Womanity Eau de Parfum by Mugler Review
Womanity is not a scent I would ever want to wear, nor something I would particularly want to smell on anyone else. Something about it feels fundamentally, jarringly wrong, and completely unlike anything one would expect from Mugler or any designer house. For this reason, I salute Womanity’s bravery and originality. It blows my mind that something this unconventional and savory ever made it to production in 2010, well into the era of pandering to consumer focus groups.
This perfume balloons my respect for Mugler as a house of artistry, in much the same way that Sex In the City: And Just Like That makes me respect the writing and production team of the Sex In the City franchise. These are companies that created something entirely counter to their target audience’s tastes and expectations in the name of artistry and what they believed would be innovative and new, regardless of the fact that it might be unpopular, too prickly, savory and uncomfortable for an audience expecting a world of gentle, buttery sweets and floral flourishes. Alexis Dadier, Ralf Schwieger, and French flavor and fragrance company MANE somehow managed to create something fundamentally anti-corporate, ultra-niche, and artsy to the point of being deeply unpleasant. Thus, I have a profound respect for Womanity, despite the fact that I do not, in any sense of the word, like it. And so I shall do my best to convey its essence to you here.
On opening the vial and first smelling Womanity on my skin, my first impression is an odd sort of quasi-gourmand scent, as if a cookie were baked with salt instead of sugar, with the scent of heavy, hefty, coarse brown salt emanating from the oven in overwhelming swirls.
There is a sharpness to it that is most prominent in the first few minutes of the opening. This is not a fine surface crust of salt; especially in the opening, there is real weight and heft to it, like a heavy brown puck of baked salt, with just the tiniest suggestion of warm spice, like a dusting of cinnamon. It reminds me of the smell of a craft store — not like the red-hot-cinnamon-candy-scented-candle-wax smell of a Michaels, but some other craft store, primarily unscented. This is the must and dust of so much fabric that’s been standing around in a warehouse for months, dusty and heavy with a vaguely powdery edge, and suddenly someone is baking cookies made of salt in the warehouse and the smells of old dust mix in with the brine and the warmth.
The salt is overwhelmingly concentrated, rich, coarse, and brown, and slightly metallic around the edges in a way that makes the entire scent feel alien, disturbing, not quite right. I’ve never smelled a fragrance from the house Neanderthal before, but smelling Womanity reminds me of the note breakdowns and descriptions of several of their scents, in particular the metallic Light and the salty seaweed-heavy Them. There is a cursed, alien, unnatural sort of feeling to this particular sharp, briny, and metallic smell. Something about it feels deeply unnerving and uncomfortable to me, like it’s something I’m not supposed to be smelling. The metallic edge makes me think of cold, alien things, the smell of some plastic-y drug, some fantasy euphoric substance, a fine chemical sand that you feel is doing some irreparable magic damage to your brain… and yet you keep breathing it in.
This is a beachy scent, but not a Blue Hawaiian, aquamarine, white sand, Caribbean sort of beach: no, this is a cold, wild, saturated, briny sort of beach, like the brackish concentrated murky salty water and coarse muddy brown sand of the Great Lakes on a windy day in April or early May, months before the Northeast of the US truly gets warm enough for swimming. It’s such a real, permeating salt that it crawls up my nostrils and scratches at the back of my throat, just like you’ve inhaled a mouthful of sandy saltwater, with the stinging and pain creeping down the back of your throat and the concentrated brine making your head spin.
None of this is remotely fishy or animalic; this is the salt of cold briny lake water, and of the slimy seaweed plants that grow there. It’s incredibly impressive how realistic and visceral it is. No part of it is like rot, or meat, or fish of any variety, nor is it entirely like the smell of caviar to me, though they do share a concentrated sort of saltiness.
This is a clean sort of terrifying and repulsive smell; it does not make me recoil because of any smell of flesh, or animals, or rot, or decay, but, rather, because of the sterile, cold, concentrated scent of salt and metal. Perhaps there is just a hint of oozing slime in the seaweed notes, but overall the things that make Womanity repulsive to me are all clean, unusual smells in suffocating quantities.
Womanity smells a little bit like blood, salty and metallic, but it’s blood sitting in an utterly sanitary, sterile medical facility on the coast. There’s an acrid acidic cleaner and a too-bright air freshener in the background. It’s more metallic than blood should be, more like a pile of mixed and dirty coins, too sharp and loud. It reminds me of the smell of my coin collection that lives in a cardboard shoebox in the closet of my childhood bedroom if that smell were magnified and made bloodier. This makes me think of how I was raised to always wash my hands after handling money. The metallic facet of Womanity makes me feel dirty, like I need to wash my hands but the feeling of danger doesn’t fade away no matter how much try. I feel a little bit like Lady Macbeth, unable to clean the invisible bloodstains from her hands.
