Gender is a topic that is really under the cultural microscope at the moment. At the sharp end of debates about equality, identity and LBGT+ rights, some fundamental questions are being asked about what it means to be male and female.
Just how much of an influence (if any) does our reproductive biology have on our behaviour, tastes, preferences and life choices? Or is gender all a social construct, one we should feel to challenge and play with as we see fit?
Certainly we’ve come a long way from the entrenched pink for girls, blue for boys mindset of times gone by. Another example is the presence of unisex perfumes and other beauty products on our cosmetic counters.
Once upon a time, the idea of men wearing ‘perfume’ itself would have been frowned upon. Cologne, yes - woody, earthy, musky concoctions that were scented code for masculinity. Whereas ‘perfumes’ were floral, zesty, sweet, and all other things stereotypically feminine.
Then, back in the early 90s, along came Calvin Klein and released CK One on an unsuspecting world. Backed up by an iconic black-and-white advertising campaign featuring a young Kate Moss, CK One became a sensation - a mass market, top selling fragrance openly marketed as unisex and equally popular with male and female consumers.
CK One kicked open a door that many have since walked through. Now, almost 30 years later, unisex fragrances are one of the hottest trends in cosmetics. The modern man is perfectly comfortable wearing scents with overtly flowery notes - very different to the spice-heavy, musky, resinous aftershaves that men of a previous generation splashed on themselves.
Similarly, the modern woman often prefers to search out fragrances that balance out flowery and soft with heavier, deeper scents like sandalwood, cedarwood, ambergris and oud - scents that may once have been described as ‘unladylike’, but which now express a sense of power and confidence.
What is most evident about unisex fragrances, however, is the way they reject such either/or binaries. Whereas once it would have been unheard of for a master perfumer to even consider mixing musk and rose, because the two were considered as having completely different audiences, the modern masters of scent are free to follow wherever their nose leads. This give unisex fragrances greater flexibility and freedom.
Finding your signature scent
Perhaps because we still carry around so many gendered cultural biases about certain scents ‘belonging’ to one sex or another, unisex fragrances tend not to go too heavy either way on. Sure, they aren’t afraid to throw in floral or sweet notes, or something more earthy or musky. But they are unlikely to be the dominant aromas.
Instead, unisex fragrances have carved out something of a middle ground. Many are described as ‘fresh’ fragrances, leaning heavily towards herbal scents, green woodland and citrus, with varying levels of emphasis on the spectrum from floral through to musky underneath. They therefore make ideal everyday fragrances - nothing too heavy or attention-catching, just a pleasant, understated balance.
Then again, there are times when you don’t want pleasant and understated - you want to make a statement, you want a scent that grabs attention as you walk into a room, projecting your personality and confidence. Unisex fragrances can do this, also.
There’s a school of thought that some modern day unisex perfumes are recapturing the original wild spirit of fragrance, particularly from eastern traditions, when no distinction was made between male and female. It was all about big, bold, sumptuous smells, mainly for the rich and powerful.
There is a story that Cleopatra bathed herself in a blend of myrrh, cardamom, green olive oil, and cinnamon - not something we’d identify as very ‘feminine’ today, but an attention-grabbing concoction fit for a queen, no doubt.
Perfume houses such as Tom Ford, Aesop and Penhaligon are at the forefront of this particular branch of big, bold unisex fragrances. Notably, these houses and others have rehabilitated scents like oud and patchouli that had previously fallen out of favour with western noses, and used blends of rich, dark fruits and subtle spices to produce fragrances that are at once sweet and complex.
Ultimately, what is perhaps most exciting about unisex fragrances is that they represent a rejection of long-established rules about what scents go together, giving perfumers the freedom to get creative with the aroma palette. Just as debates about gender and identity are opening up new spaces for people to express themselves and be whoever they want to be, this licence to innovate is driving more choice in fragrances than perhaps ever before.
That means more opportunities to find that perfect perfume that uniquely expresses who you are. Why not broaden your search by taking advantage of low cost unisex fragrance samples and indulge in the pleasure of experimenting?