"Barbershop Fragrance" As A Traditional Concept: Defining The Phrase

Not Really Cheap, Not Really Cheerful.

I want to thank reader and fellow blogger Bibi Maizon for providing this link as a historical anecdote about Osage Rub. It reveals a brief but enlightening historical blurb on the product, which I tried and failed to uncover myself. I'm glad Bibi did this; the information solidified my theory regarding "survivor products" like Osage Rub.

This stuff is more of a survivor than I thought. According to the site, a man named Merton E. Waite registered "Osage Rub" as a trademark hair tonic as far back as 1903, and he had been selling it since 1901! That makes it 117 years old. You can still buy a bottle for $4 at barber supply stores (which is how I found mine), sold in cheap plastic, but in the 1900s it was packaged handsomely in glass, its label framed in gold flake, its manufacturer, the Bonheur Company, proudly broadcasting itself in bold typeface under the slogan: "Makes the Old Head feel like New." A eucalyptus plant is appropriately illustrated next to the name, and there is no doubt that the bottle's contents were meant to be mass produced.

What communities like Fragrantica and basenotes fail to emphasize is the importance of the early twentieth century barbershop in Western culture. This was the world from which current megahits like Dior Homme and Bleu de Chanel are cast. In the 1900s, the average gentleman wasn't interested in perfuming his body, but he was interested in being clean, and perhaps (if he was wealthy) in scenting the handkerchief in his breast pocket. The "being clean" part is central to understanding the upbringing of the masculine fragrance industry. It wasn't Paul Parquet who reached the guys. It was Merton E. Waite, and his competitors. By landing hair tonics and grooming lotions on barbers' shelves, these pioneers of archetypical modern masculinity shaped the behaviors of the luxury brands that followed.

Perfume was certainly interesting in those early days, but it wasn't as connected to the mainstream. Osage Rub, however, was very connected. Its ads stated that "All barbers get ten cents per application," evidence that this product, and its congeners, was instrumental to the proliferation and growth of its own incentivized, free market-driven industry. Civil War Lilac Waters and Old World European colognes informed New World perfumers in their pursuit of synthetics, and without delving too deeply into the cultural weave of capitalists like Waite and perfumers like Parquet, I'll get right to the endgame: the synthetics of perfumery supplanted the naturals of barbershop tonics, thus making these tonics the original gendered perfumes.

Looking beyond Osage Rub, the question remains, what is a barbershop fragrance? Every genre has connective tissue which conjoins its examplars. I have deduced, from a careful perusal of William Andrews' interesting 1904 book, At The Sign Of The Barber's Pole: Studies In Hirsute History, that barbershop fragrances are derived from sweetness and powder. The sweetness stems from 18th century floral waters, while the powder references hair powder, commonly used from ancient times to the late 18th century. Hair powder was made of various materials, but most commonly of flour. Eventually shortages in flour spelled the end of its use for anything other than cooking and baking, but the scent of perfumed powder persisted as a barbershop staple, leading to the amiable powdery aftershave fragrances of today.

When I look at the majority of my aftershaves, which includes classics like Tabac, Old Spice, Skin Bracer, Aqua Velva, Clubman, Brut, and Canoe, I find that they are all incredibly similar. They're all sweet, herbal, spicy, fresh, and very powdery. My collection also includes the Lustray line (pictured above), and each one checks these boxes as well. When exploring fine fragrances from designer brands, I encounter a variety of perfumes entirely unrelated to barbershop scents, but every so often an oriental or fougere that typifies the genre comes along, like Lagerfeld Classic, Drakkar Noir, Rive Gauche Pour Homme, Bleu de Chanel, and more recently, Dior Sauvage. What sets these examples apart is their nod to barbershop traditions, i.e., clean powder. It is this tradition that defines masculinity in perfumery.

Are their outliers to the theme? Perhaps. One can argue convincingly that Azzaro's Chrome Legend, an aldehydic tea floral with a massive green apple note, is a 21st century mutation of the archetypical barbershop. Its aldehydes and floral notes are excessively dry, like an olfactory crystallization of brightness; its fruity quality is strangely diffuse and nearly ambery, not unlike coumarin, and its notes interact in a simple way. Compare CL to Old Spice, and on its face the fragrance couldn't be more different, but consider the general qualities it shares with the classic oriental (aldehydes, dry florals, sweet powder), and odd similarities are found.

