Masculinity, like any socially enforced identity, can be exhausting. Rupaul’s popular assertion that ‘we are all born naked, and the rest is drag‘, holds quite a lot of truth for me : I am quite happy to wear my suit and tie for work, have always enjoyed, to a certain extent, how this conventional costume (and it is a costume) looks; but at the same time I am still always very aware that it is certainly only one possible, culturally arbitrary form of dressing my male body: other ways might include my jeans and flower t shirts and colourful hoodies and sweatshirts for the weekends, my more ‘gentlemanly’ jumpers and straight coats and lavish scarves that I like to offset plain colours with, or the occasional extravagant nocturnal performance rags (all furs, silk, animal prints and Robert Smith goth hair) of my spirit animal, Burning Bush – most definitely another form of costume, yes, but also strangely liberating, like manning a submarine – closed off; immune, the people like fish in the aquarium of the deep wide ocean. Clothes, for me, are both a burden and, it goes without saying, a cover, a way to hide; an expression of the self, yes, the external manifestation thereof that we must all be judged by on a daily basis – as we cannot walk around naked; yet in my own personal case, deep down I am not entirely sure how much, if at all, these outer layers of garments ever truly really represent my inner spirit. Only that I feel heavier, more imposing, stricter, definitely older, and much more world-weary in my daily formal wear, while simultaneously ‘appreciating’, to some degree, the difference in the superficial quality of social transactions this ‘smartening up’ incurs in the people I encounter all around me: ladies and gentlemen pay me more attention at the check out counter of the supermarket; the expressions of anodynely quiet approval as I get on the bus, given by respectable Japanese older figures (the western import of this form of clothing long universally accepted as a worldwide, homogenizing conformism for the masculine body; a way of fading into the crowd as a work slave). These clothes are effortlessly normalizing. I fit in. My shoulders, broad already, are even broader. I can sink into this role quite easily. You might even say it becomes me. It is limiting, goading, oblivious, though – and I can only imagine, with all the extra polish and facepaint and varnishing and accessorising that society demands, how time consuming, and often quite simply extremely tedious, all of the garnishing and smoothing and prettifying, must all be for expectation-conforming women.
I feel exactly the same way about perfume. Fragrance. Scent. Most of the current ‘feminines’ on the market, like many of the women I saw in the UK recently with their extraordinarily heavy make up, false eyelashes, facial contouring, sculpted eyebrows, and plumped up glossy lips and hair, have the extravagance, and exaggeration, of the classic ‘female impersonating’ drag queen (the line between the two has very definitely blurred in the last decade or so as Drag Race becomes mainstream and becomes absorbed by the heterosexual majority); these are sweet, oversaturated, almost comical, perfumes, foreshadowing only one attribute of the female persona and coming across as almost clownish; and yet men have famously long had it even worse with their testosterone boosting potions, even if the thick, woody, oudhy sweet chocolate of the everything-but-the -kitchen-sink trend of some recent men’s fragrances has steered things in a slightly more ‘abundant’, and femininely peacockish, direction.
Some fragrance tropes seemingly Die Hard, though, particularly the classic fougere, a winning formula that never entirely goes out of style (or at least commercial relevance). I can occasionally quite enjoy this type of perfume when it is done well – say Rive Gauche Pour Homme by Yves Saint Laurent, or a similar apres rasage called Eau De Berlin by Harry Lehmann that we once bought in Charlottenburg and which D smells quite nice in every once in a while, as there is a crisp, unfussiness to this type of accord that can aura the body with a certain nonchalant elegance ( I have always loved the original Sure Deodorant For Men for this reason – cheap, simple; a fougere crossed with a touch of Guerlain Shalimar – I wore this yesterday (but oddly, would never consider it for even a moment when I go to work, where in perfume terms I strictly cross dress – with a suit, anything too manly scent-wise and I would start to feel like a Marvel character -). Yes, despite the recent trends of sweet and sickly for both sexes, it seems that a certain pendulum has swung back in a more traditionalist manner – unsurprising, given the current political climates – and a perfume such as Diptyque’s ‘new’ Eau De Minthe, which is a real throwback to the classic eighties perfumes such as Drakkar Noir, all granite-jawed nutmeg and mint, patchouli and a fresh fougere-ish base founded on geranium and rose, might, in the wrong hands just come across as a tired old rubbernecking cliche. What is interesting about this scent though, from my perspective, is the context – Tokyo – in which it is being sold as a regular part of the popular Diptyque collection, neither marketed specifically at men or at women; Japan, despite its entrenched sexism and lack of real gender equality in the workplace, is, at the same time, far more adventurous – particularly the younger generation – when it comes to experimentation and simply wearing what you want to, especially before university students join companies (when, depressingly, each April, you see them all, like drones, all wearing exactly the same thing, the dreaded ‘recruit suits‘ ; university boys turned into office men, all in virtually identical suits, white shirts, brief cases, shiny shoes; previously fashionable university girls, now in regulation knee length skirts, suit jackets, white blouses, and hair in regulation pony tails as they join the predetermined conveyor belt that will lead them from their twenties, into retirement, and the old people’s home…..)
