problem of reconciling the many opinions is not that we have blurry, imprecise language to talk about fragrance, though we certainly do. Rather, as with the best visual and musical arts, the fougère presents a diversity and a complexity that allow for many different experiences. I wear my favorite fougère, Caron le Troisièmme Homme often, yet it feels energetically new to me each time I wear it. Someone else might have a similar experience, but consider 3me Homme a floriental.
The nomenclature is a discussion, the experience of wearing the perfume is the point.
(Feb 18, 2014)
@Christos MemoryOfScent, – “wet cement note!” that’s very interesting. Cool Water has that note also!!! Lancaster version, that is. Coty managed to lose that note in their reform. So in a sense I can see a degree of similarity even between CW and Narciso Rodriguez for Him, although I admit I don’t see how Grey Flannel intersects between the two in terms of a cement note (I don’t get that note in GF). However I have seen Narciso Rodriguez’s scent is very often compared to Grey Flannel, and I don’t disagree with that comparison, as I find other notes are very strongly similar.
@jtd – it strikes me that the “fougere accord” of lavender and coumarin (and arguably musk and oakmoss) is incredibly simple, and therefore the trouble people get into when trying to “define” fougeres is that there’s so many extensive variations that have been made on this two-note classification that weeding through them is very tricky. however, there are still many blatantly oriental compositions being released, and also some true-blue chypres, so holding the fougere up as a genre that is still “alive” and “relevant” is important.
(Feb 22, 2014)
@jtd The ability of humans to identify smells is amazing but your example also shoes that this is a lot more efficient when the smell is related to danger (disease). This was the primary function of smell, the most primeval of senses and the only one we share with the most primitive organisms. Of course we have the ability to identify intricate perfume notes but this is a lot more difficult than identifying cobalt blue. The reason for this is that we lack the means of sharing our olfactory experiences effectively. On a specific level smell is a read-only sense: we have means of sharing our visual, auditory and tactile stimuli (all vibrational senses) by reproducing the stimulus and sharing it with others. We can draw, point at, imitate sound and feel. Taste, the other chemical sense we have, is more part of our every-day life through the ritual of cooking. Not only we relate better to describing tastes but we also use ingredients and formulas (recipes) to replicate taste and share it with other. When it comes to smell, the sense that appeared first in the process of evolution we are crippled. We cannot point to it, we cannot recreate it and the stimuli we have are more complex. Unlike a painting or a photgraph which we can analyse and dissect, stop our sight at any point and focus, an olfactory stimulus comes as a bulk. All elements or ingredients hit the nerves at the same time and analysis is more of a mental process which we cannot share effectively with others. The color analogy is not identifying Pantone 2247-C but I think the right analogy for smell perception is seeing a color in nature and identifying the percentage of Pantone 2247-C in it.
Ironically when it comes to describing, sharing and analysing our smell perception the only tool we have is language. So we rely on our most evolved of “senses” (if you can perceive as such) to explain the most primeval one. Perhaps new technologies like smell printers incorporated in our laptops may help in creating a common language for smell perception. Needless to say that trained perfumers do not have these limitations. It has taken them years of practice, a structured education and access to a huge repertory of ingredients to be able to refine and manipulate their olfactory experiences. The rest of us I think will have to live with the limitations and subjectivity of the language we use to describe smells.
The 1970s in the United States was one of the faster moving and more interesting eras in the history of gender. Some entrenched notions of masculinity, femininity and how they relied on each other had been shattered in World War II. Practicalities of wartime production and supply-chain necessities meant that women entered the workplace on a huge scale.. The American proletariat took on a face that wore lipstick, but managements and board room changed little. The realization that women were in capable of doing “man’s work” exploded. When the war ended new understandings of gender were put away and the old breadwinner/housewife bit was re-instituted. Is it any wonder that that the simmering feminism of the 1970s actually had its direct antecedents in the regressive conservatism following World War II? Though the men had seen Paris, as the expression goes, the women had seen the future and had had it taken away from them. The 1950s, with its Disney-like surface and a deep well of dissatisfaction starting inches below, couldn’t last. Women seem to have a better understanding of the disproportionality of this situation. Feminism landed on fertile ground. Men on the other hand tended to bury their heads in the sand, mistaking the privileges of their gender for something as basic as air or gravity.
However it came about, by the early 70s, masculinity teetered on a tight rope. The men who had considered playboy magazine as pertinent as the New York Times or TIME Magazine were startled to find the perks of their gender slipping away. Masculine vanity took refuge in the fantasy of the singles bar, the swingers scene, and the leisure suits. And eventually, in the aromatic fougère.
