We can’t tell you what Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale smells like. At a wild guess, it’s probably the squeaky clean scent of soap – certainly not a disruptive perfume such as Chanel No.5.
Not only was it one of the first fragrances to be created by a woman, but Chanel No.5 rejected the era’s single-note floral scents in favour of 80 complex notes and accords that capture the allure, strength and compelling contradictions of being a woman.
So there’s a certain irony that today, wanting to wear a perfume that makes you feel sexy and self-empowered is increasingly being deemed as anti-feminist.
Admittedly, the way sex is marketed by the perfume industry has been problematic for feminists. Remember Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans in the controversial advert for Gucci Guilty? But #MeToo caused a cultural shift and these voyeuristic adverts with their come-hither eyes and breathy voice-overs have almost become parodies of themselves. Cliched, outdated gender constructs of sex leave a bad smell for today’s consumer, while the idea that men should waft engine oil and women roses is fading faster than a winter tan.
In its place, gender fluid and neutral brands such as Byredo, Le Labo and Boy Smells have flourished. According to Mintel, gender-neutral fragrance launches accounted for 17% of the market in 2010; by 2018 that figure had grown to 51%. Their message offers the same level of joy to all: boys, girls and the LGBTQ+ community are wearing the same scents and it’s cool to do so.
These perfumes deserve a place in your fragrance wardrobe and a mindset that rejects rigid male/female categorisation in favour of inclusivity and fluidity should always be applauded. But there is another question to consider: is the world of fragrance erasing sex from the equation all together?
It’s an interesting idea, given perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek believes that a sexy scent emboldens you when faced with “the primal instinct to survive whatever environment you’re in.” And Azzi Glasser, the nose behind The Perfumer’s Story, is quick to point out the laws of attraction: “We are all animals at the end of the day, and who would want to be with someone if they didn’t smell good? That’s why all my perfumes have a sense of total provocation and sexiness.”
Among these sexy notes, says Azzi, is jasmine, which is known as the “perfume of love” while also taking the prize for adding a certain ‘dirtiness’ to a fragrance. “Saffron has been found to increase sexual behaviour and ylang ylang has a sensual aroma that helps to boost the libido,” she adds.
And yet so many perfumes today have stripped away these carnal, sticky notes and it’s easy to get sucked into an anaemic swirl of freshly laundered sheets. It’s perhaps one explanation why vabbing – making perfume, quite literally, from your vaginal secretions – went viral on TikTok; its salty, mineral concoction designed to attract potential partners.