The term “cologne” actually has a very specific meaning. It refers to a specific blend of fragrances produced in Cologne, Germany and prominently featuring a mixture of citrus oils. Nowadays, the term has become a more general denotation of any liquid that sixth-grade boys pour over their balls in the morning in lieu of a shower. Meanwhile, “perfume” refers more to a fragrance that a lady would be pouring over her balls in the morning. Perfumes are by definition more complex than colognes, featuring three “notes,” or scents: a “top note,” which is the first thing you smell, a “middle note,” which you pick up right after the top note, and a “base note,” which is a more latent odor.
So, technically, the only real difference between a perfume and a cologne is that a perfume supposedly has more notes. So why are certain scents marketed toward men and others toward women? Are certain scents perceived as more “masculine” or “feminine” than others? How do retailers inform us of which fluid we should be splashing upon our decolletage?
I investigated the websites of several well-known, upscale retailers peddling these mysterious substances and examined their descriptions of their colognes. The first thing I noticed amongst the ingredients was, predictably, a lot of citrus, which is the defining factor of cologne. “Grapefruit and ginger,” “Mexican winter oranges,” and “lemon verbena” all made appearances. The very next detail to pop out at me was the frequency with which some kind of wood appeared, be it sandalwood, teak wood, or the more cryptic “woody notes.”
There were some other key words that these cologne connoisseurs utilized to target their fan base. “Bold” was a very popular one. Guy Laroche and Gucci both used the word “spicy” to describe their products. And let us not forget “musk.” Nearly all of the stores described their colognes as “musky,” evoking in my mind the question of why not simply rub up against a deer’s hindquarters to achieve the desired musk? It’s a lot cheaper.
Woody+bold+musky… with a hint of citrusy freshness. Doesn’t it call to mind a lightly sweating, ruggedly handsome lumberjack, bringing in the day’s haul of freshly hewn pines while punching oncoming bears/moose in the face? This is all starting to make so much sense.
So what ingredients did the “female-oriented” perfumes include? And how did they market their wares straight to my waiting, scent-bereft face through that miracle, The Internet?
Naturally, the flowery aspect was the most explored in the “women’s” perfumes. Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Dior all uttered the word “floral” in their ad copy. Some retailers got more specific, naming flowers like orchids, jasmine, and rose. But the description did not stop there. Many adjectives seemed overly sexual – “captivating” from Calvin Klein, “alluring” from Estee Lauder, and “seductive” from Dior are just a few examples – all descriptive of the scent, but also by extension the woman wearing it.
I also could have sworn that some of these people were selling premium bottled vagina juices. Why else would the word “creamy” be used in more than one perfume ad? (One of those times, a stone’s throw from the word “explode”?) Not to mention how much “freshness” was going on – the “freshness of bamboo,” “the freshness of green pear,” and let’s not forget the “fresh, vibrant notes” of bergamot. Listen, you can’t expect us to be creamy and fresh at the same time.
Is there any reason why you, as a woman, or a man who desires to be a woman, or a woman who desires to be a squirrell, cannot wear men’s cologne? Of course not. You may smell more like a bovid’s fart box than people expect you to, but if you’re the kind of person who likes you keep people on their toes, I say go for it.
I personally would much rather smell like deodorant and soap than the cotton-candy stench I sometimes smell wafting around the female population lately, but if perfume is your jam, then by all means, squirt away. (With the perfume, I mean.)