Megan Volpert: Perfume (2022) | featured image

Take a Whiff of ‘Perfume’ and Enter the World of Queer Culture

How did Calvin Klein’s gender-neutral CK One, with its scent like “a vodka tonic with lemon twist”, help inspire gender revolution?Perfume follows the fragrant path into queer culture.

Megan Volpert
March 2022

Chapter 6: Performance

In the spring of 1994, I was an eighth grader glued to the television as tributes to dearly departed Kurt Cobain began rolling out. The messiah had gone, but his message of grunge continued to proliferate everywhere, and for a few years it was possible for young women to wear Doc Martens and flannel shirts without everybody presuming they were lesbians. We dressed like dudes and everybody wore the same perfume: CK One, barely fragrant but massively ideological. The ad campaign was starkly minimalist, black and white with almost no sound, just a motley crew of long-haired people in roughed up jeans and unbuttoned flannels quietly slouching around and looking semi-confrontationally at the camera. Through this marketing my thirteen-year-old brain instantly processed the foundational postmodern idea that there was no difference between a man and a woman.

CK One was the first fragrance explicitly marketed as unisex. Calvin Klein went to Firmenich and asked the firm to make something that could be worn by anyone. Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont proceeded to craft an aromatic citrus fragrance that defined the lowest common denominator of perfume: basically, a vodka tonic with lemon twist.

At its peak, CK One was turning a profit of more than $90 million annually. Despite its very light touch, the original contained more than twenty notes that could be pushed and pulled in so many directions that Morillas and Fremont were ultimately able to spawn about a dozen flankers. These were each branded in a way that carried forward the missions of grunge, even though explicit associations with Nineties counterculture were quickly dialed down: CK All, CK Everyone, CK One Graffiti, CK One Summer, CK One Chinese New Year, and many special collector’s edition bottles.

The grunge association ultimately had to go because Calvin Klein realized he’d launched the world’s easiest office scent. CK One has rather sadly and even ironically ended up as the official cologne of unobtrusive corporate employees everywhere. Telegraphing an aura of team player, it whispers proof that one takes care with one’s presentation of self but that the presentation shall not be complicatedly fussy or generally loud, and it is most definitely not sexy. It understands what is appropriate for a workplace environment. Human Resources departments approve of CK One, which is about as anti-grunge as it gets. But there I sat: on the cusp of puberty, imagining how my girlhood might dissolve before my very nose into this total gender revolution that at least for a moment CK One truly was. I never bought a bottle; the ideas in the ad campaign were enough to activate me.

This is in marked contrast to the strict male-female division I saw everywhere else in life, but especially in the marketing of perfume. Davidoff’s Cool Water had been around since 1988 and was the Axe body spray of its time among the boys at school. Those ads featured tan, ripped athletes with brown hair and board shorts emerging from bright waves, wet demigods presented in slow-motion. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the men’s fragrance, Davidoff waited until 1996 to introduce the women’s version, which was more fruity than aquatic. I remember loving the original version but being afraid to ask my mom to buy me a men’s fragrance, lest she be alerted to the fact that I was a queer. Someone gifted her a bottle of Cool Water Woman at some point. She hated it and after the bottle grew a fine layer of dust, I nonchalantly asked her if I could have it. Cool Water Woman was socially permissible, a tomboy compromise I made to inch just a little closer to the bottle I truly wanted and the socially unacceptable self it was meant to express.

Sometimes I dreamed of olfactory privacy, wishing to walk around inside a bubble wearing the men’s version of Cool Water but unable to be smelled by others. I wanted to be stealth, to be allowed to pass as reasonably feminine, to silo off the masculine energies of the scents that most genuinely drew me, to fly my freak flags for my own enjoyment unperceived by a policing public. The closet is not a happy place and eventually I came out of it. 