On the other side of Womanity, there is a very bright fruity note present from the very beginning of the opening. This is supposed to be fig, but doesn’t feel at all like fig for at least the first hour. If this is a fig, it is an extraordinarily bright artificial fig, loaded with melon-y calones in bright bubblegum orange and pink colors. My first thought of the fruity note was an artificial watermelon flavoring, bright pink and juvenile. This isn’t any sort of real melon, but a too-bright chemical approximation of it, a multi-hyphenate synthetic flavoring that shouts where real fruit whisper.
This is calones turned up to eleven: that artificial coolness in cucumber- and melon-scented lotions and deodorants is the predominant contour of this artificial fruit note. But this is a calone note dialed up farther than any Bath and Body Works product for tweens would dare to go. It almost feels like a parody, a sort of self-referential joke, saying, “This is what women like, right? Fresh, bright, fruity pink scents? Melon-flavored gum? Something cool and fresh, not too heavy for summer days?” But the caricature is so distorted that it’s gone past fresh and cool straight to ice cold, sterile, laboratory calone.
The truth is that the fresh melon-cucumber scent we associate with calones is a very, very diluted form of the watermelon ketone molecule. At full strength, its scent is actually searing, acrid, and quite unpleasant. I wonder whether this is part of what makes Womanity almost physically painful to inhale: the calone note has been turned up past freshness into the realm of pungent, sharp laboratory chemicals, things that don’t feel quite safe to inhale.
It’s definitely a melon note of some sort: when I asked my boyfriend to smell the vial of Womanity, he remarked that “it’s like you’re eating cantaloupe and you bit your cheek.” This, too, is a side of Womanity made up of a scent I’m not particularly inclined to ever smell or wear: it is repulsively bright, youthful and loud, competing with the dense, briny salt in a nauseating olfactory shouting match.
Oddly enough, these two sides of Womanity, the brackish lake on one side and the melon bubblegum flavoring on the other, combine rather brilliantly. The salt provides richness, depth, and extraordinary density and heft to the light, wispy weight of that cloud of artificial melon flavoring. Womanity is blended well, with both of these sides seeping into each other seamlessly without leaving any gaps, such that, all at once, I’m smelling a simultaneously profusely light and cavernously deep melange of chilling salty winds, brackish water, coarse brown sands, and a beaming array of aromachemical fruity notes. It’s like you’re chewing some sort of fruity bubblegum walking along the beach of Lake Erie on a cold, windy day in April, when you experience a dissolution of self and sink entirely into your surroundings and all of a sudden you are the fruity gum and you are the beach, all melded together and singing through you in perfect harmony. It’s wondrous, satisfyingly unique and vast, and also terrifying.
This is one of very few scents to deeply unsettle me. Below I will attempt to describe the phantasmagoric adventure Womanity took me on in more detail.
So here you are. You’re in the dusty fabric warehouse and you’ve bitten into a warm fresh cookie and spat it back out, discovering it is made of little more than salt. Eventually the dust clears and you think to look around. You’re holding this extremely fresh bright fig, which really doesn’t feel like a fig at all but like a vibrant artificial calone-y watermelon scent, neon fuchsia and pastel coral. It’s youthful and juvenile, in your face the way the mean girl’s perfume is in 10th grade when you can smell her coming towards you from halfway down the hallway.
It’s unbalanced at this stage, top-heavy, a teenage girl in stillettos a little too tall for her dressed up to assist with the parent-teacher conference. Still, it’s unapologetic in its dazzling pink brightness, and oddly feels very well blended. It feels right that the opening of Womanity is this way. I can’t picture any other way for her to be. There’s a good rich depth to it, a sickening satisfaction in the waves upon unending waves of bright watermelon bubblegum pink.
About thirty to forty minutes in, you become aware of a hint of green at its edges. Milky white fig sap, with its snapping green qualities, drips away at the edges. You can smell just a little bit of the tree it came from, its rich fig-scented woody bark and delicate light-green leaves shone through with dappled sunlight. The oozing milky sap and green notes soften the overwhelming, nauseating pink effect. It’s a balance, but not quite a comfortable one: the pink is still winning out, but the two feel directly at odds with each other, man-made vs. natural, human vs. tree. This is the sap that was eventually made into watermelon bubblegum coming back to haunt its progeny, to emphasize and mock how far it has strayed from its roots.
