Why Are We Still Describing Perfumes as Oriental?

The fragrance world is beginning to watch its words. For years, the industry has categorized scents into tidy olfactory groupings, which are commonly used by brands, retailers, and journalists. “You have groups like floral, fresh, woody,” and then with some trepidation, “Oriental,” fragrance writer Jane Daly tells BAZAAR.com.

If you’re wondering “What is an Oriental fragrance?” that’s just one of the term’s several issues. Not only is the word derogatory, it simply doesn’t mean anything in 2021.

Orient comes from a word meaning ‘East,’” says Tania Sanchez, coauthor of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. “The question is, East of where? In this case, France, where the perfume genre was born. This vague, ever exoticized, mysterious Orient includes the Persian Iran of the carpets, the Taj Mahal of Shalimar, and what is sometimes called the Far East,” she says. “It’s far from France, at least. China and Iran have little in common except their East-ness from Europe.”

“Today,” Sanchez says, “perfume is a global product, made everywhere, sold everywhere. Why not use a global term?”

This leaves the beauty community in an awkward position, as it searches for a clear replacement (and quick). Considering that the word Oriental is used as a catchall to describe fragrances with notes of sandalwood, patchouli, amber, incense, and the like, it’s not so easy to find a logical substitute. However, “spicy” and “resinous” are two starting points, Daly says.

There seems no good reason to stick with a confusing, Eurocentric term, when we could use clear, descriptive language instead.

“There seems no good reason to stick with a confusing, Eurocentric term, when we could use clear, descriptive language instead,” Sanchez says.

Another strong argument for abandoning the descriptor for fragrances is the problematic visual aesthetic companies have built around it.

“European cultures have historically fetishized and sexualized Asian people and cultures, and perfume marketing has unfortunately often played into this harmful fantasy,” she says.

Conversation on this topic is starting to spring up among perfume enthusiasts online, and in business as well. One organization taking a stand is The Fragrance Foundation, the leader in education in the field.

Linda Levy, the group’s president, describes the term as “outdated and offensive,” adding that “other terminology should definitely be applied instead.”

Every brand, fragrance house, and retailer has the freedom to determine its own language. So the term Oriental is not formal or official, she says. With that, we smell change in the air.

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