All of this notwithstanding, though, as I say, I do feel that Japan is more open-minded in many ways when it comes to trying different kind of fragrances, and although I can imagine young men naturally gravitating towards this one – because the fougere formula has always been sexy, let’s face it- I can almost even more easily imagine women of all ages, tired of pinky and perky and ‘peony’ roses and peaches, finding a certain relief in donning a more toned down yet vigorous perfume such as this one; a subtle spray under the collar or shirt sleeve here and there a calming refuge from all the expected girliness, which in this country is a monstrous albatross around each female born here from birth. That such a traditionally ‘male’ smelling perfume is presented without gender directives, in quite attractive visual presentation as well (I have always had a soft spot for Diptyque) strikes me as some kind of progress, actually. Where Maison Francis Kurkdjian over emphasised the point with their recent, disappointing, ‘Gender Fluidity’, here, although some female consumers will definitely read Eau De Minthe as being male, in terms of marketing, it is determinedly not even an issue.
Puredistance’s new Aenotus, a ‘master perfume’ by Antoine Lie, is far more typically masculine in its approach than anything else in this house’s line of perfumes – M (a rich, powerful yet indolent old-fashioned leather that could be worn very well by a dandy of any gender) included. According to the company, while M has a perfume oil strength of 25%, which is high enough as it is – the newest perfume has one of 48% – a fact that, in my view, does something of a disservice to the ingredients in the blend : a fresh extravaganza of orange, mandarin, lemon, yuzu, mint, blackcurrant bud and petitgrain that you experience in the initial blast as being quite potent to say the least, but which is overtaken, quickly but surely, by the bulk of the perfume, which is a long lasting, eventual ‘skin scent’ of oakmoss, patchouli, and musks that you have smelled too many times in your local locker room (well, you probably have – I can’t say that I have). . When Duncan wore it, at first we both found it simply too strong and too ‘typical’, somehow; too much of a throwback to every other perfume aimed at men that you know already, although admittedly, when I came back into the room every now and again, he most definitely had a mellow and very ‘manly presence’ to him that you can imagine some people taking to, if such conservatism and paternalism were a desirable and projectable part of their signature. Personally, in terms of Puredistance, I am much happier, on occasion, wearing Antonia or Warszawa (also by Antoine Lie), which I wore at the weekend and found intriguingly ambiguous, calming, reserved, and sensual in its blend of velveted base notes and high quality flowers. It is quite beautiful. I just need a little more mystery or non-obviousness to my perfumes, something beyond, no matter how high quality the ingredients therein.
Sunday was the penultimate day of Golden Week : today, the country goes back to work. Entrenched as a cultural phenomenon, and probably ‘infecting’ tens of millions of people across the land as we speak, is the illness known as gogatsubyo, or ‘May sickness’ – feelings of depression, physical unwellness, fatigue, listlessness, due to the ‘warmer weather’ (I love it! and I have always preferred this profusion of green and floral abandon to the prim festivities of the cherry blossom) and the fact that the quotidian reality has to sink in after the uncharacteristic freedom of having ten days off in celebration of the new emperor and empress (while many of my colleagues were visibly delighted at the thought of having so much time to do as they wanted, as we approached this ‘magical time’, some others felt quite dismayed at the idea that they somehow had to fill up the days with something – almost as though, without being told what to do and having a ready made exhausting work structure, their whole set up and get up would just collapse). What was interesting was that this dread of going back to work, with the symptoms already set by society, was already affecting people’s potential enjoyment of the holiday before it even started; a curious negativity wrapped up in the ingrained guilt at not constantly working that I am, at the cellular level, completely immune to. I just wanted it to continue.