Given the cognitive dissonance of the man of the 1970s, thank God they had the fougère, even if only as a point of reference.
Facetiousness aside, the fougère played an role in positively maintaining the self-esteem of the men of the time. There already were some fantastic, accessible choices for men, from the drugstore to the department store. I think particularly of Caron pour un Homme, Aramis by Aramis, Old Spice and Christian Dior Eau Sauvage. Despite the newness of Paco Rabanne pour Homme and Azzaro pour Homme, the middle-aged men of the 70s knew this style of fragrance from the 1950s and even the 1940s. They might not have known the names, but they were “barbershop” fragrances. Even as men were forsaking the barber for the stylist, the scent of the barbershop allowed Homo-Nuevo, this new species of man, to maintain a bridge between what they were taught about masculinity when they were young, and the dramatically different experience they had as adults. We can argue about the functions of fragrance, memory and meaning until the cows come home, and I probably will, but this olfactory nostalgia and the associations that we make with fragrances can be sources of strength. Where the 1970s suave guy marched forward with bluster and false bravado into a new world of gender, he could be comforted by the fougère, his tie to the masculinity he was implicitly promised as a boy.
Here is the genius of Paco Rabanne pour Homme. It’s thoroughly a fougère, barbershop sensibility and all, yet it’s also new. The recognizability of this fragrance was just enough to soothe and reassure, yet the same time it had a novel and contemporary tone. This wasn’t your father’s fragrance. The elements that distinguish it from older barbershop fragrances scents were exquisitely calculated for the time. Evergreen notes suggests the outdoors. The Colorado Rocky Mountain High, and the appearance of outdoorsiness was important to the new liberated 1970s man. Herbalism, from cheap shampoo to Clinique Aromatics Elixir to Earth-Mother cultural feminism, was a topic of the liberated women of the 1970s. Paco Pour Homme provided an entrée into the new discussion of gender for the 70s man.
Paco Rabanne pour Homme, intentionally or by happy accident, intertwined with socio-gender flux as much as Caron Tabac Blond did in the 1920s and Aromatics Elixir did in the 1970s. Paco Rabanne pour Homme was generally associated with straight men. But look closely at the ideal: rugged, out-doorsy, undeniably beautiful. Imagine Paco Rabanne pour Homme worn with 501 jeans, workboots and flannel shirts. Paco fit well with these components of the Castro/ West Village clone look and identity. It was an archetype of my people, the late 20th century queer men, who were unaware of the horror about to strike them.
To this day, I find Paco Rabanne pour Homme bracing, beautiful and very specific. The current formulation is perhaps less than it used to be, but is still striking. There’s very little else like it on the market. Of the many fougères of the 70s that provided an on-ramp to the men’s power fragrances of the 80s, Paco Rabanne pour Homme is the one I would compare to any power frag, from Antaeus to Kouros (a fougère ‘cousin’) to Krizia per Uomo to Quorum. Any perfume used to bolster gender is as much a fantasy as it is a fragrance, but Paco Rabanne pour Homme was the fragrance for men who wanted to highlight their masculinity. It was affable, proportionate, and suggested a well intended interaction with the world. By comparison, Antaeus looks like something a would-be model poser might wear and Kouros implied that studied casualness of a haircare product that allows for just one perfect lick of hair out of place. And these two were the best of the power fragrances!
Masculinity in perfumery seems to come out of nowhere. 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.
Social mores, family structures, economic systems, language itself. Nothing except the fougère has remained impervious to gender in the past hundred 50 years. The fougère might well be the Y chromosome itself.
I suspect that some of this endurance can be attributed to the classic hetero binary of gender. Men and women marry. Baby boys wear blue, baby girls wear pink. Homemaker, breadwinner. Gatherer, Hunter. You know, all the little stories we like to tell ourselves. The fougère has been the masculine counterpart to many feminine fragrances. Most often, the chypre, but at times it was the counterpart to the Oriental, the leather, the tobacco. Even as recently as the past couple of decades, Angel is the feminine counterpart to the masculine Cool Water.
So, in strokes so broad that I’m not sure I believe what I’m saying, given the conventions of gender in western society, 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 women take the fougère for a while. I bet they could show us quite a bit about it. And after all, I wear Miss Balmain and Private Collection. Why shouldn’t my sisters wear Paco Rabanne pour Homme and Rive Gauche pour Homme?