I am not a fan of the word “unisex.” In the world of fragrance, “unisex” is used to describe scents deemed acceptable for either men or women. A quick notation that supposedly says its okay for anyone to apply this perfume to their skin regardless of their gender identity. Now I know what you are thinking: wait a minute Doug, didn’t you argue in past posts that this is how all fragrance should be viewed? Shouldn’t we be applauding “unisexuality” as it breaks down barriers associated with traditional gender-based categories? In short, my answer is no. I do not believe that “unisex” is the answer. In order to explain my reasoning, let’s first take a quick look at the history and usage of the word “unisex” and how we ended up where we are today.
Unisex fashion is far from being a new concept. Over the years, many cultures have seen fashions adopted and shared by both sexes. In ancient Greco-Roman times, togas and other items of clothing were worn by both men and women. Some may argue that even early Chanel designs of the 1920′s were influenced by androgyny, in terms of her material choices and her structured silhouettes, both more traditionally associated with menswear. This same sentiment was echoed in short hairstyles made popular by the 20′s flappers. Socio-economic influence on fashion can also be seen throughout both World Wars (i.e. the factory worker look of Rosie the Riveter or the scandalous decision to wear pants made by Katherine Hepburn).
However, the word “unisex” does not enter into the fashion vernacular until the late 1950′s. Many factors can be attributed to this rise of unisexuality, but let’s focus on two specifics: 50′s Rock ‘n Roll musicians and the Beatniks.
Rock n’ Roll swept the globe in the late 50′s, led by the rise of Elvis Presley. The Elvis look, namely that of jeans and a t-shirt, is still a staple in most everyone’s wardrobe today. In fact, with the success of Elvis came the additional success of Levi Strauss. No longer just a choice for blue-collar workers, denim jeans were seen as the epitome of style and comfort for both men and women. Today, jeans are still classified as “the” item of unisex fashion and have only gained in popularity.
Unisex was also used to describe the uniform look of the Beat Generation. With their choice of black skinny pants, black turtlenecks and berets, the Beats were using fashion as yet another way to rebel against mainstream ideals. The simple androgyne look perfectly reflected the Beats’ message of anti-materialism. Of course, this style choice further influenced yet another popular Rock ‘n Roll group: The Beatles.
I could go on to discuss the Hippies, the Women’s Movement, the Sexual Revolution, 80′s power suits… but these examples are unisex in relation to fashion and we are here to talk about fragrance. Arguably the first influence of “unisexuality” on the fragrance industry came via Jovan Musk Oil. I am of course skipping over instances where fragrances initially designed for one sex were instead made popular by the opposite sex (i.e. Guerlain’s Jicky or Canoe by Dana), but bear with me here. With the release of Jovan Musk in 1972, Jovan was tapping directly into the free love movement of the Hippies for its inspiration, not shying away from the sexual undertones associated with it. Instead, they embraced sex head on, using the overt sexual nature of musk as a key component in their marketing plan.
True, Jovan was released in “for him” and “for her” variations, but the usage of musk and the dynamic effect it had on the fragrance industry at large, led to a blurring of the lines associated with traditional gender-based formulation. The original Jovan Musk Oil was worn by both men and women without a single eyebrow being raised in regards to their gender identity. If anything, people that wore Jovan were more likely to be labelled as dirty Hippies or layabouts than to have their gender called into question. For this reason, I feel it is important to consider Jovan as an influencer of fragrance unisexuality as its inspiration came directly from the very culture that was championing unisex ideals. I also like to make mention of Jovan as it was not about androgyny or gender neutrality, but instead reveled in the raw, dirty sexual connotations that were associated with musk (the word “musk” is derived from the Sanskrit “mushkas” meaning testicle). The fragrance celebrated sexual union (or the act of having sex) instead of simply promoting sexual ambiguity.
