What is the Jewish perspective on perfume for women or cologne for men, and when, or when not, are they considered appropriate?
From the Jewish perspective, the use of “perfume” in its many forms is considered simultaneously feminine and sensual. That means that it is considered appropriate only when it is either permitted to be sensuous, or in situations which are not sensuous.
Thus, for women, wearing perfume for attraction is only permitted in the private sphere, for enjoyment between husband and wife.
However, if a woman wears perfume solely for the personal enjoyment of the scent, it is considered acceptable even in the public sphere, as long she wears it in a way, or in contexts where, only she, or other women may enjoy it. In such a case, and with good taste, she may also wear it in the presence of close male family members such as fathers, brothers and sons.
This would include even single women, who may also wear perfume in a way that does not draw the attention of men. An exception for a single woman to wear perfume in the presence of a man and for the purpose of appealing to his sensibilities would be on a shidduch date. Here, a man and woman, after preliminary prerequisites of compatibility, and within proper standards of decorum, meet essentially for the purpose of attracting, and being attracted by, the person who they hope will be their future spouse.
Since Judaism considers the phenomenon of perfuming oneself to be feminine, a man’s wearing perfume is related to the Torah prohibition of cross-dressing. However, since nowadays so many men wear men’s perfume, i.e. cologne, it is not considered strictly “women’s wear”, and is thus, strictly speaking, not forbidden as cross-dressing. Still, it may be considered inappropriate, effeminate and “un-manly” for a man to wear cologne, even if worn for his own personal enjoyment.
Beyond that, as discussed above regarding women, if a man wears men’s perfume with sensuous intentions to attract, when doing so is inappropriate, it would be forbidden for reasons of immodesty. For the purpose of attraction, it would only be appropriate for a man whose wife enjoys her husband’s wearing cologne, and only then in private. In shidduch dating, unlike for single women, single men should generally assume wearing cologne to be inappropriate unless one knows for sure that it’s the accepted norm in his group.
An important qualification and distinction to the above discussion is that it applies particularly and specifically to perfumes, which by definition are intended to disseminate a pleasing, appealing and attractive scent. But deodorants, whose purpose, by definition, is to prevent or mask unpleasant odors, are permitted for use by both women and men, in all contexts.