What Do Men Who Smell Like Men Smell Like?

There was a great article on vintage men’s colognes in the New York Times yesterday, an article that celebrated a renewed interest in classics like Chanel Pour Monsieur (which isn’t available in its original form in America—something that Chanel won’t tell you unless you ask), Guerlain’s Habit Rouge, and Dior’s Eau Sauvage.

The central theme of the article seemed to be that while the men’s fragrance market has changed, introducing hot-selling aquatic scents like Armani’s Acqua di Gio, there exists among men and the women who love them a longing for something more masculine, and perhaps something retro.

Fine, I’ll buy that. But something about this thesis irritated me. In the sixth paragraph, we learn that Old Spice’s “formula dates to 1938 [and] was derived from a women’s perfume.” Then, in the 13th, we’re given the notion, via a quote from a vintage fragrance salesman and echoed by Old Spice’s tagline, that men should smell like men. Ironic, then, that Old Spice—which I happen to like—smells pretty girly.

“A lot of women feel the newer fragrances for men are a little too feminine,” says Alan Berdjis, owner of Beverly Hills Perfumery. Do they? Following this quote with the Old Spice reference actually makes Berdjis sound stupid, because Old Spice doesn’t smell manly—it just has very masculine (read: nostalgic) associations.

“Their preference on a man goes back to the more masculine type of smell,” Berdjis continued. But what exactly is that masculine smell? I’ve thought about this a lot. For instance, what constitutes a sexy cologne for men, as determined by women?

The stereotype is that a men’s cologne oughtn’t contain any floral notes; it can be fresh if that means citrus, but not too fresh. For me, the quintessential manly scent is that of leather and/or smoke. Maybe tobacco.

But I take issue with the very idea that women think new men’s colognes are too feminine. What I think they’re reacting to (if we’re to take this claim seriously at all) is three things:

  1. Marketing. Why do people think a fragrance is masculine? Because it’s marketed that way. This is why a rather feminine oriental fragrance like Old Spice can seem masculine. But that marketing can cut both ways: if women perceive cologne marketing messages to be too homoerotic, they may start to have different associations with it—in other words, the other kind of masculinity.

    And there’s another marketing problem. In many ads for many other products, men have taken the role of buffoon. Women are increasingly more educated, more financially stable and more…employed. Perhaps women want their men to start acting masculine again because of it, and maybe that means smelling like a traditional man. Which brings us to number two.

  2. Nostalgia. Women may be thinking that men’s fragrances have been smelling less like they used to. As classic mass fragrances like Brut and Old Spice return to popularity (did they ever really leave?), others may smell too light. A casual scan of the cologne ads from the June 2011 issue of GQ yielded some very light (and not at all bad) colognes: YSL’s L’Homme, Gaultier’s Le Male, Issey Miyake’s L’Eau D’Issey Pour Homme, and Gucci by Gucci. While some are woody, none are particularly bold or heavy.

    But is that all? As women take stronger roles in the workplace and the home, and men suffer greater levels of unemployment, women might start looking to the past for examples of strong masculinity. The colognes our fathers and grandfathers wore can fill this need.

  3. Insecurity about men’s strong interest in grooming. When a man’s grooming routine includes as many steps as his girlfriend’s or wife’s—expensive skin care, eye creams, mud masks, manicures—she may find it difficult to adjust. These routines, for many women, are traditionally reserved for women. New fragrances may be a casualty of this.

Or maybe all of that is bullshit, and we’re just in the midst of a greater cultural nostalgia moment. Look at men’s fashion right now: workwear, heritage brands, plaids, suits and ties—all are directing us back to different, “simpler” times. Why wouldn’t our colognes do it too?

There are trends in perfumery just as anything else. Ten years from now, all the pink pepper and oud will smell dated. Old Spice started as a women’s scent, then became a man’s. Guerlain’s Jicky, created in 1889, has been worn by women as often as men (I’ve read that Sean Connery and Roger Moore wore it), and happens to be marketed to women right now. Anyone who makes big pronouncements on what’s masculine or feminine is merely revealing their place in time and their receptivity to the way fragrances are marketed at that moment.

