Continued from Part 1 of a series where I talk about perfume and smells.

My perfume obsession started with a single article in the New Yorker from 2005 1. The Scent of the Nile, by Chandler Burr is a fascinating piece on the creation of a perfume by Jean-Claude Ellena for the house of Hermes. Here was this entire creative field built on the sense of smell – the most underrated sense of all.

I had never paid much attention to perfume before. The first floor of any departmental store in Southeast Asia usually bears the cosmetics section, one that my sister and I would rush past to avoid breathing in the choking clouds of perfume. I hated the strong, overbearing perfumes that sales assistants would spritz into the air of the confined, air-conditioned space.

But this was different. I had never heard of perfumes described as works of art with their own creative processes, not unlike how a designer would work with a client to fulfil an aesthetic vision. Perfumes that didn’t smell like generic flowers or fruit, but instead evocative of beautiful memories in faraway places 2. Perfumes were described so exquisitely in reviews that you can’t help but be drawn into their worlds. I started reading perfume review blogs 3 and scoured online encyclopedias of every perfume that has ever existed 4. I found myself desperate to smell the perfumes I was reading about on a daily basis. It’s difficult to be reading about smells, trying to picture them in your head without a reference point. What the hell does smoky, smouldering pine cones over dry leather smell like? What is it about powdery violets? What is this perfume that smells like cat pee that everyone talks about 5 ?

Perfume is not cheap. You’re looking at an average price of RM 350 (USD 100) for a full bottle. So it’s not like you can just shell out cash for a bottle for the luxury of just smelling it. Perfume enthusiasts worldwide always advise against blind buying. Always smell before buying. And one of the best places to smell is of course, the department store.

Oh, no.

The cosmetics section of departmental stores scared me as a kid. It still does. Everything is shiny, polished, and mirrored under bright white lights. Rogues, lipsticks, mascaras, serums, creams, hydrating, anti-aging, firming, whitening. As far as I was concerned, all those tubes and pots of colored powders and creams belonged to the Adult Woman. And in my head, the Adult Woman came from a world where everybody wears crisp sheath dresses and lacquered heels and had their eyeliners on point. Basically, a world that I don’t belong to.

I grew up in a household where my mother was a high school teacher, and my father was a professor in engineering. Beauty and glamour were not part of our lives. My mother wore simple makeup for work, but never imposed the ritual on her daughters. I’ve never worn cosmetics, the same way I’ve never thought about my hair or clothes. Makeup and perfume were luxury, unnecessary and frivolous, which I used to crinkle my nose at. So when I trudged into department stores looking to look for reference perfumes from Chanel and Guerlain, I looked about as out of place as you can imagine.

To give you an idea, I was the sort of customer that never got handed out free samples or perfume tester strips. Me, bearing a fraying laptop backpack wearing a crumpled white t-shirt, black, equally crumpled chino shorts, and flip-flops sporting tangled hair long enough to trap unsuspecting beetles (true story). I didn’t look at all the part of a target market for beauty products. But there I was, at the cosmetics section in the glitziest department stores of Kuala Lumpur, every other weekend with my feet and flip flops sweaty from trekking across the street from the nearest light rail train station.

I always try to not draw attention to myself at perfume counters. For the most part, I succeed, thanks to not looking the part of their target market demographic. If I’m lucky, the perfume section is hidden a the corner of the floor, and I am free to wander and sniff until my nose gets numb. On my less fortunate days, the conversation always goes something like this:

Sales assistant: Are you looking for something?

Sher Minn: Uh, no. Just browsing. *cue sheepish smile and breaking of eye contact, silently hoping to be left alone*

Sales assistant: Are you looking for something for yourself, or for someone else?

Sher Minn: Uh. For myself.

Sales assistant: Smell our latest perfume for women *reaches towards the latest incarnation of something adorned with pink ribbons*

Sher Minn: *sniffs and patiently listens to sales pitch*

Sher Minn: Actually, can I smell this? *gestures to a perfume marketed to men*

Sales assistant: Oh, but that’s for men. Is this for a gift?

Sher Minn: No. It’s for me. Sometimes I wear men’s stuff.

Sales assistant: Uh okay. *looks at me awkwardly but proceeds to spritz a blotter for me anyway*

This is literally the conversation I’ve had at least five times this year. This is the exact sort of thing which terrifies me about the cosmetics section of department stores. Grouped in one confined area is everything that is symbolic of femininity. I identify with not one of them, and I am apparently breaking the rules by preferring something that wasn’t made for people of my gender. Needless to say, using makeup and anti-aging cream is neither sufficient nor necessary for you to be female and beautiful men’s colognes can be enjoyed you even if you don’t identify as male. And there are sales assistants that don’t make gendered assumptions. But that’s for another essay.

Perfume was only recently a gendered commodity 6. Before the 1900s when perfume was rising as an industry, there was no such thing as “colognes for men” and “perfumes for women.” Perfume was a catchall term for a thing that made you fragrant. The Eau de Cologne was a particular style of perfume, originating from Cologne, Germany 7. It was composed of sparkling citruses and aromatic herbs. Men and women alike wore the same scents if they wanted to. An example of this is Jicky by Guerlain, a citrusy, vanilla lavender fragrance that has been compared to cat pee. If anything, I think we can agree that the cat pee accord should be unisex.

Much of gendering is also cultural. Where rose is considered a women’s scent in the Asian and Western markets, roses are not uncommonly worn by men in the Middle East. You may also frequently smell jasmine, also a traditionally female-associated floral on both Indian men and women. It is unlikely that we are genetically predisposed to scents according to our biological sexes. Personally, I love the smell of tobacco, lavender and soft leather – all of which are traditionally masculine.

In the words of a dear friend of mine: You do you.

End of Part 2. Read Part 3.

  1. The article that started it all: The Scent of the Nile. It’s a fantastic insightful read on the perfume industry. Go read it. 

  2. Seville à L’Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur is one such fragrance. It reads more beautifully than it smells though. 

  3. Some of my favorite perfume blogs are: Bois de Jasmin where Victoria Frolova writes about all scented, beautiful things, Now Smell Thisfor latest news in perfumery, reviews and community events and Kafkaesque for long, detailed, evocative reviews that are rewarding reads. 

  4. Fragrantica and Basenotes

  5. The perfume in question is Guerlain by Jicky. Do a search on that page for cat pee/vomit/litterbox. 

  6. More on perfume and gender: Crossing gender lines in perfumery (link) / How the fragrance market is doing away with gendered scents (link) / Interview on the history of gendered scents (link

  7. Wikipedia page on the history of the eau de cologne