Frequenting perfume discussion communities and reading reviews online you often come across the term "animalic". Though its evocation is that of...animal, obviously, its significance is more layered, less simple, as we will explore.
Technically the term isn't even in the dictionary, or at the very least it is defined as "of or concerning animals". Yet the full story isn't restricted to that. Simply put an animalic perfume might do two things: 1)contain animal-derived products, i.e. raw materials directly harvested from animal sources or 2) evoke the animal in you, i.e. producing that "animalic growl" we associate with...well, you know.
I am going to explain both in detail, just let it be said in passing that the quoted phrase above was first used by (sadly) long-defunct blogger Cognoscenti back when she described scent in a visceral, highly imaginative way, both on her blog and on MakeupAlley. From then on, it caught on with most perfume reviewers online to the point it's become a foregone conclusion to almost hear the sound before reading the words.
But the etymology of "animalic" in perfumery has more to do with perfume molecule producing company Synarome's "perfumer's base" (i.e.a ready-made chord of complimentary ingredients for use when composing perfumes) called Animalis; a feral, thick mixture with prominent civet and castoreum (both traditionally animal-derived products), a claster of musks and costus root (To get an idea, this base is featured in both vintage Piguet Visa and in Vierge et Toreros by Etat Libre d'Orange and possibly Twill Rose by Parfums de Rosine). Actually, for accuracy's sake, Synarome has not one but two Animalis bases in their arsenal: Animalis 1745-03 (which is Tonkin musk like, very musky) and Animalis 5853 with woody and sensuous notes.
The first explanation of animalic refering to animal-derived ingredients is rather a fantasy than a fact nowadays nevertheless, since most companies ~major and niche, high-end and lower-end~ have stopped using these ingredients, either due to ethical reasons for the safe-keeping of the animals, or due to the high costs associated, or due to legislation forbidding the use of certain of them (for instance owning ambergris is considered illegal in certain countries).
Traditionally animal harvested ingredients included fecal and perineum region gland essences from the Tibetan deer musk (Tonquin musk), civet (from the civet cat Civettictis civeta, technically not a cat at all), castoreum (from beavers) and ambergris (from the sperm whale). Of those four, only ambergris can be said not to hurt, irritate or threaten the animal in any way, as it is naturally excreted by the whale and found floating in the ocean. You can consult the links for more info on each and every one of those ingredients.
The reason such essences were used for centuries is because they instilled a warmth that morphed other ingredients into greatness (this is especially true of civet which lets floral essences "bloom" on the skin; see the classic Tabu which uses civet to reinforce the carnality call of jasmine, carnation & patchouli and was actively briefed as un parfum de puta to its perfumer Jean Carles!). Or they acted as fixatives, i.e. prolonging the duration of the aromatic components enough so that they do not evaporate as quickly (for instance the musk base in the traditional Eau de Cologne was meant to provide a little bit of anchoring to the fleeting hesperidic top notes and the herbal heart).
They were also useful in producing certain "notes", for instance castoreum was often used as a "leather scent note" in leather perfumes. Makes sense as real urine (alongside cow dung and other animal essences) were traditionally used to treat hides in tanneries, lending hides a distinctly animalic scent which needed further "masking" with flowers. Did I just spoil your luxe fantasies? Sorry....
A good example where the leathery scent is clearly "animalic" -as in sweaty, horsey hide- is Paco Rabanne's La Nuit. A subtler example where the musky note recalls circus animals droppings amidst the sawdust smelled from afar is Dzing! by L'Artisan Perfumeur.And yet, these are fabulous perfumes, polarising yes, but with a strange pull to them.
These animalistic notes can also be provocative as hell; see Kiehl's Original Musk, Musc Ravageur by Editions de Parfums F.Malle , the intensely animal-like Ajmal Musk Gazelle or the undulating between polite society & barnyard tryst L'Air de Rien by Miller Harris. The effect? Same as in 1950s and 1960s trend of wearing leopard or cheetah-printed coats and accessories; there's something dangerous, wild, untamed about the person sporting such an item, be it fashions or perfume.
But animal-derived ingredients can expand (and indeed they have in many artisanal lines today) into more esoteric things than just musky smells, like "African stone" (dried excrement from hyrax, a small rodent, like in Lord Jester's Dionysus) or choya nak (essence from toasted sea-shells, such as in Fairchild by natural perfumer Anya mcCoy of Anya's Garden). The olfactory effects rendered by these innovative, non-classical essences can be surprising and very pleasing: Although initially sounding strange, they manage to evoke the intimacy and warmth of living things. Which is the whole point of "animalic" in the first place, isn't it.
Even indolic perfume notes or some varieties of synthesized musk fragrances (containing none of the natural deer musk) can fall into the umbrella of "animalic" should they be given a proper context to shine. Cumin can smell intimate like sweat if it's treated in a rich composition with spices. Costus root can be reminiscent of unwashed hair, in more intimate places than just head, as in vintage Fille d'Eve by Nina Ricci. Cassie can come across as womanly, ripe for the plucking. The mastery lies in the perfumer knowning what he/she's after.
