Are perfume names selling us sexuality? (Long read)


Tease by Victoria’s Secret. Five shiny pounds if you can guess what they’re trying to convey with THAT name?


It’s no surprises that Chanel’s No5 – that iconic jasmine, sandalwood and rose – laden medley – is the world’s most well-known and popular scent, nearly a century since it’s creation. But what’s more fascinating (to me, anyway) is the name…

The scent was named after the ‘fifth’ vial that master perfumer Ernest Beaux handed to Coco Chanel for her approval. She named it ‘5’ and that number has become a symbol in itself for the brand. And even though the scent is very ‘traditionally’ feminine (it was the first floral aldehyde too, niche fact fans) the name is undeniably gender neutral. And without a ‘name’ as such, the interpretation is left entirely up to the wearer. The number 5 could mean anything – from a dose of added courage – through to a comfort blanket when you need it most.

A speedy history of scent names

You’d imagine scents of that time (the 1920’s) would be more traditional and less progressive with names like ‘Demure’ or ‘Ravishing’ – much more in fitting with the way women were viewed back then. The following Chanel scents like Cristalle (named after Chanel’s love of crystal), Coco (named after her years after she’d died) and No19 (the date of her birthday) followed suit in terms of their titles being pretty neutral, without any hint of sexuality. Then things changed – presumably because ad men decided ‘sex sells’ at some point – so Allure happened in 1996 – a metaphor for sexual frisson, followed Coco Mademoiselle in 2001 a new version of the original Coco – but with added innocence and a slight coquettish-ness. And next was Chance (2002) flirting with the notion that something, presumably romantic – could happen to the wearer at any given moment. If they’re wearing the scent, that is.

Chanel aren’t the only perfume house playing with names historically. French couturier Jean Patou and his perfumer Henri Almeras launched Joy when the world was in the grips of an economic depression (read the room guys!) Described as the world’s most expensive perfume, Joy contains 10,600 jasmine flowers and 336 roses, and is, for all intense purposes – as lovely as its name would indicate. As a direct rival to No 5Joy was one of the first scents to have a single syllable name. But unlike Coco Chanel, Patou went down the sexy and very deliberate route naming his next creations Amour Amour (the forerunner of Joy, using the same rose notes, but without the jasmine), Adieu Sagesse (‘goodbye wisdom’, which to me denotes making an inappropriate choice, potentially in a romantic suitor) and Que Sais-Je? (‘what do I know?’- which has a sweet but slightly contrived Betty Boop–esque quality to it).

I’ll give you a final old school fragrance house an example. Guerlain’s beautiful Shalimar was the first Oriental perfume. Jacques Guerlain introduced the fragrance in 1925, and was said to have been influenced by the romance between Princess Mumtaz Mahal and her husband, the Indian Emperor Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan dedicated the Garden of Shalimar and created the Taj Mahal for his wife. Which is sweet – but if you didn’t know the love-lorn backstory, you might just think it sounded, well, exotic in a very old-fashioned way. Its notes – including bergamot, amber, iris and vanilla – and even Guerlain himself once said: “Wearing Shalimar means letting your senses take over.” The subtext – this scent is sexy as hell, and the name conveys that too.


The new sexy

I could meander through every decade analyzing the names and their meanings – relating that back against the changing perceptions of women at the time, but it’s what’s happening now that’s interesting. As non-gendered perfumery (Chanel has recently launched a Les Exclusifs called Boy) takes full hold of both the mainstream, luxury and niche categories, how names are evolving is curious indeed.

Looking at some fragrance’s modern best sellers it’s an interesting melange of names. Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue is the nowadays equivalent of Acqua Di Gio – it’s all airy, water-based and had a slight hint of masculinity. Like the perfume version of a tinted moisturiser it gives you a smidgen of coverage – but is ultimately carefree. There’s no sexuality in the name, just a small nod to the freedom of masculinity with the choice of colour (I don’t believe colours are gendered by the way, I’m just saying that’s what it could denote.) But that name sounds almost child-like compared to Lancôme’s La Vie Est Belle and Dior’s J’adore – two more best sellers – which don’t skirt don’t ever far from the perfume-name formula that hints at sexuality without revealing the goods. Likewise, the current trend for night or ‘nuit’ scents suggest that something scandalous could happen to the wearer, if they wear the scent – presumably after a sherry or twelve. Like Cartier La Panthère Noir Absolu or Elie Sab Nuit Noor there’s a certain expectance if you’re wearing scent with the word ‘night’ in it (sex, I’m talking about SEX.)

Dialing up the sexiness is Agent Provocateur Pure Aphrodisiaque (zero hints here – this is about shagging) and Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower (widely known as one of the sexiest scents, ever, it smells like sex, flowers and Vogue cigarettes ) – and the names are pure lovely filth. Going one step further is Smell Bent (coming to the UK soon) with names such as Horny Little Devil a cinnamon laced musk, or Walk of Shame described as a gloomy iris. (I like this brand, but I do take issue with the latter for genderising this scent too much with the design. It’s 2016, and sex isn’t shameful, for any gender now – we need to stop perpetrating the slut/stud dichotomy.) Above all, these scents all fall into degrees of overt sexiness – leading with their names.



The real issue?

The issue with ‘naming’ scents in too specific a way is that you project an identity onto a scent – and sell that to the wearer rather than scent itself. But is that part of the allure perhaps? I know I love Ce Soir Ou Jamias by Annick Goutal because of its whimsical name – and the juice is nice, but I occasionally wish this cute floral was a tad darker. Did I buy into it because of the name? Yes, entirely. I love the idea of everything resting on a single moment in time – ‘tonight or never.’ And you can certainly argue that it has a slightly romantic undertone to it. Is it softer because a woman named it? Potentially, yes.

That’s a vital point to consider. The precedence for men telling women how to look (historically male fashion designers have created idealized versions of the female form for decades via fashion) and smell carries on, even until today. And now, so much of the beauty industry is controlled by men, and then for them to be the ones creating and naming ‘sexy’ scents for women, seems a little archaic, if you think about it. That’s not all men – I’m talking about the men in boardrooms – deciding what ‘sexy’ scent they can think of next as a marketing tool. Rather than the names created by perfume geniuses like Ben Gorham and DS & Durga or by incredible perfumers like Francis Kurkdijan or the majority of Frederic Malle’s work (Carnal Flower could be for either sex, but the heady tuberous does make it more traditionally femme.)

Names referring to, or alluding to sex and sexiness will always exist, as far as I can see, because so much of the industry and marketing is still controlled by men who avidly believe that women wear perfume to smell sexy to dudes. But in an era that seems to be changing so quickly, I’m excited to know what our perfume names will evolve. Could we ever enter a more specific world of perfumery, where the juice and names are designed for a very specific purpose? Such as ‘looking for a long-term relationship’ or ‘into girls, not guys’ that matches and amplifies our own sexual identities in a cooler way? Or perhaps we’ll just come full circle – with minimalism, Scandi-style scents just named ‘Sex’ ‘Love’ ‘Lust’ and maybe even a new, more orgasmic incarnation of ‘Joy’.


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