The History of Men's Scents (With Les Senteurs) Part 1

On the hunt for a perfect men's perfume or want to brush up on your knowledge of masculine scent? We return to the beloved perfume boutique Les Senteurs whose archivist James Craven has the definitive guide...

A lot of the questions we’ve had from various friends and over Instagram ask for our recommendations on the best men’s scents. As we’re more of the XX chromosome variety over at Scents and the City, we thought we’d ask a man in the know – and could think of no one better than Les Senteurs’ archivist James Craven – one of the most knowledgeable (and nicest) chaps in the industry, whose anecdotes and breadth of knowledge are second to none. Les Senteurs is a beautiful fragrant nook in itself – well worth taking a trip to Marble Arch if you haven’t yet visited. And James himself is great fun, a brilliant raconteur and indicative of the wonderful characters you meet in the world of perfumery. We chatted for the best part of an hour – nothing is too much trouble or too much time for this dear man - hence why we're making this post a two parter... we didn't want to leave anything out!

Obviously, we’re loathe to categorise certain scents as being “for men” and “for women” especially in these times when the topic of gender fluidity has never been more relevant. But like clothes, most men and women tend to wear perfume in different ways and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. But infact, as James notes, 'men's scents' and 'women's scents' weren't always as strictly segregated as they are now.

“Around 80 or 90 years ago, so many scents were really non gender-specific,” Craven notes. “A lot of men wore certain scents by the likes of Guerlain, Houbigant and Caron - which have since been pigeonholed as 'women’s scents'. Jicky and Mitsouko are good examples – used by a lot of men but have now come to rest in the women’s classics section.”

“It was only in the 19th century when the business of shopping became more established, that these categories started to appear. Perfume was still a luxury, but became more within the reaches of the middle class. So in England and in France you had the likes of Grossmith’s, Floris and Atkinsons.

“Both men and women were using fragrance much more generously – not generally putting it on themselves, but on items of clothing, handkerchiefs and things like that. If you read Anna Karenina, there’s a scene where Kitty’s husband is perfumed by his valet - and it's quite clear it’s the coat and the hat and the gloves that get perfumed. The idea of wearing scent directly on the skin is very modern. It was traditionally meant for one's scarf, or one's handkerchief. It’s almost this taboo thing - that don’t actually wear fragrance, you have it about your person. You perfume your cushions and your sofa and things that would touch you.”

But there was a more practical reason for our ancestors' enthusiastic spritzing than just a mere love of scent.

“Back then, perfume was a camouflage for grubbiness! Like very primitive dry cleaning, it was a way of ‘freshening up things’. Your handkerchief was something you were making great play with. It was coming out all the time. Increasingly in the 18th and 19th Century that became the “tabula rasa” for your scent – you needed a handkerchief and a scarf. At the end of the 18th century you had the Industrial Revolution and the growing middle classes in Northern Europe. Men’s clothes became much more utilitarian, the colour range changed. It shrank to what we now think of “business dress” – navy blue, black and brown - to show less of the dirt, because of this evangelical revival that the purpose of man’s existence is work not pleasure. But despite this, men’s fragrances were selling well and more and more were made - it was seen as the golden age of British perfumery.

“When you think of the age of the Tudors and Stuarts, men wanted to smell animalic, using musk, ambergris and civet resulting in an erotic, bestial very sexual smell! But that all changed once we hit the 18th century. It was then that society deemed that a man should smell ‘of work’ he should smell ‘decent’. So you get these ‘clean’ smells: lemon verbena, bergamot and cedarwood. So by and large, it’s the citrus family that came to dominate men's fragrance. These types of scent were very uncomplicated and clean. And by the latter part of the 19th century, you had all these wonderful chemical inventions and by-products, so companies could start making very cheap, fairly realistic and long lasting synthetic scents. A man could smell like his soap you see – clean and decent!”

As James explains, it was this attitude that pervades the men's fragrance market even to this day. If you think of a 'fougère' - a very common type of men's scent (Jean Paul Gaultier's 'Le Mâle' is a classic example), the prevailing cool, herbaceous notes all seem to point to the notion of a freshly laundered gent.

"So the idea with perfume was that you were not someone who is wallowing in scent for the sake of it – we’ve lost this completely now – you’re not using scent to ‘allure’ and entrap’ you’re using it to be fresh, clean and presentable. I think that idea is breaking down now, but it’s still very much there, especially with my generation it’s entirely there.”

Thankfully, he notes, it's not indicative of Les Senteurs' clientele, who are a tad more discerning.

"Nearly everyone who comes in here knows they’ve got it within them to be a little bit more adventurous and daring – to expand a little bit. Because there’s an affinity within them for scent, there’s a fascination which isn’t fully realised yet. Yet the issue men have with perfume is that most British men have got a profound horror of drawing attention to themselves, or being seen to single themselves out. Because we’ve all been brought up not to do that! I'm not sure that’s still going on – but we tend not put ourselves 'out there' on a personal level - and of course, the most intimate way you can do that is with smell. You can’t control that at all – it’s so pervasive. And once it’s on you’ve got to stick with it, you’re trapped in it for the day, so you’ve got to be pretty confident in what you're wearing. The second biggest problem with men's scents is still going on - and it's that most of us grow up with a very limited appreciation and knowledge of our sense of smell. It's only if you’re interested in things like cooking, or gardening, you tend to become more knowledgable of different scents, but it used to be terribly rare. It’s bad enough for women, who are encouraged more in that way. Scent is still seen as quite 'girly' still to this day; while men apparently don’t need smells. If you do, it’s supposed to be something 'manly'. It goes back to the idea of 'little boys don’t pick flowers.' It’s so ingrained in us, especially in this country. This mindset wasn't always around, it’s something that came in that terrible late 18th century and became ingrained in us, a hangover from the oppressive Protestant work ethic."

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of our chat with James as we have a sniff around Les Senteurs and try different men's scents - from crisp and delicate, to full-on 'Marlon Brando' and everything in-between ...

Les Senteurs is located at 71 Elizabeth St, Belgravia, London SW1W 9PJ and 2 Seymour Pl, Marylebone, London W1H 7NA

020 7183 5842 lessenteurs.com