Sexual ambiguity (androgyny) was more the goal of Calvin Klein’s CKOne. Released in 1994, CKOne perfectly captured the androgyne spirit made popular by Grunge (think Nirvana or Garbage, and the so-called Alternative Music scene). Due to its overwhelming success ($5 million in its first 10 days of release), CKOne is now synonymous with unisex fragrance. It is the benchmark on which all other unisex classed fragrances are measured against. A citrus aromatic created by perfumers Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont of Firmenich, CKOne includes notes of bergamot, lemon, mandarin, pineapple, papaya, hedione, lily of the valley, green tea, oak moss, cedar, sandalwood, musk, and amber (notes courtesy of NowSmellThis). In other words, a sheer and simplistic citrus based formulation. In its marketing, CKOne highlighted the modern ideals of a more queer-influenced definition of gender and sexuality, relying on black and white ads featuring a mix of race, gender, and sexual representations (i.e. androgyne fashion icon Jenny Shimizu and waif supermodel Kate Moss) to convey its message of being “a fragrance for everyone.”
3 Reasons Unisex is Wrong
I could spend days railing against the word “unisex,” but there are three main reasons I believe unisex is wrong: Unisex does not mean what it has become known to represent; Unisex reaffirms the traditional gender separations created by the mainstream fragrance industry; and lastly, Unisex fragrance formulations normally rely on the least common denominator in terms of ingredient choices.
Etymologically speaking, unisex does not mean what it claims to represent. The root “uni-” means one, so unisex really means “one sex,” which sounds more asexual than pansexual. However, the definition of unisex has been bent over the years to instead imply “united” or “shared.” Technically speaking, a fragrance that is categorized as being gender fluid, which is clearly what is sought when using the word “unisex,” would more correctly use the root “bi-” (meaning “two” representing male and female) or “omni-” (meaning “all” representing the full spectrum of gender identities). Of course, if the true end goal is to draw attention to the versatility of such a fragrance, one could also choose a word that uses the “vers-” root. Because of this “one sex” implication, I find the word “unisex” to be quite sterile. Like the third gender option in the German language (neuter gender), unisex seems to be neutered, when based on history alone, fragrance is anything but.
Continuing to use the word “unisex” also helps reaffirm traditional gender clichés promoted by the mainstream fragrance industry. By signing off on the validity of this third class, we are passively agreeing that there is merit to the argument that certain fragrances are truly “for him” and “for her,” something that I adamantly refuse to do. Throughout my life, I have chosen to wear fragrances because of the emotional connection I have to the scent, not because it has been deemed acceptable for me because of my gender. Who says that Patou’s Joy is only for women, or that Aramis is just for men? How are you justifying this claim? The truth is that nobody can. These fragrances are avoided by people solely because of the deeper fears associated with gender-based insecurities perpetuated by the industry. They are flat out lies promoted by marketers to help them double their sales numbers by exploiting so-called gender contamination theories (the idea that when a product becomes popular with one sex it is then avoided by the opposite sex).
Finally, I believe that “unisex” thinking has led to a dumbing-down of fragrance formulations in an effort to craft scents “acceptable” for both sexes. Because X is only for men and Y is only for women, perfumers designing for a unisex brief are left to only draw from the very limited selection of ingredients seen as safe and neutral. In other words, the least common denominator of the fragrance palette (i.e. citrus). Otherwise, they are advised to work towards this type of neutrality in their final fragrance offerings. I blame this on the singular success of CKOne, and the absolute lack of courage needed to overcome this myopic way of thinking. Again, our own belief in a system of gender segregation is ultimately hurting us by limiting how we approach creative design. Why not instead open ourselves up to the endless possibilities achievable by drawing from the full palette of fragrance ingredients available to us? And why stop there? Why not apply this same reasoning to all fragrance creation?
The truth is, you, the wearer, are the only gendered component to any fragrance. Don’t let fear prevent you from experiencing the full range of fragrant beauty out there. Furthermore, don’t let the industry get away with wiping clean their past of gender-based problems they themselves have caused, by buying into their unisex myth. All that does is provide the industry with a third tier to make money from, without accepting any responsibility for the problems they themselves have created. This isn’t heroic, it’s parasitic.
In short, it’s time we forget about “for him” and “for her.” It’s “for you.” Wear what you like, not what you’re told.