I find that when reviewers express confusion about the phrase "barbershop scent," they say things like, "This doesn't smell like any barbershop I've been to." This is a fundamental misinterpretation of the phrase. To say that Drakkar Noir smells like a barbershop scent isn't to imply that Drakkar Noir is used by barbers. Drakkar Noir employs notes and accords that resemble products used for shaving: its lavender and dry-herbal qualities are similar to the scents of common shaving soaps. The phrase extrapolates from a variety of shaving and haircutting products that have been traditionally used, ranging from talcum powders to shaving creams, to even Barbacide and other disinfecting astringents. Barbershop fragrances are typically subjective, based on the barber's region of practice.

Why is this true? Barbershops smell quite different depending on what part of the world you live in. I consider Z-14 a barbershop scent, but not a conventional American barbershop scent. I think of it as an Italian barbershop scent, not unlike the majority of classic masculine colognes from midcentury Italy, stuff like Silvestre by Victor and Pino Silvestre, and even Spanish oldies like Agua Lavanda and Agua Brava. Z-14 capitalizes on dry mosses, zesty citrus, and rich herbal tones, which were all mainstream Meditteranean themes. American barbers are more staid, relying on talcum powder and subtle floral tones. Pinaud Clubman is the American reference, and Clubman and Z-14 couldn't be more different.

Once you become familiar with the themes, you begin to smell the similarities between the different regions. Sure, Clubman and Z-14 are different, but when you parse their respective territories you find they inhabit a well defined space. Canoe, Brut, and Tabac are all pretty clearly in Clubman's ballpark; Silvestre, Pino Silvestre, and the cypress-heavy earlier versions of Z-14 are in their own league. All resemble aftershaves and hair tonics from their respective regions. If you investigate designer fragrances, you find that Dior Homme's lipstick iris has powdery American aftershave qualities, Bleu de Chanel smells like Aqua Velva with a huge budget, and Sauvage is a citrusy leather, a direct descendent of stuff like English Leather Lime (or even just the original English Leather).

At the end of the day, the best approach to the barbershop genre is to consider your associations, and see what fits. Maybe Skin Bracer doesn't really make sense in the context of your personal experience at a barbershop, but Clubman's powdery talc scent might ring some serious bells. Traditional barbershops, manned by old men in white coats, are becoming a thing of the past. Fortunately, the tonics and lotions they used are still with us, and this year I will be exploring a few of them for you, a pursuit I will enjoy immensely.


Osage Rub: Classic Coolness

I really wish I knew how old Osage Rub is. I haven't been able to find a history of the stuff. Judging from vintage bottles and advertisements, it seems to date back to at least the 1940s, when it was apparently used as a medicinal hair tonic. It definitely harkens back to a time when straight razor shaving necessitated the use of something infallibly soothing afterward. Men weren't concerned with smelling good in the forties. They were concerned with feeling good. The Depression was over, and the insanities of the War made life's little luxuries all the more important. Some genius barber realized that Osage Rub made even bad shaves feel nice, and ran with it.

Consider this: Osage Rub has existed for decades not to be an alluring fragrance, not to impress people as a trendy styling accessory, and not to compete with other hair tonics. Osage Rub has existed for decades to refresh and "invigorate," and has thus become a wetshaving icon. I've used my fair share of mentholated aftershaves, but I have never experienced anything like Osage Rub. This stuff is more than just cold - it is downright freezing. It's just a guess, but I'd say there's somewhere around 20% menthol in the formula.

Upon first slapping it on there's a brisk alcohol bite, coupled with a natural eucalyptus note, which makes sense because there's real eucalyptus leaf oil in the ingredients. Fragrance-wise, Osage Rub is a simple one note eucalyptus scent. Personally I'd be happier with a mint scent (I dislike eucalyptus), but what follows makes its smell inconsequential. Out of nowhere comes a blast of frigidity so otherworldly in its coldness that any fear of redness after a shave is instantly eradicated. You could trim your whiskers with hedge clippers and it wouldn't matter; Osage Rub's medicinal properties are super concentrated and unerringly effective. This is a functional product. Razor burn? Problem solved.

It isn't just about skin irritation, though. Hot summer day? Splash a palmful on your face and rub it through your hair. The icy tingle is weirdly calming and satisfying. Just need to wake up after a rough night? Splash it like water and you'll be running rings around your boss. The chill is so intense that it actually makes my eyes water, it's that cold. Speaking of colds, the eucalyptus vapors hang around long enough to clear your sinuses. Osage Rub has survived the years because it makes men feel physically well, either after a shave or just at the end of a long day. It is the best mentholated aftershave lotion in existence - nothing else comes close, not even Barbasol Brisk. And I suppose men don't mind smelling like eucalyptus because eucalyptus has been soothing men for thousands of years. Men evolved embracing its mystical properties. It is classic coolness incarnate.


