Why, when most perfumes go out of fashion or quietly die away, has Chanel No. 5 consistently ranked as one of the top selling perfumes for decades? What’s fascinating about Tilar J. Mazzeo’s attempt to answer this question in The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume is that although she dispels certain myths and replaces them with facts (or more myths, depending on who you ask) about the history of Chanel No. 5, she suggests that Chanel No. 5’s true secret is that it has the elusive quality all cult brands have: it acquired a life of its own in the minds of those who loved it.
The book is divided into three parts — “Coco Before Chanel No. 5,” “Love and War,” and “The Life of an Icon.” By teasing out the complex history of the characters involved in Chanel No. 5's creation, to describing the post WW II milieu in which its brand was solidified, Mazzeo has us think of the perfume in richer terms than I would have thought possible.
In the first section, Mazzeo explains how Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s biography holds clues about Chanel No. 5. We hear about her humble beginnings as a charity-case orphan, her days as a showgirl and then kept woman, and her ultimate rise to high society, culminating in her position as a fashion designer.
Chanel No. 5’s aesthetic, and the perfume's dialectic between clean and dirty, Mazzeo speculates, came from Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's early experiences. In the Aubazine convent where the charity-case orphan was raised, "the aroma of sheets boiled in copper pots sweetened with dried root of iris and the aroma of ironing" contributed to Coco's love of clean smells and minimalist aesthetics. The number five was interwoven into the convent's occult beginnings. "Cistercian cathedrals, churches, and abbeys," as she quotes one scholar, " are built on..."the Golden Ration of Pythagoras," which is "the ratio of both the five-pointed star and the human form." As a result, the number 5 became Coco Chanel's lucky number. These interpretations are so tantalizing that I found myself accepting them uncritically, but the reader should remind herself that Mazzeo is reading a lot into, for example, the austerity of Aubazine's architecture and its eventual influence on a perfume!
When Coco Chanel left the convent and became a showgirl, she met a kept woman named Émilienne who was part of the demi-monde to which Coco belonged. Her personal scent deconstructed the prevailing scent code of good girl/bad girl and, Mazzeo argues, influenced the character of Chanel No. 5.
At the start of the century, Mazzeo tells us, there were certain perfumes that either said "courtesan" or "nice girl." Jasmine, musk, patchouli, tuberose, and animalic scents, for example, were worn by openly sexual women who might as well be prostitutes; good girls wore "delicate floral scents of rose or violets." But when Coco met Émilienne, she loved that the worldly woman didn't smell of musk and jasmine. Instead, Émilienne smelled both "clean and sensual," a combination of "warm skin and freshly washed hair." This would contribute to Chanel No. 5's dichotomy of clean aldehydes and musky, indolic sexuality, making it a more modern take on the expression of sexuality in perfume.
Because of Chanel's relationship with an exiled Russian duke/cousin to Russia's last czar Nicholas II, Dmitri Pavlovich, Chanel was able to meet perfumer Ernest Beaux, whose formula for Chanel No. 5 may have existed previously in imperial Russia under the name Rallet No. 1. Beaux has revealed that his use of aldehydes in Chanel No. 5 was sought to evoke the scent of snow and lichen in the Arctic where he was stationed during the last years of WW I. Although Chanel No. 5 was not the first to deploy aldehydes in perfume, its use as a counterpoint to Chanel No. 5’s sensual jasmine and rose made it a modern landmark.
The perfumista will find a lot to love in The Secret of Chanel No. 5. She will discover that Coco participated in a “guerrilla” launch of Chanel No. 5 at Cannes, without conventional advertising. She’ll also learn that it’s a wonder Chanel No. 5 took off at all, considering that in its first catalogue of perfumes, Chanel No. 5, rather than being showcased and highlighted, was mixed in with Chanel No 1, 2, 7, 11, 14, 20, 21, 22, 27, 46 and 55! So numerous were Chanel perfumes, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night features a spoof of “Chanel No. 16,” one of the few Chanels that actually didn’t exist! I like to consider myself in the know, but I had no idea, for example, that when Chanel was at war with her backers, she launched an illegal line of “red label” Chanels. (Oh, man, will I be trolling for these on eBay! Thanks to Robin for the image you see to your right.)
The perfumista will also be fascinated to learn that Vionnet, Lucien Lelong, Balenciaga, Coty, and Molyneux were deliberate rivals, attempting through name or formula to wrest consumer interest away from “le monstre” — Chandler Burr's moniker for Chanel No. 5. (Vionnet and Lelong launched perfume lines with letter-based rather than number-based names; Balenciaga came up with “Le Dix/Ten”: Coty’s L’Aimant was an attempt to create a lighter Chanel No. 5; and Molyneux created its own No. 5 [Le Numéro Cinq], later known as “Le Parfum Connu.”)
The most moving part of Mazzeo’s book, for me, was that Chanel No. 5 was distributed to the middle class during World War II and it was then, “in an era of rationing and making-do,” that Chanel No. 5 became “the ultimate symbol of luxury.”
Much of this happened against Coco Chanel’s wishes. To Mazzeo’s credit, The Secret of Chanel No. 5 is no Coco Chanel hagiography; to put it mildly, Coco doesn’t exactly come across as a saint or likeable person. While her Jewish business partners were attempting to distribute Chanel No. 5 through the US Army as a tax-free product to be sold in military commissaries around the world, Coco was attempting to use anti-Semitism to get control back from these business partners at the same time that she was consorting with Nazi sympathizers. Oy. Vey.
Luckily, she didn’t succeed, and Chanel No. 5 reached iconic status in spite of her efforts to keep it as a conventional luxury brand. As Mazzeo writes:
Mass marketing of Chanel No. 5 didn’t destroy the prestige of the fragrance. Instead, it transformed Chanel No. 5 into a symbol of everything that had been lost and everything those soldiers and their girls at home, all those nurses on the front lines, hoped still might be saved. It was a part of a world before the war, a world of glamour and beauty that somehow had survived. It became the ultimate symbol of France, part of what everyone was fighting for...It remained a luxury even as all other comforts of living vanished, and this status as a luxury — as something untouched by this era of losses — was part of the magic and the desire.
Making Chanel No. 5 available through the US army was, in other words, what “catapulted the fragrance to a new level of cultural celebrity.”
It’s interesting to me that Mazzeo used Andy Warhol’s silk-screen rendition of the Chanel No. 5 bottle for her cover. Chanel No. 5 is, in many ways, the inverse of Coca-Cola. Both items, high and low, were/are available to the average Joe. (Not only was Chanel No. 5 available to soldiers in military commissaries, Chanel No. 5 was available during the war in more affordable, smaller-sized flacons.) Ultimately,the secret of Chanel No. 5 lies in this irony: that a luxury product gained its icon status by being available to the average consumer.
The following Andy Warhol quote about Coca-Cola is interesting to read in light of Chanel No. 5:
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it. — from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol