Flip through any magazine, mindlessly watch TV, walk past a department store, and chances are you’ll see glossy, shirtless men and leggy, long-haired women shilling for some new designer perfume. “Sex sells,” as the saying goes, and in the case of perfume marketing, gender does too. Designer fragrances have long promised to not only affirm your gender (as long as it’s “male” or “female”) but make you irresistible to the opposite sex. Despite hypersexual ads posturing at provocation, the fact is that these brands are selling a gender binary as dated as baby shops that dictate pink bows to girls and blue trucks to boys.
Just as those colors have historically been assigned to girls and boys, certain scents have been gendered. We smell white florals, rose, and aldehydes and think of women, and leather, woods, and musk bring a strapping man to mind.
Many queer perfumer lovers, however, are changing the narrative, using these preconceived cultural associations to affirm their queerness, explore gender, and play with the very binary these fragrances have tried to enforce.
Eliza Summerlin, who is trans and grew up as an AFAB kid, recalls opening a magazine to an ad for a Calvin Klein cologne. It showed a preppy, hunky blonde man reclining in a sailboat. Summerlin was enamored and ripped the sample out. “I remember bringing the magazine to a friend’s house,” they said. “It was a way of being able to participate in ‘girl things, but from a vantage point that felt true to me. I could say, yeah, I can get down with scents, but I like this manly one.“
Now, Summerlin wears Diptyque’s Tam Dao ($108), which they said feels “gender-ambiguous,” a suspicion confirmed by two acquaintances, a cishet man and a queer woman, who wear the same eau de toilette. Plus, they note, the act of wearing the fragrance is, in many ways, gender-play. “Tam Dao feels like I’m taking a typically feminine perfume or masculine aftershave or cologne practice and remixing it to fit me better,” they said. “Spraying a little puff onto your newly-surged-up boy chest after a shower feels special.”
I don’t think it makes sense to tell anyone what they should or should not wear.
Similarly, niche fragrance brands are banking on changing the narrative by building portfolios of fragrances that are proudly unassociated with any gender binary. Some are even going so far as dubbing their lines as expansive and “genderful,” like the new perfume line from Boy Smells.
“Despite society’s expectations, we believe everyone should be encouraged to harness their power from wherever they find it,” said Matthew Herman, the creator of Boy Smells. According to Herman, his new term “genderful” he says the word enables identities and emotions nonexclusive to any one side of the binary. “It’s about embracing all the complexities of a modern identity,” Herman says. “Genderful harnesses the wearer’s potential for masculinity and femininity simultaneously.”
The Boy Smells perfume collection plays with ingredients typical of the entire gender spectrum and makes playful, surprising pairings. Violet Ends ($98) pushes “feminine” accords of violet and rhubarb up against a backbone of “masculine” tobacco and smoke. “Violet Ends has always made me feel like my most unique self,” Herman said.
Vilhelm Parfumerie also touts a unisex catalog. Scents like Do Not Disturb ($245) specifically celebrate queer icons and spaces, in this case, Grace Jones, David Bowie, and other regulars, the judgment-free Studio 54 scene. David Seth Moltz of DS & Durga puts it bluntly: “I don’t think it makes sense to tell anyone what they should or should not wear. It’s not like there’s a fit problem.”
Of course, while there may not be “fit problems” per se, there are conceptions around what scents say about the wearer. In addition to many new fragrances dismissing notions of what-goes-with-what and using “masculine” and “feminine” accords side-by-side, queer consumers are also choosing scents that fall into those binary categories to affirm their gender.
LC James, who has over 35,000 fans on TikTok as @nearlynoseblind, observes that niche perfume has often marketed itself outside of the gender binary to signal exclusivity and quality more than an attempt to acknowledge the gender spectrum. But she’s not so cynical about the marketing push for gender expansiveness, noting, “I’d rather look at something with an analytical gaze than not get to see it at all,” she says.
Regardless of whether of-the-moment marketing turns you off, the fact is that niche perfume brands are increasingly aware of and inspired by gender expansiveness. Hopefully, that means less heterocentric marketing and more options for self-expression and scent-fueled euphoria for everyone.