Rose 31 (Le Labo)

Le Labo is one of those super famous niche lines with a reputation preceding it, and very problematically at that. Approaching their perfumes, I'm reminded that their fragrances rarely smell like what they're named after. I'm also conscious of their subtler reputations for being a bit synthetic, and a bit weak, and perhaps more damningly, not especially complex. None of this dissuades me from liking Le Labo (Iris 39 is excellent), but it doesn't engender confidence. Expectation is the enemy of enjoyment, and if I expect to be disappointed, confirmation bias becomes a risk.

I needn't have worried with Rose 31. I like it. Not enough to ever buy it, or even to wear it again, but I appreciate what was done here. In a perfect world it would be called Vetiver 31, because it strikes me as being a vetiver fragrance with a hint of dry rose. That must be the reputation about names catching up with it. But the vetiver is well done, smelling very rooty and a bit green, with a smooth, woodsy character. Adding to the smooth woodiness are very clean notes of cedar, a hint of oud (synthetic oud, similar to the stuff found in Dirty English), and cool incense. The romance is delivered via musks, greens, and spices: white pepper, carrot seed, cumin, castoreum, and a bit of cold, powdery galbanum balance into a gauzy veil of earthiness, throwing shadow across the bright wood notes.

Poking through it all is the dry, bitter rose note. This is the same rose found in Van Cleef & Arpels PH, but here it's less intense, less prominent, more a suggestion than a statement. If you're a traditionalist about your rose fragrances, you won't care much for Rose 31. If you're interested in the mood that a dry, masculine rose note can evoke, this stuff is for you. I'm neither here nor there. I like or dislike rose frags as they come, and rarely do I find myself pining for this one. Is it too synthetic? It's obviously not natural, but I'm not bludgeoned by harsh aroma chemicals, either. Too weak? Yeah, maybe. Complex? Yes, in a linear way. It's nice, and well worth a sniff.


English Leather Appears To Be Discontinued

Looks like it'll have to be nothing at all.

Just a holiday observation: if you try to find a bottle of English Leather online, you are out of luck. Apparently stock is dried up, and Dana is no longer producing this classic. The bottle prices range from $24 to $120 depending on size, with the 8 oz jug costing about $100, and the 3.4 oz bottles anywhere from $23 to $75. This is sad, and frankly astonishing. EL used to be the easiest to find and cheapest to purchase. Even Dana's site has none available.

I can't believe that a seventy year-old fragrance, originally produced by Javier Serra and successfully sold by MEM until Dana's acquisition about twenty years ago, is suddenly no more. How could Dana drop the ball like that? What went wrong? Clearly this kind of fragrance is no longer popular, but then again neither are Old Spice and Brut, and they're surviving. What's Dana's excuse? They didn't want to bother lifting the brand up out of the dust of the 20th century, and now, instead of having it as a branch to profit from, it no longer exists.

I happen to have an 8 oz bottle of the cologne, which still contains about 7.5 ounces, and I guess I'll be holding on to it for years to come, as I rarely wear it. The color of the liquid has darkened considerably since I bought it, and upon sampling it yesterday, I found its sharp citrus notes and stark woody drydown have mellowed into a closer representation of the vintage scent. Hopefully another company revives the English Leather name, as it would be awful to think this scent is gone for good.


A Brief Note On Decanting Clubman Aftershave Into Glass, And Shaving Off 2018

"It smells better decanted." Anyone who frequents wetshaver circles knows that Pinaud Clubman aftershave has a reputation for smelling just a tiny bit like the plastic it's housed in. This never bothered me tremendously, but I always wondered if the introductory statement of this post was true - does it smell better decanted into glass? With the porous plastic chemicals removed from the equation, and just enough aeration of the aftershave occurring during the decanting process, I figured it was possible, so I bought a two dollar flask from TJ Maxx and decanted my Clubman.

The result is interesting. While it seems to lighten up (aerate?) the overall fragrance and accentuate the floral notes a bit, I still notice a slight plastic smell. However, the smell is greatly reduced, to the point where I have to look for it to notice it. That's in stark contrast to my experience straight from the factory bottle, where the plastic odor kind of smacks you right in the nose just after the sweet citrus top, but before the powdery oakmoss settles in. It reminds me of why P&G went to great lengths to devise a specially coated plastic bottle for Old Spice: no plastic odor. I would judge there's a seventy to eighty percent reduction in the plastic element when Clubman is decanted into a clean glass bottle. Given that the plastic problem was minor to begin with, I consider this a successful outcome and recommend decanting to anyone who enjoys using this particular Pinaud product. (I don't really get a plastic odor from the Classic Vanilla version, which is surprising.)

