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?