1811 jean marie farina eau de cologne

Humanity has been making perfumes as long as it has been writing history. Fragrances today are used as sensual ornaments that we apply to our skins. If you go back far enough, fragrances were actually practical or an absolute necessity.

Fragrances for men are a relatively new concept compared to the long history of perfume. In fact, for a very long time perfume was a perfectly unisex terminology applied to any fragrance. It’s only been since the emergence of 20th Century social insecurities that masculine needed self-assertion by using other terms to describe their fragrances.

In this guide, you will discover the long history of perfumery as well as the relatively short story of men’s fragrances in the 20th Century. Keep scrolling to read it all or jump straight to a section that interests you the most:

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Early Fragrance History

ancient egyptian perfume oil extractionFirstly, we often credit the Ancient Egyptians with its origins. Indeed, they invented glass and were the first to store perfumes in bottles. The Egyptians would notably use fragrances for ceremonies and burials.

However, this extended to daily wear among the elite. Fragrances were usually composed of myrrh, frankincense and native flowers such as lily and rose. The practice certainly caught on and was adopted by the Persians.

Meanwhile, the Ancient Greeks and Romans refined perfumery into an art-form. After all, the word “perfume” derives from the Latin meaning “through smoke”.

Similarly, the Romans even developed aftershave, which was an antiseptic and anaesthetic concoction made with medicinal herbs and spices.  In 2004, archaeologists in Cyprus unearthed a 4000 year-old Bronze Age perfume factory suggesting that fragrances were already big business.

Fragrances in The Middle East & Beyond

Ernst Rodolphe - The Perfume MakerThe Middle East was probably the most significant geographical area for perfumery. Babylonian Mesopotamia was an empire that linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Persian Gulf through most of modern-day Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

In fact, the world’s first recorded chemist was a woman called Tapputi who worked at the Mesopotamian Royal Palace around 1200 BC. She notably developed advanced perfumery techniques with distillation, cold enfleurage, tincture and solvents.

However, the rise of Christianity saw the use of perfumes fall. Nevertheless, the Arabs preserved it for daily wear and practising religion. Much later between the 6th and 10th centuries, Islam innovated perfume culture with steam distillation techniques and new raw materials. Many flowers and citrus fruits were native to the region. Meanwhile, trade would consequently facilitate access to spices, resins, herbs and wood.

However, the Indians also have a long perfumery history that predates some middle eastern techniques. Archaeologists discovered terracotta distillation equipment in the Indus Valley that was carbon dated to 3000 BC. Therefore, this suggests that essential oil extraction by distillation had been discovered by the Indus civilisation long before their neighbours.

Perfumery In Western Europe

Renaissance essential oil distillation courtesy of wellcome imagesFinally, the Europeans eventually mastered perfumery largely thanks to the Arabic influence. In 14th-Century, Queen Elisabeth of Hungary commissioned the first modern perfume. Although it was first known as Eau de Hongrie (Hungary Water), it soon became the blueprint for eau de toilette.

In most of the older cultures described, fragrances were often perceived as deeply spiritual and were associated with religious ceremonies. Meanwhile, many during this period were used to compensate for bad hygiene whilst others had sanitary functions.

In due time, the fragrance industry blossomed between the 14th and 16th Centuries. The Renaissance witnessed perfumery spread across Europe and notably settled in France.

Meanwhile in 1709, a unique concoction was invented by Italian living in Germany. Giovanni Maria Farina named his creation Kölnisch Wasser (Cologne water) after his new hometown. The earliest known eau de cologne of this variety still in production today is 4711, which you can discover with our review.

However, perfume served a largely sanitary purpose. The term “Eau de Toilette” derives from an old French term for personal grooming, which essentially means “cleaning water”.

Queen Elizabeth I of England hated bad smells and had all public places scented with perfume. Likewise, Louis XV’s 18th Century royal court was known as “la cour parfumée”. In summary, fragrances were used to hide bad smells like body odour.

A New Age of Perfumery Dawns

fougère royale houbigant 1920s advertFinally, it was the Industrial Revolution that changed the came forever and brought about modern perfumery.

Around this period, particular statesmen were known for their penchants for fragrances. Napoleon Bonaparte had a standing order of 50 bottles of eau de cologne per month from Chardin, which he used after bathing.

According to the House of Creed, Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria Hungary had an exclusive sandalwood fragrance made for him some years later in 1850.

A golden age of scientific discovery brought about the dawn of synthetic aromatic compounds and new extraction techniques.

For example, the very first fougère fragrance was created by Jean-François Houbigant in 1882. Named Fougère Royale, it was the first to feature coumarin by synthetically isolating the particles found in tonka beans.

As a result, fragrances became cheaper to make and buy. Moreover, they were better preserved allowing large quantities to be shipped around the world. With advances in hygiene, fragrances today are widely used as an aesthetic and sensual experience.

What Is The History Of Men’s Fragrances?

caron pour homme 1934 advertIn 1934, Caron founder Ernest Daltroff, created the very first fragrance for men. He simply named it “Pour Un Homme” (For A Man) and it featured an accord of lavender and vanilla over a musky amber and cedar wood base.

Until this moment, men could only really choose between traditionally unisex eau de cologne or English lavenders. Creed’s offerings were usually exclusive commissions from royalty. However, the brand’s self-acclaimed history sometimes struggles under impartial scrutiny.

Alternatively, Acqua di Parma Colonia and Guerlain’s Mouchoir Pour Monsieur were fragrances devised for scenting handkerchiefs rather than skin.

