What has perfume got to do with gender? Apparently nothing!

It appears that with androgynous notes, the perfume industry is waking up to the fact that a scent has no gender. However, it is merely returning to its roots. Here’s why…

Women are not just borrowing from their men’s closets but also buying masculine scents for themselves. With bespoke being the buzzword in beauty, modern blends are letting go of the classifications on the bottle and their advertising campaigns. Even within the labels, feminine fragrances no longer stand synonymous with floral bouquets and masculine scents with the ruggedness of wood, spice, and leather.

The marriage between the two has led to some interesting smells. The modern cult classic 1 Million by Paco Rabbane playfully flouts the rules of modern perfumery by balancing sweet notes of rose with cinnamon, leather, white wood, and amber. Narciso Rodriguez‘s feminine fragrances take the woody, musky, and ambary trail that overlaps with the masculine path.


I am a little lavender-obsessed. About 5 years ago, I was working on a lavender fragrance story that was meant to include options for both men and women. While most men’s colognes and fragrances do feature lavender as a hero note, surprisingly, there are hardly any mainstream feminine fragrances that use lavender. Lavender oil, though derived from a flower, is a clean aromatic note that has a refreshing characteristic in a green, herbaceous way (not citrus-fresh). So, Guerlain did create a little stir as it used lavender (traditionally a masculine note) in a women’s fragrance in their scent, Mon Guerlain. Lavender balanced the sweetness of jasmine and peonies to a mellow perfection for millennial customers.

Back to the roots

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In fact, interestingly, androgynous notes are not a modern phenomenon, as traditionally, fragrances were meant to be genderless. A couple of years ago, I was on an attar trail for a commissioned story, when I learned this. I had a detailed chat with Lucknow-based Qamar Aalam Ali, partner, Azam Ali Alam Ali Perfumers, a mobile encyclopedia on attars and their history. She discovered her passion for fragrances after being wed to Alam Ali, the great-grandson of the legendary Istefa Ali, who pioneered the trade and manufacture of attar in India by establishing Asghar Ali Mohammad Ali Perfumes in 1839.  She told me that the formulas for the attars made by ancient royal perfumers remain closely guarded family secrets. When asked if there were any particular scents favoured by the queens? “Traditionally, attars were unisex, as they rest on the scientific premise that the same scent smells differently on a man and on a woman. Rose attar necessarily may not be feminine, and a spicy note could be worn by women,” she informed, debunking the theory that unisex fragrances are a modern-day invention.

So maybe it’s more accurate to state that unisex notes are staging a comeback.  For Abdulla Ajmal, a consulting perfumer at Ajmal Perfumes, perfumery is ingrained in his DNA. His grandfather started the Asian perfumery brand on a humble scale, but the quality of his oud and blends has made Ajmal Perfumes, the leading fragrance player in the Middle East and a force to reckon with on a global level. Ajmal, who creates customised scents for royalty and the elite, besides the retail range, believes that olfactory notes are genderless and that it depends not just on the blends but also on your individual preferences.

There are no rules in perfumery that say that men can’t wear roses and women can’t rock leather. “The right way to wear perfume is to feel it and change it according to your moods. The selection of notes has more to do with your nose, than your gender,” says British master perfumer and owner of the brand Cotswold Perfumery, John Stephen.

Tracing the gender-free journey

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bulgari aqva

But in the commercial space, it was the launch of Davidoff Cool Water for Men in 1988 that revolutionized the olfactory industry. Cool Water was airy, light, cool, fresh, and simply easy on the nose and the skin; an aquatic fragrance, a delicious derivative of the cologne, contained a potent cocktail of audacious notes – mint, coriander, lavender, jasmine, oakmoss, musk and sandalwood. It. Men loved it. Women loved it and bought it, not just for their men but for themselves. Though a decade later Davidoff launched its feminine variant, the original continues to have a secret female fan following.

When creating L’Eau’Issey, the brief given by the Japanese designer was to create something as clear as spring water. The result was a floral aquatic scent with transparent wafts of lotus, freesia, peony, lily, and carnation and a musky-woody base. It still maintains a cult status 20 years after its launch, as it legitimately gave an olfactory alternative to the women. It was breezy, light, oceanic, woody, and yet feminine. Women loved it and men loved it on women. These fragrances, in particular, created a new category of oceanic families. These clean and modern notes appealing both to men and women, led to the emergence of many of the modern androgynous perfumes.

Women wearing men’s fragrance…

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Like a term of endearment, it can signal your partner how much you are into him. Or it could be reminiscent of childhood memories. Haven’t we all slathered on our dad’s colognes? For most, it’s not about smelling like a man. It is about following your nose, liberating your mind from stereotypes, and wearing what you like to smell. Bollywood actress, Alia Bhatt recently told me during an interview, that she always, always wears only men’s fragrances.

When women experiment with masculine scents, it doesn’t make them any less feminine. It’s just an indication that they would also like to try out woody, spicy, and musky notes, instead of being limited to various floral permutations and combinations. Women seem to love ocean-captured-in-bottle scents on their men and even themselves. “As per our stores’ feedback, women are keener on masculine fragrances that are light, fresh, aquatic, sexy, flirty, and watery than stronger ones. Guess Seductive Homme Blue, Bulgari AQVA Pour Homme Marine, and Swiss Unlimited are a few such perfumes that we have noticed ladies buying for themselves at the outlets,” states Seema Bahety, Director Marketing Services, Beauty Concepts (that handles distribution of brands such as Ferragamo, Bulgari, 4711, Guess, etc in India).

Men find it sexy if a woman smells of wood, musk, and spices. (For more on what men want, read this link.) It could be the surprise factor: when a man sees a girl who is utterly feminine, he expects her to smell like a bouquet of roses, but what if she smells of leather and spice? His senses are tickled, and his curiosity is heightened. Instantly, she has added layers to her character where the scent tells him there is more than meets the eye, and in this case: expect the unexpected. Most men wouldn’t really register that their women are wearing masculine scents, just that they smell differently alluring.

Fragrance compounds in a perfume or cologne reacts differently on each person’s skin. While skin chemistry is unique for each individual, women tend to have more acidic skin than men. So, a man who finds the fragrance manly on himself may find it seductively enticing on his woman when she wears it.

Middle-of-the-road scents…

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In an effort to embrace a wider customer base, middle-of-road scents in neutral packaging are being created that are a cocktail of crisp citrus, pungent spices, marine, and heady florals.

Introduced in 1994, CK One is fresh, floral, fruity, and spicy with musk accents, and a pioneer in the segment of androgynous scents. Bulgari’s Black, a smoky woody fragrance is urban in spirit with tea notes balancing the floral character of jasmine and bergamot. A citrus/woody fragrance that works for both genders is Tuscan Soul by Salvatore Ferragamo, created to represent the Italian sensibility, with notes of bergamot, tomato leaf, petitgrain, magnolia blossom, orange blossom, iris flower, and fig tree blended with Sicilian and Calabrian citrus accords.

Colognes score with their sparkling, citrusy, and light notes. Earlier considered a male prerogative, today cologne is being marketed as a unisex scent thanks to its universal appeal. Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermes, with its woody, green, and fruity accords, is again an exceptional unisex fragrance that conjures up a walk through a dappled Mediterranean garden.

It is quite rewarding at times to break the gender barriers, look beyond the packaging and just follow your nose!

gender neutral beauty, unisex fragrances, scents. perfumes. lavenderoom
priscilla-du-preez @unsplash


  • Aparrna Gupta

    Transitioning from crafting stories for The Asian Age and Bombay Times to setting beauty trends in Verve, Aparrna Gupta’s journey has always revolved around resonant storytelling. Her prowess in content creation is unparalleled, with articles featured in renowned publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel India, Lifestyle Asia, Elle, and Femina. She also excels in content ideation, trend identification, mood board creation, and product styling. Her expertise has proven invaluable to homegrown brands, enabling them to authentically connect with their audience.

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