This is one of those smells you have to go at sideways, both overpowering and somehow not entirely there. When you lean in close to whiff at Womanity, she’s barely there, hardly tickling your nostrils, dancing and flitting away. When you take a step back and try to look away from her, she marches right up to you and grabs you by the throat, demanding your attention. There’s something shy about her, but at the same time something that needs to be seen. So to really experience Womanity I had to humor her, pretending not to pay attention, and let her keep marching back in and slapping me in the face with something new. When I sat down intently just to take deep, thoughtful whiffs of her, she all but evaporated.
By an hour in, Womanity is primarily that bright fresh calone-y melon-y fig with the occasional whiff of salt. It’s slightly sour, concentrated, briny salt, like salty lake water and seaweed. It makes me think of summers swimming in the Great Lakes, catching a mouthful of dirty, briny brown water in my mouth as I tried to do an underwater somersault. The fresh green fig twigs and leaves and oozing sap have come and gone, fading ephemerally into the background as such naturalistic notes do when faced with the towering watermelon-taffy might of the very embodiment of the color pink.
The combination of unnaturally fresh and bright fruity notes and coarse briny salt is beachy somehow. Our high school girl has been dragged to the Great Lakes by her parents and is forced to sit around watching her little brothers as they throw dense, sandy mud at each other, and sometimes at her. To her horror, she realizes there is a repulsive grittiness to her watermelon gum: there’s sand in her mouth, dark taupe, coarse, horrible sand, with an exfoliating texture and a repulsive salty tang.
Still, it’s the beach, and she can hear seagulls and the crashing of waves and occasionally feel the sun on her face as it comes out from behind a cloud. The bright fresh melon-ness of the pink fruit note has calmed down some, settling a little towards what is slowly becoming recognizable as some kind of pink radioactive fig.
Cold weather and wind bring out this cold, bright and fresh unnatural fig, whereas warmth brings out the dense brown briny saltiness, which is, of course, caviar.
People make a big deal of the caviar note in Womanity. I applaud how counter to perfume orthodoxy it is, but to me it isn’t this horribly stinky note some make it out to be. It’s not fishy or animalic in the least. It doesn’t smell like human skin or sweat or fluids of any sort, as some have suggested. It stings and bites and turns in the nose just like concentrated salt water, briny and brown, so overwhelmingly salty you could almost float in it. At some moments it has a brief dissembling intrigue about it, like those cookies made of salt instead of sugar in the opening, but as time goes on the salt gets louder and wilder, more whipped by wind that blows dirty sand in your eyes, until there’s no mistake that you’re smelling some hole of brackish mud, your mouth full of bog.
The salt turns in the nose so much, in fact, that one of my nostrils dripped incessantly all day long when I first tried Womanity. It was a feeling I’ve never experienced before; it felt a little like my brain was leaking out my nose, so much that I got to searching the Internet anxiously about cerebrospinal fluid leakage. I still don’t know what was happening there, but I’ve never had any reaction remotely like that to a perfume. It just feels so genuinely, dizzyingly salty that it seems the salt water is really, physically up your nose from attempting that somersault.
Our neon-pink popular high school girl drowned in the brackish lakewater and woke to find she’d been turned into a witch.
Four to five hours in, Womanity gets headier, more human, with whiffs of cinnamon under all the salt. She wakes up and combs her hair with her fingers. This phase calls back a little to the gourmand salt-instead-of-sugar cookies in the very opening, brown like sand and simultaneously inviting and repulsive. However, the salt is finally blissfully fading a little into the background, no longer a maelstrom dominating the entirety of the scent but a wind left howling in the background as we enter the cozy witch’s hut at the edge of the water.
In this phase I do actually smell a touch of that sensual human-skin sort of note some people are overwhelmed by in Womanity. The witch is coming into her own, connecting with her body as she never did, somehow feeling more human than she ever did before. It isn’t quite sweat or any other bodily fluid, but a certain warmth. It makes me think of the way that most house dust is usually old human skin: the dusty dry opening has shown us a glimse back in time, back to when this skin was glowing warm and very much alive.
There’s ground dry cinnamon in tall shakers in all of the witch’s cabinets, a foil to the briny brackish wetness outside. It’s soft and dry and dusty and inviting, more finely ground and powdery than your typical kitchen cinnamon, hinting and flirting shyly at the edges of your vision. Under all the salt, there is this tiny warm and dry center: the witch’s heart, with a cinnamon stick straight through it, aging and turning into dust.
Womanity lets you rest in her hut for a time. You fall asleep, and at ten hours in the sun is setting and the cozy warmth is finally creeping from the periphery to the center of the experience. If there is any fig left it is jammier, stewier, soft and sweet and warm, worked into a cinnamony pudding. This warm, semi-sweet cinnamon fig pudding is balanced by a fading brackish saltiness that no longer claws at the back of your nose, but instead coexists peacefully with everything else around. The fig is soft and just slightly sappy once more, returning further and further from its bright pink calone excesses to its roots. The witch has mastered the bog as well as herself. She offers you the first cinnamony bite.
