Essay, Perfume

(Trans)Gendering Fragrance: Seeing It, Having It, and Having Fun With It

[Author’s note: This essay, (Trans)Gendering Fragrance: Seeing It, Having It, and Having Fun With It, was originally commissioned by Los-Angeles-based independent perfumer Chris Rusak for publication with his Studio Series 8. It was released in a zine format illustrated by Pittsburgh-based artist Stephen Grebinski. A PDF of the Studio Series 8 zine is a available for download HERE. This essay has been reprinted with kind permission. — B.]

When I came out as trans, I got myself a bottle of Estée Lauder Youth Dew, because I asked myself, “What does the woman who I want to be smell like?” And the answer was, “Joan Crawford.”

I quickly realized perfume was the most democratic of the wearable arts: regardless of your body, it fits everybody the same. These generous tools of gender expression can be invaluable to trans and queer experiences, so I clutch my pearls whenever someone says, “I don’t see gender in fragrance” or “Fragrance has no gender.” I know such scentiments mean well, but if it were that easy to snap away our gender binary baggage, queers wouldn’t be wringing our hands over it in the first place.

Besides, all this “don’t see” and “has no” talk is too Negative Nancy for a Yes Queen like me, so let’s take a look at this conversation about gender and fragrance and see if we can’t open it up so we can see it, have it, and have fun with it. The first thing to keep in mind is that while RuPaul’s Drag Race might be so hot right now, GLBTQ folk have been pushing gender’s boundaries, binaries, and mores since Father Time was but a twink, and that includes with perfume. Smell no further than Robert Piguet’s Bandit, a spectacular scissoring of galbanum bitch and leather butch, so gloriously unladylike that its creator, Germaine Cellier, dedicated it “to the dykes.” It wasn’t classically “feminine” in 1944, and that was the point: Cellier used perfume like code so queers could communicate through closed closet doors. Chanel’s Anteus and Guy Laroche’s Drakkar Noir were also hits with gay men and lesbians, respectively, and have you seen Gaultier’s Le Male or smelled Coty’s Stetson? Butch, please.

Given then how a boy in a dress and Mugler’s Alien ain’t nothing new in 2019, you might think that the gender-blind proclamations from the broader fragrance community would be equally on trend and v. progressive. After all, what says “I’m down with this brave new non-binary world!” better than a butch bro in a voluptuous white floral? The problem is that reflexive lines to set oneself free — “Fragrance has no gender” or “I don’t see gender in fragrance” — dismiss how society genders fragrance instead of interrogating it, sidestepping meaningful dialogues about gender and fragrance by insisting gender just doesn’t apply here. You can’t move a conversation forward when you won’t even have it, so while this kind of “no” thinking may sound radical, it’s actually pretty rote.

Sure, we should all have the permission to wear what we want, but why must we deploy binary deniability to excuse going against the gender grain? Why pretend we can dismantle a dilemma by ignoring it? Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable if we doubled down on our perfumed provocations instead?

Remember that queers have exaggerated and subverted gender in fragrance (and everywhere, really) forever, and when we do, we call it genderfucking. It’s deliciously safe, consent is never a question because we do it to ourselves, and we can do it because we do see gender … as a bit of a joke. So the next time somebody clocks you for wearing something “too masculine” or “too feminine,” don’t tell them gender has no fragrance. Instead, tell them they’re right and blow ‘em a kiss. Remember: a “no” might be free, but a lil’ glitter in a side eye is priceless.

Now wait, though — I’m sure you’re thinking —You just insisted fragrance has gender, but then you called gender a joke … so which is it? Well, m’dears, as it always is with gender, the answer’s never as easy as a binary either/or. I’m not saying that how the fragrance industry and society-at-large have interpreted gender will fit your tastes or even make sense. But, I know that if we deny fragrance a gender, we rob perfume of its power to be a tool of articulation and transgression.

See, when you’re trans and you wear perfume, it’s more than what you want to wear. The binary stops being a set of restrictions and becomes a set of coordinates from which you can find your own personal G-spot. Each transgression is a step towards self-actualization and every spritz becomes an act of defiance against a world that has made little room for you, against a political administration that hopes to erase you, and against a body that’s speaking in tongues without your permission. It’s liberation and spiritual reclamation all at once. And while you might be in a mood for Guerlain’s Shalimar one day and Dior’s Eau Sauvage the next, you know that it all fits, because our genders are not just one thing or another. They are in fact everything. The only joke is to think that there’s just one answer and that it could ever be defined by our bodies.

So, the next time you hear a perfume prattler naysay gender, remind them that fragrance is an extension of ourselves and our multitudes — that perfume has all genders because we have all genders — and that these genders can be seen because we are here. When we keep gender in the conversation about fragrance, we make room for the complications and contradictions of self that make each of us whole. We expand the ways we talk about gender and identity, in fragrance, and in ourselves, for the better. I can’t guarantee you’ll find an inner-Joan Crawford (you might realize you’re more Baby Jane than Blanche, after all) but if you can see gender in fragrance, you’ll see yourself, too, not as who you’re told to be, but exactly for who you are, binary be damned.

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