The second explanation of the term "animalic" is perhaps more tortured, possibly the most elusive. How does one define what "brings out the animal", or maybe the anima -if we're to use Yungian terms- in you? Surely attraction, arousal, excitement of the senses is a highly individual thing. And why has this been tied to "dirty" smells, as in smells pertaining to the armpit, the vulva, the penis, the anus, the urethra and the region therein? As Jean Paul Guerlain, master perfumer at Guerlain perfume, used to say about his perfumes they were made to subtly evoke his mistress's more intimate regions and that involved all three holes. Of course older Guerlains, before the times of Jean Paul, can be naughty in a more discreet way; Mouchoir de Monsieur or Voilette de Madame hide a polite civet note in there.
What is it about our nether regions that is so olfactorily attractive, as if we were dogs sniffing each other in the butt while exchanging social hellos?
Animalic is largely a subjective term in this sense pertaining to perfume (no one's crotch smells exactly the same as the person's next to them), especially since perfume is conceived and traditionally used as an adornment that should elevate us over our basest instincts; a sort of sophistication and refinement that differentiates man from beast. This is an interesting dichotomy and at the same time an irony. Some of the most revered and masterful fragrances are indeed comprised from base smells, smells of the lower instincts. But I wonder, how is man able to elevate himself over the animal if beforehand he doesn't embrace the animal in him and rejoice in its constituents?
Apparently when speaking about animalic perfumes there are a few parameters peeking through as a constant. An animalic scent should be warm, rich, creating an aura of lived-in things (this is in part the allure of "skin scents"), maybe a tad pungent, but overall giving off sexiness; sexiness in the sense of actually making you think about sex, not just media-broadcasted images of what we should consider sexy (perky full breasts, chiseled pectorals, globulal butts, you name it), but sexy as in down and dirty, in all our imperfections, in all our natural secretions sans deodorant.
This is why animalic is often uttered in the same breath as "skanky smelling", a term coined to denote on the one hand the sickly sweetish scent of skanks the animals themselves (with which many have not unpleasant associations), but also the promiscuous and physical nature of "skanks", the women who don't employ subtlety in their seduction routine, to put it politely. What is it about an overt display of sexuality that is so compelling, be it a manifestation in a feminine or a masculine fragrance interchanged between the sexes? What is it about smell which brings us to our more primitive level when the instinct of procreation, the instinct of sexual desire, the desire for life is conquering even the omnipresent fear of death?
In that regard, animalic scents can be said to encompass a wide grey area of fragrance taxonomy, from the outwardly civet-trumpeting fecal nuances such as in Bal a Versailles by Jean Desprez, the classic Schocking by Sciaparelli (based on a woman's odorata sexualis) and Tolu by Ormonde Jayne to the musk-evocing Muscs Kublai Khan (with added civet and castoreum notes) and Bois et Musc by Serge Lutens ~as well as the more hidden sexuality of musks & once real, now synthetic, civet in the drydown of lady-like Chanel No.5. There's the civet in "parfum de puta" (whore's brew) Tabu by Dana; this was verbatim the brief!
And from there to even more distant, unthought of arpeggios; such as the cumin-laced Femme by Rochas and Kingdom by Alexander McQueen; the ripe garbage stink beneath the lemon and melon freshness of Diorella; the cassie absolute in Une Fleur de Cassie (F.Malle) or the intense urinous scent of Kouros by Yves Saint Laurent and the gloriously honeyed "piss" in Absolue pour le Soir (Maison F.Kurkudjian) and Miel de Bois (Serge Lutens) ~thanks to the alchemy of phenylacetic acid. Chanel Antaeus and Yatagan by Caron are also rich in questionable scents, but oh so compelling. Yatagan by Caron is this direction's logical zenith.
Even citrusy, vivacious things can hide a sweaty, dirty skin quality beneath fresh notes (usually neroli and petitgrain are perfect foils for this sort of sweat scent masking, as they share a common component with sweat). Eau d'Hermès is one such example. Cartier Déclaration is another. Not coincidentally, the latter is loosely inspired by the former.
Sometimes the animal just lurks in the shadow, intimidating and breath-taking...Onda by Vero Profumo certainly creates that image; we sense its habitat, we guess it's there. Givenchy Gentleman is menacing. Sometimes it's in plain sight, more apparent and therefore less suggestive; think of the male parts smell that Rose Poivrée by The Different Company used to have until recently.
Animalic scents can create fear, like sex itself and its sheer potency has created fear in the minds of puritans and church-abiding citizens who made the rules in the past, in an effort to control what is perhaps most liberating in humans, sex drive itself. But animalic scents can also create real lust, intellectual appreciation and that most prized sentiment of them all: empathy for the human condition...