At first it seems Womanity is noticeable some very respectable 12 hours, from first application through the end. And yet… she leaves a tail you expect to evaporate immediately, but it doesn’t. She stays far longer after you thought the adventure was through. You’ve woken up from the dream, but she keeps whispering at the periphery when you turn your head, just the faintest skin scent of cinnamon and salt, a warm breeze, and a tiny hint of that fruity freshness floating in the cool air an inch or two from the skin. This certain seemingly indelible mark stays with you for almost 24 hours, not prominent enough for others to notice, but present enough to interfere with any other fragrance-wearing plans you may have for that day. You’re going to have to shower to shake the dream completely, or else wait until she decides to leave.
People often describe scents in terms of the emotions they evoke. Usually it’s something like comfort, longing, or perhaps joy. Maybe it’s something animalic and feral, sensual and carnal, dirty in a way that seeks to appeal to the deepest animal parts of us. Rarely, you will come across a scent of contemplative melancholy like Mitsouko, or even of wild despair like De Profundis, a heavy indulgence for dark and cloudy days.
Womanity is the first fragrance I’ve smelled that has made me feel pure fear. I don’t know how else to describe it. The vibes are utterly toxic in this one. It smells like something I’m not supposed to be smelling, not any one distinct note in particular, but a sharp, cold, salty, metallic muddle that makes my nose drip and my stomach turn, all sprayed over blithely with a fruity coral-pink melon scent. Womanity is bubblegum snapping loudly in a nuclear wasteland. It is the click of sharpened vermillion stilettos in a dark and foreboding military hospital. It is the wide, toothy shark grin of the woman at the beginning of the end of the world.
In a word, Womanity is forboding, an emotion I never could have predicted from this watermelon-pink concoction. Many unfavorable reviews seem to describe her as too animalic, even fishy, too carnal and primal in her sensuality, but I don’t have that experience with Womanity at all. She terrifies me, not because of some warm undercurrent of the smells of skin, of animals, of Dido on the ancient Carthaginian shore with salt water in her hair, fresh black figs in her hands, maddening lust in her heart, but because she is so piercing and so cold. This is Dido reborn on the frigid shore of a Great Lake in early spring, gazing out onto the murky water and the ruins beyond. This is her ghost, avenging the Siege of Carthage with malice and chemical warfare and bright pink lipstick and watermelon gum. She keeps a tiny jar of stewed fig preserves from home in her Longchamp leather handbag.
The first time I ever sampled Womanity, I took a deep whiff, jotted down some notes, and then opened my phone to find that Thierry Mugler had died. The experience was jarring to say the least. It felt like Womanity, that sea witch of toxic sludge and dread, was cackling, or maybe wailing horribly in my year. Maybe that coincidence has colored this review, but something about her feels deeply and fundamentally cursed to me.
I can see why Womanity was so swiftly discontinued. To me, and to many others, she simply isn’t pleasurable. But why should a woman always be pleasurable, delightful, conventional and clean? I am glad that the fragrance wrapped in ad copy about representing and appreciating all of womankind is Womanity and not some conventional vanilla-caramel or fruit-patchouli thing. I think I’d find it incredibly demeaning for a fashion brand (directed by a man, no less) to diminish all women and their wonder to some crowd-pleasing, focus-group-driven spectacle of syrupy sweetness featuring a mildly interesting aromatic herb buried somewhere in the middle notes and a heaping spoonful of sugar-coated cherries, plums, and apricots, or some other such insult. If you must compose a fragrance that speaks to some central tenet of womanhood, this is the way to do it. Women are people, and people are multifaceted and surprising. They can be cold and frightening just as well as they can be gracious or tempting.
For that reason alone, although I do not enjoy Womanity, I must applaud Dadier, Schwieger, MANE, and Mugler for their vision here. I always deeply respect fragrances and other pieces of entertainment where I can see genuine artistic vision rather than consumerist pandering as the driving force. Womanity wasn’t composed to sell out at Macy’s. It was composed to be Womanity, and fulfill that unique and terrifying artistic concept.
Womanity is one of the most unique and profound scent experiences I have ever had. It is a fortress, a feat of invention, one of the most impressive displays of what perfumery can do, all packed into an unassuming quirky pink bottle. It is awe-inspiring, majestic, monumental, and I sincerely hope I never smell it again. In the original sense of both words, she is both awesome and awful: she is extremely impressive and daunting, and inspires great wonder and fear.
I don’t know why I would ever want to sink into her trepidation and disquietude again, but Womanity is a deeply special thing to experience once.