Otherwise, they would venture into a largely feminine-oriented industry or even forego fragrances altogether. Nevertheless, aftershaves such as Aqua Velva had existed since 1917 or indeed earlier. However, their function was largely sanitary and medicinal.

Pour Un Homme de Caron was wildly successfully and Daltroff basically created an entirely new market. Fragrances for men flourished.

In 1937, the Shulton Company redeveloped their Early American Old Spice fragrance for women for the Christmas market. In 1938, they introduced Old Spice, which is still one of today’s most successful colognes for men.

Men’s Colognes After The Second World War

vintage dior eau sauvage posterMen’s fragrances grew across post-war Europe and America during the baby boom. With developing hygiene, aftershave brands realised that their largely sanitary and medicinal function become obsolete. Therefore, many left the shaving culture and transitioned towards new identities as colognes or fragrances.

In 1949, the house of Dana created English Leather based on MEM’s 1930’s formula for Russian Leather. Some years later in 1955, Chanel released Pour Monsieur. In 1959, German house Mäurer & Wirtz, notably known for their 4711 eau de cologne, launched Tabac Original.

The 1960s witnessed the birth of new and exciting French fragrances. Fabergé’s Brut Pour Homme (1964), Lancôme Balafre (1967) and Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage (1966) were the most prominent. New men’s colognes emerged abroad such as Estée Lauder’s Aramis (1964), Dana’s British Sterling (1965) and Hai Karate (1967).

Men’s Designer Fragrances Begin

Paco Rabanne Pour Homme 1973 advertAt this point in time, men’s fragrances had carved itself a tangible identity. Although all perfumes by definition, the vocabulary was altogether different. Men’s fragrances appropriated “cologne” as their distinctive definition and distanced themselves from the feminine connotations of “perfume”.

Furthermore, advancements in synthetic aromatics the following decade provoked men’s fragrances to truly explode as a consumer market. Most resulting concoctions featured strongly aromatic fougère themes that occasionally edged towards orientals.

Following Christian Dior and Chanel, other fashion designers toyed with the prestige of introducing a men’s cologne. The 1970s saw designers release fragrances including Paco Rabanne Pour Homme (1973), Gucci Pour Homme (1976)  Ralph Lauren Polo in 1978. Meanwhile, perfumer Azzaro launched their own Pour Homme in 1978.

Men’s Designer Perfume Explosion

jean paul gaultier le male 1997 advert

Competing luxury designer houses soon rushed for a piece of the market and the 1980s become a volatile but exciting period. Firstly, Calvin Klein introduced Calvin in 1981. Likewise, Giorgio Armani released Pour Homme (1984) while Hugo Boss launched Number One (1985).

Other major game changers to the market were Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir (1982) and Davidoff Cool Water (1988).

Finally, the 1990s saw a diversification of the market as the remaining major designer brands released their first men’s fragrance.

However, their interpretations were a fresher approach compared to the aromatic fougères that dominated the market. For example, Kenzo Pour Homme (1991) was an aromatic aquatic. Alternatively, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Male (1996) was an oriental fragrance with notable fresh mint notes.

Other major newcomers to men’s fragrances emerged including L’eau d’Issey Pour Homme (1994), Thierry Mugler A*Men (1996) and Bvlgari Pour Homme (1996). Chanel rounded off the century in 1999 with their game-changing Allure Homme.

Men’s Fragrances In The 21st Century

Terre d'hermès bottle sky backgroundWith increasing pedigree from established brands or new houses emerging in the industry, the market is ever-changing. In 2006, Hermès revitalised the market with the introduction of Terre d’Hermès. Creed modernised its range with the release of the wildly successful Aventus in 2010. The dawn 21st Century has seen fragrances as a staple part of consumerism with new colognes released on an almost rhythmic daily basis.

Men’s colognes are no longer limited to conventionally masculine oriental of fougère notes. Furthermore, many comparatively young houses are turned back to unisex fragrances fashionably labelled as gender benders.

Finally, with new advances in molecule extraction from natural sources, a Renaissance in natural fragrances created through technologically advanced means is soon upon us.

Timeline of Men’s Fragrances

Below is a breakdown of significant men’s fragrance releases since the 19th Century. Each highlighted fragrance has been reviewed on Bespoke Unit so you’ll be able to learn more about it. Meanwhile, we’ve added buying links to those that are still in production and you can currently buy online!

If you feel that an important fragrance is missing, feel free to leave a comment below!

19th Century Men’s Fragrances

Although these predate Caron Pour Un Homme,  note that they were solely marketed towards men at the time. For instance, Creed Santal Imperial was exclusively made for the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

20th Century Men’s Fragrances

Don’t want to scroll through all of these? Check out our recommendations of the very best men’s classic and traditional colognes!

Fragrances that predate Caron Pour Homme are chiefly aftershaves. However, as mentioned above, Acqua di Parma Colonia, was a fragrance destined to scent men’s handkerchiefs.

21st Century Men’s Fragrances

New fragrance releases have exponentially increased in volume in the recent years of the 21st Century. Although many of these are flankers based upon the classics of yesteryear, there are a few that have significantly impacted the contemporary fragrance market.

What Next?

Now that you have read all about the history of men’s fragrances, why don’t you check out some more content?

Fragrance History Guide
Reviewed by Harvey I., on .
"Really interesting overview! Learned a great deal about the history of fragrances, thanks!"
Rating: 5.0 ★★★★★

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