Acutely aware of all this, but trying to put it to the back of our minds on our last day out of the holiday (yesterday we just holed up at home, hardly even getting out of bed) ,h eading into the poorer, more working class area of Bandobashi in Yokohama and to explore an old shopping arcade there, for some reason I had decided that morning to wear the aforementioned roll on Sure Deodorant and some vintage Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, wanting something, soapy, easy and reassuring; I was not in the mood for all the tropical florals and coconut I had been wearing all week as though I were a walking olfactory advertisement for a holiday in Polynesia; and as it happened, going down an unfamiliar street, we made an impulsive and spontaneous stop at a bicycle shop, seeing a sleek and funky bright yellow bike on sale out the front that would be perfect for Duncan to start accompanying me on the frequent circuits of our neighbourhood and beyond I now do on a regular basis – good for the continuing rehabilitation of my leg muscles and for general health as well – plus I just love the smells of the flowers and the greenery, and the feeling of physical strength growing as the neighbourhood goes from spring, through cherry blossom to early summer and I feel just generally more vital from doing so and remember the rush of my childhood when we were always cycling around one place or another.
You can’t really get more manly than a bike shop (well you probably can, but I wouldn’t know), and part of me was glad, at that moment, that I happened not to be drenched in vintage Loulou parfum – Olivia, the bottle is almost empty! what a glorious piece of perfumery this thing is ! I LOVE it – as I have been the majority of the week ; it might have seemed slightly awkward and out of place (Paco Rabanne was working quite nicely, thank you). As the D filled in the details for the delivery and made the payment, I kept catching unspoken drifts of the Guerlain Coriolan he was wearing that day – another recycling of the ‘classic masculinity’ that Guerlain tried to press upon the public in the late nineties even though it was very off trend at the time and therefore sunk without trace; yet this is one of those very complex, refined, delicate, yet sensual masculine perfumes that could hardly be more French if it tried; far more poetic than either of the above reviewed perfumes. This is a soft, linen shirt of a Parisian gentleman; soft chamois leather, gorse and benzoin, with ylang ylang nutmeg and ginger (just sprinkles; nothing intense), herbal accents and fine citruses, drying down to what I realized might possibly have been the inspiration for Jean Claude Ellena’s Terre D’Hermes, a bone dry, mastered and reawakened vetiver.
While I was definitely rather enjoying the subtle and erotic scent that the D was giving off as we sat down at a traditional Japanese restaurant down the arcade (in a part of Yokohama that s really like the land that time forgot – absolutely stuck in a time warp, which is sometimes exactly how we like it), to me, there was also something quite irritatingly perfect about the vibe that it was giving off, something almost faux–intellectual; while soulful, attractive, and genuinely blended, there is a faultlessness to Coriolan that makes me glad that we only have a miniature bottle in our collection; a full one, used too copiously, might begin to get on my nerves. Ultimately, I prefer, I think, perfumes that are less self-serious (or much more); lighthearted, flamboyant, like the 1899 Hemingway by Histoires De Parfum that D picked up in London, which has the most gorgeous sillage I have smelled in a tobacco and coumarin perfume; or the Nutmeg and Ginger cologne I picked up on Sunday after lunch in one of the recycle shops near the arcade that I am sure he will wear more pointedly and effectively than any babe magnets made precisely for that very obvious purpose: extraordinarily simple, based mainly only on nutmeg oil, there is a sense of not pussyfooting it around when you are talking only about arid spices with a touch of underlying woods. He smells really hot in it. Rather than a grand orchestration of accords that are ‘known’ to represent masculinity in an immediately recognisable, almost embarrassingly obvious, manner, here, a more spritely virility that doesn’t even recognize itself as such, will be the much more pleasing, and to me, sexually arousing, olfactory result.