So much for the the ancients and ocean travellers. It happened that post-renaissance landlubbers, no less confident in their machismo, could also be comfortable with perfume.
We’re talking Louis XIV and Louis XV, who, despite the wigs, were no shrinking violets*; they beggared the country with war and jumped women like champions. Perhaps the two were connected. Women seem to respond to a man in uniform.
Napoleon was a great douser of scent, preferring the light and evanescent touch of Eau de Cologne. One would have expected something more hard core from the conqueror or Europe, but no, this was what he liked
Note that the German formulation of Eau de Cologne was originally intended to be drunk as a specific against whatever ailed you. If ein verrückter Franzose like Napoleon wanted to pour it on himself, sure, why not, and who was going to argue with the little man? Couldn’t hurt. Like the Slinky and Silly Putty, Eau de Cologne was an invention that failed in its original intention but succeeded brilliantly as something wholly unexpected.
What about the Anglo-Saxons, the uptight WASPs mentioned previously? Napoleon’s twin nemeses Lords Nelson and Wellington were not noted for scent, despite Nelson being at sea and Wellington having served in the scent loving areas of India and Spain. (Nelson did, however, have rooms above Floris of Jermyn Street.)
Elsewhere in Regency London, as louche an time and place as any, we find Beau Brummell, prince of the dandies. He could take a full hour to get just the right dimple in his cravat, but he sneered at men’s wearing of scent, suggesting that the occasional bath might do the trick. (Arguably it might have been partially financial – he was bad with money and perfume is expensive. But then again, when did he ever refuse to put it on credit?)
The Victorian Anglophone male didn’t see much point in the stuff, preferring to carry the incidental miasmas of tobacco and whiskey. There were exceptions, of course, one notably in America. General George Pickett, he of the eponymous and catastrophic charge at Gettysburg, wore scent. The admiring memoirist Major Moxie Sorrel notes the fact in one throwaway line and historians have grabbed onto and embellished it ever since.
Two curious things stand out on this point – the fact that it was unusual enough for him to mention at all (no other Civil War soldier I know of was singled out for this), and the fact that no one seemed to hold it against him. There was, after all, a war on, and the blockade was presumably making this sort of thing difficult to come by, and how could he bear this kind of frivolousness? Somehow one doesn’t imagine General Grant indulging this way. Seems more a whiskey, tobacco, and horse kind of man. Or General Lee, who must have smelled like absolutely nothing at all.
As we entered the American century and as the business of America was business and the scent business being the potential gusher than it is, merchants of scent were not about to be left out of the boom just because of some old prejudice that scent was for the French or other such girlie men.
How to make the whole enterprise manly, though, that was the question. How to sell it to the Real American Man.
Sex, of course.
It required baby steps at first. Aqua Velva was introduced in 1929, first as a mouthwash (you can see where this is going). Manly Sweat may possibly be forgiven, halitosis will always get a bad rap, and will certainly put off all but the most starry eyed women.
Whether sales were disappointing or the marketing department thought the stuff insufficiently macho, the stuff was, like Eau de Cologne, re-branded as aftershave. Nothing more masculine than shaving. And to appeal to those hold outs who Don’t Wear Scent, it was sold on the grounds of practicality – skin tightening was the phrase, just like styptic pencils, that adjunct to minor manly wounds like razor cuts- not as hardcore as Heidelberg dueling scars, but still, not without honor. Throw a little alcohol like open flesh and you’d put some hair on your chest, I tell you what.
And then, too, it was promised to get the girls. Marlboro Man might get hang out with horses and probably shoot guns, but Old Spice Man got the most amazing looking women. (Or perhaps, that’s what all women look like to a man who’s spent six months at sea.)**
In a state of nature, of course, this attempt at chick magnetry is pointless. Postwar scientists discovered and named pheremones (literally, excitement carriers), which naturally come out of apocrines, human musk creators found in human torso’s furry parts.
No money in that, alas, but fortunately for the scent industry, that whole Cleanliness is next to Godliness thing put nature firmly off the table a long time ago. Not that it appears to have stopped physical attraction between the sexes. Then too, we are in the age of the metrosexual and frankly, all bets are off. Men, like women, now wear scent largely because they like it. Or affect to like it.
Myself, uptight WASP of a certain age, I will admit to liking a touch of Indian sandalwood. If infused in soap. But that’s it. My father didn’t wear cologne or any other splashy stuff, no sir, and what’s good enough for him’s good enough for me.
*Americans at least are woefully unaware of just how tough a tough Frenchman can be.
**The company has since gotten rather loopier in their advertising campaigns….