This entry was posted in Cologne, Masculine Colognes, Sexy Colognes and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What Do Men Who Smell Like Men Smell Like?

  1. barneyabishop says:

    I haven’t had a chance to delve into that NY Times article but I will say, I saw it coming. And you’re dead on with the menswear parallel. Always a good and honest read H.

  2. Thanks, Barney! It’s basically an interesting article, but their were some structural inconsistencies.

  3. As you pointed, and I agree, the main characteristic of a masculine scent is that it is marketed as such. There are different types of men and different types of perfume smell good on them. Jicky is a characteristic example of fragrance that has very easily crossed the gender barrier because marketing trends are changing. Old Spice of course is another one. Knize 10, a typical leather scent, would not smell out of place on a woman. And compare Aromatics Elixir, an uber feminine scent, with Aramis 900, a scent coming from the ultimate masculine brand. They are so close that in fact Aramis 900 smells like what Aromatics Elixir would have smelled if it were released with today’s marketing trends in mind.

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re right about Knize 10 — I can see that on a woman. And that’s really interesting about Aromatics Elixir and Aramis 900. I bought my wife a small bottle on Aromatics on a whim, and I kind of like it. It’s intense though. I need to check out Aramis 900 and see if it works for me.

  4. cereal says:


    Thanks for this interesting post.

    Like most things aromatic, what smells “manly” or “ladylike” basically depends on memory and association (or these days, branding, which people belive so much that they use it to replace real personal associations). There are no objectively masculine or feminine scents.

    Why is leather a manly scent? Because we think of (or know) men wearing leather, working with horses, banging on hot metal in a smithy wearing a leather apron. But that’s pure association – I know a lady whose job is horses, and she smells like leather (and hay, and horse sweat, and so on) – and so do all her largely female riding students. So for me, leather, leather polish, barn smells, they’re all ladylike, specifically young-sexy-tight-trousered-teen/strong-legged-adult-woman ladylike smells.

    Same goes for smoke. It’s “manly” because until recently, more men than ladies smoked. For me, curing-smoke (like for herring, or hams, or eels) smells like a bunch of Dutch and Danish and Nova Scotia people I know, mostly men, who have small fish or meat-curing businesses. It’s a cross-gender smell that makes me think of old hand-woven sweaters, non-deodorant using organic crunchy hippies, and so on (as well as lunch).

    What smells like a man for most people is probably what they remember their dads smelling like, and that’s the end of it.

    • Thanks for the comment. I would second your thoughts: Our associations for masculine and feminine scents are tied up in gender stereotypes of beauty (women) and strength (men). Beauty is flowers. Strength is less straightforward, but I’d relate it to things like work and tools. And that’s where leather (saddles, boots, gloves) and smoke (what’s more sterotypically primal and masculine than fire?) come in.

      There’s a part in Chandler Burr’s book about the perfume industry, The Perfect Scent, where Burr writes that Jean-Claude Ellena and Hermes’s Veronique Gautier “were moving toward the dismissal of the archaic division of perfumes into ‘masculines’ and ‘feminines,’ which they understood (correctly) as outmoded, a pure marketing tool concocted to give heterosexual men permission to wear fragrance.”

      There are some perfumes, like Chanel No. 5, that are so classicly associated with women that few men would dare wear them, but I would wear another of Ernest Beaux’s creations, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. It’s a leather fragrance that really could go either way. The leather gives it a certain masculinity and the jasmine gives it a certain femininity.

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  7. tomshiba says:

    I really do not care what a constitutes the proper scent of a man as long as said guy is clean and isn’t wearing a cologne that speaks as loudly a satellite booster rocket launch.

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  9. Joana says:

    Picturing a real manly man smelling musky and salty like the sea with clean hints of sandalwood, amber, fern, campfire smoke, popcorn, leather, motor oil, metal, and graphite pencil.

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