These perfume ads are meant to help girls find their way in the world, and they surely do, even when one revolts against the messaging of the ads by either a countercultural performance or an ironic engagement in the normative life suggested. Perfume is a functional artwork, like food and clothes, which must beguile the public in order to survive through proliferation of the object. It differs from a work of visual art, graffiti sitting up there on the wall with a ready ability to disrupt whenever one happens upon it, free of any imperative to please its audience. An art object that need not entice is one that is free to provoke. In 1973, Revlon was secure enough after almost forty years of fragrance profit that it dared to launch Charlie, a lovely green floral aldehyde that was the first perfume ad campaign to feature a woman wearing pants. But also high heels, of course. One can be both pretty and independent, it seems.

We can even go back to 1952, when Estée Lauder decided to market Youth Dew as a bath oil instead of a perfume so that women could buy it for themselves. This was an era where men were supposed to buy perfume for their women. If one had no man, I suppose one had to choose between no perfume on the one hand or a ruined reputation on the other. When Andy Warhol died in the hospital after routine gallbladder surgery, one of the things the hospital returned to his estate was a small bottle of Youth Dew. Warhol had an extensive collection of smells, especially women’s perfume and particularly bottles from Estée Lauder and Lalique. He evangelized the merits of Estée Lauder’s Beautiful so often and so widely that photographer Paige Powell dropped a bottle of it into his grave as his casket was lowered in, and Estée Lauder later launched anniversary bottles of it featuring his artwork. This fact is probably the only evidence one needs to cement the links between perfume, gender and marketing. If Warhol was deeply into perfume, then perfume is definitionally part of queer pop culture.[…]

Marketing says one thing and perfume says another. As far back as 1889, Guerlain created Jicky for men but ultimately ended up marketing it for women. Scents have no intrinsic gender or sexuality. There is nothing about this floral note or that amber accord which is inherently discernable as masculine or feminine. Beyond these far from settled debates about who ought to wear what scents, the powdery lemon freshness of Jicky was first and foremost artificial. It was the first fragrance to rely on synthetics: the spicy floralcy of linalool, the fresh-cut hay of coumarin, and ethyl vanillin. At the time, this was highly controversial. Synthetics were viewed as self-evidently inferior to naturals, and in some ignorant corners they are still viewed this way. They are different, not inferior, and people who look down their noses at synthetics are missing out on all the flowers that are too delicate to be rendered naturally: freesia, honeysuckle, violet, tulip, gardenia, heliotrope, orchid, lilac and lily of the valley, just for starters. They are missing out on the champagne vibe of Chanel No. 5 with its overdose of one percent aldehydes, a textural smell of effervescence that has no natural equivalent.

The dumbness of the debate over artificial versus natural ingredients runs parallel to the dumbness of classifying fragrances for men versus for women, and all of this speaks to the dumbness of any authentically gendered selfhood in the first place. Perfume is fluid, flexible, subjective, and possessed of the capacity to perform whatever queer identity one likes. Nowadays, unisex fragrance is all the rage, and hooray for that. It used to be that “to put on airs” literally meant to wear perfume to mask one’s own smell until the next available bath time, but eventually the phrase acquired a negative connotation of pretentiousness. Super queer synonyms, slurs and code words for “pretentious” include: arty, affected, conspicuous, extravagant, flamboyant, flashy, flowery, imposing, jazzy, mincing, ornate, vainglorious. And performative.

For me, the briefly transcendent performative capacity of perfume is like Grant Achatz plating my dessert directly on the table at Alinea or Rene Imperato walking the runway with a cane out of time to the soundtrack at the DapperQ fashion show. Oh, one had to be there. These are utterly sublime and perfect creativities in their ugly, fierce, limitless way. One apprehends them immediately and viscerally, inhaling their divine presence. And we in turn become those giants on whose shoulders the future will stand. We, the perfumed, make a home in style. We are surrounded by an ancestral waft of CK One, or putting on Glamazon, the unisex floral amber powerhouse that RuPaul launched in 2013. One can choose to wear perfume in this manner, as a sign of the magic moment. Or one can wear it as a gender instead.

Megan Volpert is a frequent contributor to PopMatters and a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University, USA. She has written or edited over dozen books, including Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear (2020), RuPaul’s Drag Race and Philosophy (2019), and Boss Broad (2019).

Excerpted from Perfume by Megan Volpert, published as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. Copyright © 2022 Bloomsbury. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.