Monday, April 23, 2012

Musk and Masculinity

I missed musk. 

It was a sort of downmarket, Seventies thing, associated (by me anyway) with polyester, discos, gold chains and sex with strangers. The idea, from the era’s print ads I saw, was that cheap drugstore musk made all women swoon and surrender. Even then, that idea was cringe-inducing. So, when I saw a small bottle of Houbigant’s “Musk Monsieur” at an estate sale recently, I uncapped and sniffed it as a sort of  private joke, expecting the worst — cheap crap, the fragrance equivalent of a rotating mirrored ball.

It floored me. Never mind the musk. This scent, to me, was the quality “masculinity” in a bottle.

When one has an intense olfactory experience like this, it usually means that the scent is hitting some neuronal cluster or group of them in the brain, eliciting powerful cognitive associations. I knew mine weren’t about Daddy. My father called all men’s colognes “stink-um” and never wore them. (My husband has begun to wear cologne only recently, and even then only a small bit of it — my gifts to him include a couple of Etat Libre d’Orange favorites and Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanilla. Not what you’d call old school.) But I bought the little bottle for a couple of bucks. I brought it home and said to him, “You have to try this. It’s so masculine.” I liked it so much that when a larger bottle came up for sale at auction, I bought it too. 

Last week, on “Mad Men,” there was a scene in which Don fixes a sink. His much younger wife looks on in adoration. Women like me grew up with fathers and uncles who knew how to fix things. I think it was because they’d been in the military and in wars, both arenas where it was do or die. Musk notwithstanding, to me this is that scent: a man who can make things work, and make me feel safe. 

Silly, I know. So out of time. But one must be honest about the emotional content of one’s memories — especially scent memories. They demand it.

So what is this stuff?

There are two versions. Both my bottles are the original Houbigant ones, as far as I can tell (the word “Houbigant” on the bottles was my first clue) although I think the smaller one might be a little older. The cologne was released in 1973. Dana bought it some time in the 80’s — accounts differ — and although the newer bottles are similar, the word “Houbigant” is missing. I haven’t smelled the Dana version but, if I know anything at all about these kinds of licensing deals,  my guess is that it’s probably very different. 

The “notes” are so well-blended that they’re not easily listed, but there is a lot of barbershop here, which usually means bay rum.  The fragrance differs a bit between the two bottles — one opens a little “brighter,” while the other is smoky right away; the first remains a little greener and sweeter while the second dries down to the pure fur/musk lushness. (Subtle differences between batches were much more common in the era where some naturals were still used.) Both have lots of tobacco, a bit of green, blended aromatics, and musk. Both sink into the skin and last for hours.

I still haven’t figured out why this scent says “man” to me. And I wonder what modern scents would represent masculinity. What qualities might be associated with that broader term. Is modern masculinity still about mastery of the physical environment, confidence and strength?  Is it about humor, gamesmanship, insight?  Or is it ridiculous to even categorize like this any more?

What is “masculinity” to you, and what modern scents, if any, capture that quality for you? 


Dionne said...

For me, musk is unisex more than masculine, and I've got a couple of musk scents I wear myself although I haven't explored the note yet.

Vetiver is what I think of as masculine, and I love it on The Engineer.

Masculinity is harder to define, but I will say that one of my husband's best "bonus features" (ie. wasn't on my list of stuff to look for, but I sure appreciate it) is how handy he is. He's saved us thousands of dollars in mechanic's fees alone. I admit that when he fixes something I can't, it's really sexy.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Dionne. I have an electrician, not as cool as an Engineer but when stuff gets done around the house it's good times.
As to manly smells? Blue Stratos Tabac Original always means Dad/Man to me, Tabac is still my favourite scent for a man to wear.
There's something good about the spicy pepper of Burberry Brit Men too.
Portia x

Olfacta said...

Hi Dionne -- That's interesting -- I wear vetiver in hot weather but haven't really explored 70's musks until I stumbled across this one.

My dad and his brothers and my father-in-law were all engineers. That's the fix-it guy for sure. It's still a little daunting to me, although I've had to learn to repair some things. Odd about this. We'll see how the comments go. Nowadays I suppose the ability to text with one hand would be good!

Olfacta said...

Hi Portia -- There have been times when I wish I knew an electrician!

Tobacco is one of my favorites scents -- on me! (And on men too.) Tabac Aurea (DSH, I believe) is just beautiful. Vintage Tabac Blond, Tobacco Vanilla, a couple of old tobacco based colognes I have that nobody's ever heard of -- and pure tobacco absolute, too.

Cool Boy said...

nice one .....

self help therapy

Vanessa said...

"A man who can fix things" gets my vote as a definition of masculinity. : - ) Mr Bonkers has only ever been good for tuning tellies, but he does excel at that.

The masculine scents I have given to or commended to the scent-wearing men in my circle (not Mr B!), lean to the lighter or unisex side, certainly eg Kenzo Power, Santal Massoia, Carner Barcelona D600 and Juniper Sling. That suggests to me that ideally I probably want a man who can fix things round the house but also has extremely developed sensibilities. I may be looking for some time... : - )

Vanessa said...

And is willing to submit to wearing perfume!

Olfacta said...

Hi V -- Mine is a veritable demon with the cable remote!

I love Carner 400. Will have to check out the 600. Juniper Sling, too -- got a sample of that -- and, today, some vintage Peau de Espagne, which he hates. And I love. Oh well.

eula_w said...
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