Friday, October 23, 2009

The Mystique of Chanel No. 5

By Polly Guerin, Fashion Historian

The world's most legendary fragrance and the House of Chanel's most famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, is not the first perfume to ever have emerged on the fashion scene. Poiret, the fashion designer who freed women from the corset and created slim hip sheaths that were all the rage in the Jazz age, was also the first fashion designer to create a perfume. He worked with chemists to concoct mysterious, Oriental scents. He created the "Poiret" woman with Le Fruit Defendu, Nuit de Chine, L'Etrange Fleur, even Borgia.
           However, the legend still holds Chanel No. 5 up as the number one perfume that has been on sale since its introduction in 1921. The House of Chanel claims that a bottle is sold worldwide every 30 seconds.

          Parisian couturier Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel commissioned Ernest Beaux, one of the most celebrated perfumers of the era, and, as we know today, these men are called the "Nose" of the industry. Well, Beaux' nose was inspired by his military sojourn above the Arctic Circle during World War I. His perfume attempts to capture the scent of extreme freshness of the northern lakes under the midnight sun. At that time the most expensive perfume oil was jasmine, and Chanel wanted to create the most costly perfume in the word, and as a result No. 5 relies heavily on jasmine. There was not one but several formulas presented by Beaux, and No. 5 was the one chosen out of a series of ten perfumes presented. Concurrently, Chanel was presenting her couture collection on May 5 of that year, and the iconic No. 5 was born to a destiny of unrivaled success.
          Chanel No. 5 did not take off immediately. Being a woman of unprecedented marketing vision Chanel introduced it first to her friends on May 5, 1921 and it was given to preferred clients free at her salon. Making the scent more recognizable, the fitting rooms of her establishment were scented with No. 5, which as you know, is a tactic imitated by retailers today. Although not the first fragrance to use synthetic floral aldehydes as a top note, Chanel’s stated, "I want to give women an artificial perfume. Yes, I do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made so that it would make a woman's natural beauty more precise."
          Famous spokes models for the fragrance have included movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, whose mystic boosted its popularity. In 1953 when asked what she wore to bed, Monroe famously replied, "Why, Chanel No. 5, of course." Chanel herself declared, "A woman should wear fragrance wherever she expects to be kissed."
       French film sensation Catherine Deneuve also became the iconic image of the Chanel No. 5 woman, as were Nicole Kidman and actress Audrey Tautou, who also appeared in the short firm for the fragrance introduced on May 5, 2009 in honor of the creation of Chanel No. 5. introduced on May 5, 1921.
          Could any other perfume be so celebrated to have a book written about it? On Oct. 20, the Chanel No. 5 Biography, "HISTOIRE DU NO. 5 CHANNEL, UN NUMERO INTEMPOREL" (or "HISTORY OF CHANEL NO. 5, A TIMELESS NUMBER," in English) was released in France, Belgium and Switzerland. The book is billed as an "authorized biography" on the mythic scent introduced in 1921. Written by Francois Ternon in French by Editions Norman, the subjects covered in the 186-paged book include how the fragrance got its name and the manner in which its bottle was chosen. Ternon also retraces important moments in the lives of Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel and Ernest Beaux, No. 5's two creators. The house of Chanel supplied 32 illustrated pages.
          The Paris movie theater may be showing "Coco Before Chanel," but Bergdorf Goodman next door is tipping its hat to Chanel with windows devoted to “Chanel and Beyond.” Bergdorf's has devoted three of its Fifth Avenue windows to the house, featuring props such as an oversize Chanel No. 5 bottle, and a large quilted jacket and handbag. A special "Secrets of the Chanel Jacket" installation on the second floor tells the story of the iconic jacket's creation and vintage haute couture, and contains two handbags that belonged to the namesake designer herself.
           Could a perfume by any other name be so famous? Now in its 88th year, Chanel No. 5 seems to be topping the charts as the world's most celebrated and long lasting perfume. ♥

Bio:   Polly Guerin was a fashion reporter when she was sent to cover the House of Chanel collection for the trade publication, bible of the fashion industry, Women's Wear Daily and had the great pleasure of meeting Madame herself. As a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she became a recognized fashion historian. Polly is also a vice-president of Romance Writers of America/New York City chapter. Visit her at


  1. One of my sisters-in-law used to work for Channel when she lived in Guam and she used to send me the best stuff from Make-up to soap and including the famous bottle of channel No.5.

    Some of my favorite old movies (don't make me mention them and date myself) where the couture of the day was fashionably EDITH HEAD the heroine would mention or use a CHANNEL NO.5.

    Just like "The Little Black Dress" and "The Little Crystal Bottle" endures, it would take an enduring, sophisticated talent like Miss. Guerin to tell us so eloquently about it, thus helping to keep it alive forever

    Great article and absolutely remember when Catherine Denuerve became the spokes model for it.


  2. Wonderful post, Polly.

    I recent saw the film with Audrey Tautou and loved it.

  3. Channel #5. Brings back such fond memories of my aunt that died over twenty years ago. Coco Channel gave us a product that is still priceless.