Last week I talked about those who wear scent in the hope of earning a compliment. Since then I’ve been thinking about the application of perfume in order to make one’s mark; not quite the same thing, though sometimes the two conditions may coincide.
Years ago there used to be seen around Town a spry little old lady who habitually wore a large grey hat, shaped, coloured and textured like a mushroom. In the shade of its wide felt brim her deep-set eyes were shadowed in brilliant malachite green. It was she who told me that visitors found their way to her door merely by following the heavy trail of Shalimar across the city plains of cement. Another exotic, whose hair sprang from her head like a fountain, soaked herself and her furniture in Woods of Windsor’s Wild Orchid. Neither of these women sought compliments on their fragrance: but they used perfume to state their presence and to demand recognition. Not to define themselves, exactly; they were both very emphatic personalities. But perhaps scent was needed to bolster their confidence and even to provide company in a solitary existence. As someone said to me once of a cigarette, a bottle of perfume can be a little friend. (“You’re Never Alone With A Strand!”).
Both sexes will usually admit that they are not at all averse to compliments on their fragrance: any praise comes as a massive bonus to their own private enjoyment. But men and women approach this quest from a different viewpoint.
In the animal world, it is the male who marks his territory and defines his dominion by use of his bodily oils and secretions. His consequent and evident strength attracts a mate. The female uses her odour to allure this powerful partner. So when a man demands he be praised for his fragrance, is it actually an acknowledgement of his power, intellect and virility that he is seeking? A woman on the other hand wants simply to be loved for herself and for her delicious aura.
After a lapse of almost two centuries modern men can’t seem get enough of perfume. Here’s a neat little paradox: nineteenth century males played down scent for fear of seeming effeminate¤. The man of today, “en revers”, emphasises his masculinity and beefs it up by wearing an appropriate fragrance, just as his warrior ancestors did 3,000 years ago. It was men after all who began the whole culture of scent, right back at the dawn of civilization.
So are we to think that men now demand more perfume for themselves because of a current crisis in male confidence ? Could well be. Nearly 90 years ago a very comical little book came out¤¤ which described ‘A Wave of Beards’ settling over Europe in Elizabethan times. Presently the fashion died out and for at least 200 years Western men were clean-shaven. And then – significantly in the long emotional reign of Victoria – back the beard came, much heavier and thicker than before. And look at us now. Elizabeth II has celebrated her Emerald Jubilee and never was there such a wave of facial hair among her subjects. Same like the scent.
“Our sense of smell evolved in a very rich landscape” says Dr Kara Hoover, a professor of olfactory evolution¤¤¤. This global landscape is now spoiled by pollution of every kind which is in turn damaging our sense of smell. If we are all truly wild and bestial at heart, you can see how, in turn, this corruption of our most instinctive and basic animal sense can probably affect our gender identity too.
As our own dear Queen so often says
“It’s interesting, isn’t it!”
¤ but originally the word effeminate had a quite different meaning, describing the kind of men who ingratiated themselves with women the better to seduce them.
¤¤ ‘1066 and All That’ by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman:1930
¤¤¤ as reported in The Times last week.