Floral scents for men are blossoming

It takes a little confidence for a man to express his love of a floral note in a fragrance, but it shouldn't need to. Flowers have formed the basis of perfume since ancient Egypt.

Niche unisex perfume houses and mainstream brands alike are exploring rose and its florid peers such as geranium in refreshing and far-from-cloying incarnations, with a raft of 2014 launches infused with green-fingered picks.

The idea that men can't wear floral notes goes back to the 19th century and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Denyse Beaulieu

"Western men today tend to be very shy of venturing outside the fragrance codes - they're afraid that they will somehow be perceived as less virile if they wear anything but a fougère," says Denyse Beaulieu, the Paris-based perfume blogger. She's also the author of The Perfume Lover: A Personal Story of Scent (2012), the account of her collaboration with L'Artisan Parfumeur's Bertrand Duchaufour to produce the perfume Séville à L'Aube.

"But this is a uniquely Western phenomenon: in the Middle East, men wear whatever they please, and rose is a particularly popular scent, often associated with oud."

The fougère (French for fern) is the most popular style of masculine fragrances and has been for more than a century, combining a synthetic note called coumarin with citrus, lavender, geranium, amber, musk and oakmoss.

Beyond the perfume terminology though, just think Cool Water by Davidoff, a 'clean' perfume that has been held up as a model masculine fragrance. But this ozonic, woody, freshly laundered approach arrived with the industrial age. And even the fougère is founded on a bouquet.

The rambunctious rose, and other bedfellows

The rose was a feted fragrance in ancient Rome for religious rituals and much less decorous gatherings. At the Bacchanalia during Nero's rule, the Emperor saw to it that guests were sprayed with rose water perfume between dinner courses; fountains of perfumed waters were a nobleman's party planning go-to; and the rich doused themselves in perfume through the day.

Perfume fell out of favour in Europe's middle ages but was back with a vengeance in the 17th century, especially in France among Louis XIV's perfumed court. He liked to have his shirts soaked in something akin to a fabric conditioner called Aqua Angeli made from aloeswood, nutmeg, storax, cloves, benzoin, rosewater, jasmine, orange blossom and musk.

In 1708, the influential German-based Italian perfume maker Giovanni Maria Farina, who gave the world the original Eau de Cologne, was so chuffed with his creation that he wrote to his brother in the lead-up to its launch: "I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain."

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Beaulieu continues: "The idea that men can't wear floral notes goes back to the 19th century and the rise of the bourgeoisie. In opposition to perceived aristocratic decadence, men shifted to black suits and were no longer allowed to appear coquettish or seductive. The only scent they could give off was the smell of cleanliness: hence the fact that lavender, whose very etymological root is the Latin lavare, to wash, became a specifically masculine note."

Rocking a corsage

More than a few musicians have been prone to patchouli since the 1960s, with 2012'a Black XS L'Excès For Him by Paco Rabanne, as spruiked by Iggy Pop, an amusing case in point. But did you know Keith Richards is partial to Habit Rouge by Guerlain, with carnation, jasmine and rose in its middle notes, while Mötley Crüe rocker Tommy Lee's post-shower pick is the white floral (gardenia, to be precise) Kai Perfume Oil?

Clint Eastwood, Pierce Brosnan and Russell Crowe are said to be fans of the mid 1980s scent Green Irish Tweed by Creed, a house established in 1760 that has a legacy of always utilising florals – a classic fougère with iris and violet leaves in its powdery folds. And Paul Newman's Bois du Portugal, also by Creed, and created specifically for him, has lavender as a key note.

Even old-school male classics like Eau Sauvage by Dior and the oft-maligned Old Spice should be viewed through rose-coloured glasses – the former has jasmine, rose, carnation and iris root, and the Father's Day gift fallback latter has secured its iconic place in the history of men's fragrances with a less-known predication on a carnation middle note.

And in France in 2012, Boss by Hugo Boss, a crowd pleaser that contains notes of carnation and geranium, led the charge of the 10 most popular male fragrances* (whether purchased by men or women).

Tips for the tentative

Nick Smart is the director of Agence de Parfum, a distributor of niche fragrance in Australia and New Zealand, with counters in both Myer and David Jones and a Brisbane boutique, Libertine Parfumerie. He suggests working up to your first rose entry point.

"Traditionally, florals have always featured strongly in men's fragrances and the smell of rose in a fragrance is as intoxicating and addictive for men as it is women," he says.

"In fragrances, often sitting in the heart of a fragrance, it takes a more masculine approach when paired with bolder, woody notes such as sandalwood and oud. This pairing is not entirely unexpected and historically, has often featured in fragrances, particularly in the Middle East."

Sometimes such roughed-up note pairings (and included in this mix might be rose with a variety of woods, musk, resins and patchouli) can result in a rose that is carnal, tar-dipped or charred.

Tuberose may yet be a leap too far for floral newbies, but boundaries are collapsing, with less strictures than ever to thwart the curious nose. The idea that some fragrances are masculine and some are feminine is a fairly contemporary concept and while their marketing departments may sometimes disagree, perfume lab adventurers are less inclined to assign gender to an ingredient. It's up to the intentional play of ingredients how a scent's narrative may be read.

Contrary to what men have been led to believe, floral does not always equate to the sweet. And if there is any lingering doubt with the first test of one of the 2014 rose selection that is perfectly timed for the arrival of summer, male skin chemistry means that all scents - even 'feminine' iterations - will smell muskier on a male skin.

In fact, every man's pulse point classic has a little hint of floral, and orange blossom is at the heart of all eaux de colognes, with lavender often trailing only a few steps behind. You would have found geranium and violet the favourite ingredients of the old English perfume houses that catered to the upper classes until the more restrained approach to men's perfume took hold.

And it should be noted that Napoleon's habit of dousing himself in orange blossom in battle mode was such that he commissioned his perfumer, Farina, to produce round tapered containers of his famed Eau de Cologne to be slipped into his boots and those of his officers. The military man was such a fan of violet he was known as Corporal Violet, and was actually buried with violets.

It seems kings and icons of the battlefield and screen have never had a problem wearing flowers like a man.

* From a survey by French market research company Promise Consulting Inc.

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