Before I go, I'll mention something that might interest my regular readers. You may have noticed a significant decrease in the number of posts this year compared to other years. One reason for this is that 2017 was an unusually busy year for me personally. But a bigger reason is that my interest in conventional EDTs and high end fragrances has waned a bit. I've owned and worn many of the classics, tested and sampled a slew of feminines, tried my hand at quite a few niche frags, and now find myself drawn to the concept of the "barbershop scent." Therefore 2018 will be focused entirely on classic barbershop aftershaves.

Expect to see one or two reviews per month, with things like the Lustray line and Osage Rub being reviewed. I've seen many experienced noses in fragrance forums, guys who enjoy their Tom Fords and Xerjoffs, turn green at the term "barbershop," saying they don't understand the label. What does a barbershop smell like? What makes a fragrance a "barbershop frag?" What does it mean to embrace 14 ounces of something that costs fifty cents an ounce? How did these dinosaurs of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s survive into the 21st century?

Stay tuned.

Update 1/14/18:

My decanted Clubman now smells completely free of plastic. It has been in glass for a month, and was my aftershave of choice today. During application, I noticed a couple of things. First, the overall scent has softened, becoming more powdery, and a vanilla note that I was previously unaware of has become evident. Second, the scent is a bit more evanescent. Altogether, I think the aeration of the aftershave was a good thing, and the benefits of decanting it are indisputably significant.


Clubman Classic Vanilla (Pinaud)

As I approach 2018, the alarming thought that I may have become outmoded seems increasingly prevelant. Consider this: I am a heterosexual white male in his mid thirties, I own a house and a full-sized Buick, I use a flip phone, I work full time but spend weekends with my girlfriend and family, and I keep cigarettes in the house in case guests forget theirs. By social justice warrior standards, I am a fucking dinosaur.

The hip(ster) kids of the perennially insulted twenty-teens believe in renting, freelancing, iPhones, Hondas, and vaping. I can't tell you how many twenty-something guys I've met who speak with a feminine lilt in their voice, punctuating every other word with "like," rarely making direct eye contact. They often wear skinny jeans, weirdly groomed facial hair, and never smell of anything, except maybe a dash of Axe deodorant, perhaps because they feel personal fragrance is offensive.

The landscape is populated with these "men" (and their vapid partners), and sometimes, in humorous attempts at small talk, they ask me what fragrance I'm wearing. I usually wonder what would happen if I were to break out a bottle of my SOTD and offer them some. Would I see their genitals instantly shrivel up into peanut M&M-sized knots under their skintight denim? Would the shock of being confronted with such unabashed testosterone cheesiness traumatize them enough to whiten their Keanu beards? Would they call me xenophobic? Would I have to apologize?

Clubman Classic Vanilla is the stuff of dinosaurs like me, but it's our secret weapon. It's the reason we still have our self respect. The shameless beauty in its simple melodic chord of lime peel, lavender, jasmine, coumarin, tonka, vanilla, and talc recalls Caron's Third Man and YSL's Rive Gauche, only simpler, quieter, more direct. This aftershave has wrinkled its share of powdered noses, but its cool talcum drydown is the purest incarnation of a wetshaver scent. When the last of the male SJWs is hospitalized for testicular torsion, the meek shall inherit the Earth.


Suede (Bath & Body Works)

Fragrantica user "Robinsda" wrote of Suede:
"This may seem weird, but I get a similar vibe from this to Aqua Di Gio Profumo."
Now, if you're familiar with AdGP, you know that it has a reputation for smelling not like a flanker to the original, but like the actual original formula of Acqua di Gio from the 1990s (Essenza ticks that box, too). This suggests that Suede smells like a floral citrus aquatic scent, which is counterintuitive for anything professing to focus on leather.

To me Suede smells like a basic citrus cologne with an English Leather-style dyrdown, except with an oversized white musk standing in for EL's wood notes. Is this worth $35? Yes and no. If you're looking for a tenacious cologne with a fairly harmless (non-animalic) drydown, and you can't afford to spend $85 on 100ml of AdG, I suppose you could get Suede. However, I can think of better citrus scents: Adam Levine's signature masculine is an excellent grapefruit cologne with a bit of a clean woodsy base, Ed Hardy's Love & Luck is still a great dupe of Creed's MI (by proxy a dupe of AdG), and Aqua Quorum has a piney richness under all the calone that makes it infinitely more "suedy" than Suede for half the cost.

My issue with fragrances like this is that there are too many similar comparatives to make a purchase worthwhile. Why should anyone drop $35 on an average citrus-woody cologne when there are better colognes for the same price or less? Bourbon is at least a somewhat unique concept, but "citrus leather" barely registers anymore.