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The manly scent of Brut

A collection of Brut cologne and aftershave bottles in the writer’s medicine cabinet
Ralph Gardner Jr.
A collection of Brut cologne and aftershave bottles in the writer’s medicine cabinet

How come I have five spent bottles of Brut aftershave in my medicine cabinet? I suppose the underlying assumption to the question is that I must know the answer. But can any of us truly claim to know ourselves?

I should make it clear that this medicine cabinet doesn’t reside in our residence but in the pool house. It’s not as grand as it sounds. It’s an Eighties relic. How many pool structures built today are carpeted with Astroturf? Also, I’d like to make one thing clear. Brut isn’t my default cologne. That’s Dunhill Classic aftershave. It’s a vintage scent that I inherited from my father and that I’ve been stockpiling ever since, assuming that Dunhill will cease manufacturing it one day, if they haven’t already.

But a building as eccentric as our pool house requires complementary products. For example, we have an outdoor shower where I’ve decreed that only green products — such as shampoos, conditioners, and soap — are acceptable.

By green I don’t mean environmentally responsible. I mean the color green. They match the trees that tower over the pool house as well as the poison ivy lapping at our feet. The pool house bathroom’s medicine cabinet is under no similar edicts. I’m more flexible about introducing color there. It just so happens, luckily, that Brut cologne, not to mention Brut deodorant — in both roll on and spray before the spray was recalled due to the presence of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical — come in green bottles and cans.

But why Brut? Why not Old Spice or English Leather? Because I like the self-assertive scent. Punchy citrus, basil and anise, according to one reviewer. But as much as the scent, I embraced the Neanderthal slogan as I recall it in TV commercials dating back to the 1960’s: “the manly scent of Brut”. I mean, does anybody really want to smell like a man? Men typically don’t smell good. Some of them even stink.

My Brut bottle collection came to exist more by accident that planning. Since the pool house is used only a few months a year, and lies dormant from October through April, products tend to last a long time. So long, in fact, that by the time I run low and think of buying a new bottle the design has often changed. Sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.

I’m also aware that aftershave and cologne — if there’s a distinction between the two I’m not sure what it is — have fallen out of favor with some if not many of the younger male generation. After a shave some prefer to bathe their skin in moisturizer.

I don’t want to get into any arguments about whether moisturizer is less manly than aftershave. All I’ll say is that there’s something bracing, heroic, defiant, gladiatorial, sword-and-sandal about the astringent sting, the wallop, the one-two punch of alcohol against skin.

But again, that’s not why I covet my old bottles of Brut. It’s because together they represent a case study in modern American marketing. My oldest bottle, probably dating to the 1980’s surrounds the name Brut in delicate filigree. Within two generations the filigree is gone, replaced by a shield.

The original bottles, probably glass, worn by Elvis and advertised by Joe Namath, came with a classy steel medallion that hung by a chain from the neck of the bottle. I still have one of the medallions in my basement though sadly not an original bottle.

Also, the description of the product changes. It starts out by calling itself aftershave before turning to cologne, splash-on, and most recently classic splash-on. And the earlier versions didn’t define Brut’s manliness. That was left to consumers.

But later iterations, perhaps with masculinity falling out of favor, have tried to keep up with the times. “The essence of man” is the way the bottle advertised itself until the one I just picked up. Now it’s targeted to “Men of character.” I’d love to be in one of those marketing meetings.

Where all of this places me in the pantheon of manliness I’m uncertain. My wife often complains about the strength of my scent — not to be mistaken for body odor — so I typically shave and then shower leaving an almost imperceptible hint of fragrance, if any at all.

There are those who might consider me henpecked. I reject the premise. Henpecked men don’t use Brut. Old Spice maybe. But not the manly scent of Brut.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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