Scentual Attraction

Eau boy! With so many new perfumes borrowing from men's colognes, we may be seeing the sexual liberation of fragrance.

new fragrances of the season with male notes
(Image credit: Jeffrey Westbrook)

"Tapping into turn-ons is as important in fragrance as it is in music," says pop songbird Christina Aguilera, whose new fragrance, Inspire, is expected to be, if not quite as sexually charged as her concerts, pretty damn close. Wanting to make women feel "seductive and empowered," Aguilera did something radical: She borrowed musky notes from a cologne her husband wears. "I've always loved men's fragrances," she reveals. "I used to dabble in Jordan's so I could smell like him."

Is this the genie in the bottle? The secret to Aguilera's first American fragrance? "Only in the U.S. so far is there a definite trend toward women showing a preference for the woodsy notes usually associated with men's scents," says chemist Stephen Warrenburg, Ph.D., a research fellow with International Flavors & Fragrances. Naturally, perfumers are responding by mixing warm spicy musks, sandalwood, and cedar smells into almost all the new female offerings.


Maybe our olfactory preferences are evolving, or maybe we're simply following our instincts rather than taking cues from fragrance advertising. Surely when the ancient Egyptians were first bottling perfumed oils to sell to the world, they weren't thinking, Hey, this smells feminine. A fragrance's aim was simply to be memorable. Based on perfume bottles recovered from Tut's tomb, it seems both he and Cleopatra gravitated toward sweet and musky.

"By wearing my fragrance, you become my object of desire," explains R&B singer Usher, who deliberately developed his woodsy UR for Women without input from his wife, celebrity stylist Tameka Foster. It was, he confides, meant to be his personal dream scent, not hers. No marketer of the several new male celebrity scents for women thinks girls actually want to smell like guys — even if we're talking Usher, Antonio Banderas, or Sean John Combs. Rather, it's about her wanting to smell like his fantasy. "My first real encounter with fragrance was when a girlfriend wore Thierry Mugler's Angel," Usher recalls wistfully. "At that moment, I understood how powerfully fragrance can affect you." Is it a coincidence UR for Women also shares Angel's sweet-praline base note?

"Scent preference is based on experience, not chemicals," explains Warrenburg. "The brain's smell centers are right next to the emotion centers, so compared with the other senses, it takes fewer synapses to connect odor to feeling." French perfumer Kilian Hennessy (of the famous cognac dynasty) describes the effect of smelling a lover's fragrance as being raw and uncensored: "Smells evoke memories without a filter," he says. "Spritzing your pillow with your lover's cologne keeps him in bed with you. His olfactive presence alone can be soothing when he's away." That would explain why a woman can swoon with one whiff of Drakkar Noir because 15 years earlier her forever boyfriend wore it on prom night. Unfortunately, it's also true that if you had a bad breakup with someone, encountering his signature scent, even years later, can break your heart all over again.

Earlier this year, Calvin Klein Fragrances polled over 1000 Americans and concluded that the way a man smells is the number-one thing a woman obsesses about. (The number-one thing men obsess about is a woman's breasts, but we knew that.) Still another study by the Scent and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that out of 30 fragrances tested (from buttered popcorn to a lavender blend), every one had the power to sexually arouse a man. Which leaves quite a few options for successful seduction, whether you wear fruity florals or manly musks. (A full 30 percent of Dior's Eau Sauvage and Fahrenheit wearers are women; we're guessing they're not nuns.) As for finding the signature scent that both enhances your natural smell and bewitches your lover, Hennessy recommends wearing one for at least a day before committing. "The top note evaporates in five minutes, but you won't smell the dry-down until 10 hours later," he explains. "That's what you smell on your lover or on your coat the morning after." If you like it then, the scent's a keeper. And with any luck, so is he.

Check out our new Fragrance Finder tool for more perfumes and to find your signature scent.