I recently read a clever article on Fragrantica by historian, archaeologist and fragrance author, Elena Vosnaki about Chanel No. 5, the title of which was “Is Chanel No. 5 Obsolete?” The article spurred me on to finally get it out of the way and talk about this iconic perfume. I’ll get to the point right now – which is that I do think the fragrance itself is at least starting to becoming obsolete, but the myth behind it, not so much. At least not yet.
Although you’d never know it from my wee collection of Chanel fragrances, Chanel is far from my favourite fragrance brand. I do respect their handbags, though, but while the battle between Dior and Chanel when it comes to bags is fierce, that’s not the case with perfume, in my opinion, where Dior trumps Chanel hard and repetitively. In fact, Dior is probably my favourite fashion house for fragrances. There are exceptional fragrances from Chanel, of course. Chanel Sycamore comes to mind, which I have talked about elsewhere. But No. 5? It’s never been my thing.
I hate this term – it’s not very PC, but yes, No. 5 is sadly “old lady perfume” to me.
Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks so, although others might not admit it. I’ve had several bottles of No. 5 over the years. Only one little EDP bottle have I purchased myself, and I bought it for a mere 500 yen online, purely for reference purposes. In fact, on Mercari Japan, there are pages upon pages of unused bottles of No. 5 for sale, many for quite the bargain. The other bottles of No. 5 I have one owned were given to me by friends who claimed they simply did not wear it, insisting I take theirs because… “You love perfume, Trine.” They weren’t wrong there, but note that none said they did not like it, just that they did not wear it. It almost feels like saying you don’t like No. 5 is blasphemy. But I don’t like No. 5. There, I said it. Hang me?
Ernest Beaux created the fragrance in 1921, having been inspired by the ambiance of the arctic night and the snowcaps of glaciers. Mr. Beaux knew all about this ambiance because apparently, he was a Lieutenant of counterintelligence during the Russian Revolution, overseeing the “death camp” on the island of Mudyug in the Northern White Sea and involved in human torture. And by the way, Coco herself was at one point friendly with the Nazis during WWII. I hope Cancel Culture does not get a whiff of this. Have you noted that Chanel did not make a big deal out of No. 5 for its 100th anniversary?
Anyway, the perfume got its name when Mr. Beaux asked Madame Chanel to choose from two series of perfume samples numbered 1-5 and 20-24, and she chose No. 5. The superstitious Madame Chanel also chose the May 5th to present her new perfume. This story has become part of Chanel’s creation myth, like the inside zippered section of Chanel classic flap handbags, created for Madam Chanel’s storage of secret letters from her lover.
Snowcaps of glaciers and the ambiance of the arctic night are not what the general public clung to years later, however. It was Marilyn Monroe, wasn’t it – No. 5’s most famous patron.
“What do you wear to bed?”
“Why, Chanel No. 5 of course.”
Actually, I’m not sure if this is hearsay or not, but photos of Monroe with the perfume on her bedside table and a recording of her talking about the fragrance were not published before the company that is Chanel got its paws on them. Apparently, No. 5 was not the best performing fragrance in sniff tests, even in the 1950s. So my guess is that Marylin’s profession of love for the scent was seen by the Chanel organization something to be exploited.
And these days, according to Vosnaki, No.5 does not fare well in blind smell tests for a lot of current sniffers, either. It would seem that Chanel knows this, as there have been iterations of No.5 that are really rather different… Best sellers from other brands might repackage, but they don’t necessarily feel the need to completely reformulate or heavily flankerize. OK, so there was that pretty red bottle from Christmas 2018, but generally, no – No. 5 has not simply been repackaged. Until recently it has relied on its icon status.
In the more recent years of its long history, we got Eau Première from 2007 and later in 2015, we had No. 5 Sensual Elixir, some EDT and EDP versions, and No. 5 L’Eau which I have here. This one sells well in Japan. Why? Well, I think it’s because it’s a washed out, watered down version that keeps traces of parts of the original that you can only really smell in close quarters. Perfect for the Asian market, where unassuming, ethereal fragrances that don’t dare infringe on other people’s space are de rigueur. At least in Japan, this is culturally appropriate. Side note: As a fragrance lover I most definitely live in the wrong country. I can’t tell you how excited I get on my trips to the Middle East. You know I have to admit, I got this one really cheap, too, and I don’t wear it. My curtains do, though.
Of course, another reason No. 5 and actually anything with the Chanel brand stamped on it sells well anywhere, but especially here in Asia, is STATUS. Chanel is a luxury brand with heritage, and I think that very fact can push a sale regardless of what No. 5 actually smells like. With its deep pockets, Chanel’s been able to capitalize on celebrity image to keep No. 5’s image afloat. In addition to Coco herself, Chanel has recruited Suzy Parker, Ali MacGraw, Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Estella Warren, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tautou, Brad Pitt (yes, of course men can wear no.5), Gisele Bündchen, Lily-Rose Depp, recently Marion Cotillard, and of course, Marilyn Monroe.
Chanel was raised in an orphanage that had been a monastery. Coco found the nuns’ cleanliness and stark simplicity pleasing. The smell of the yellow soap the girls used to scrub their faces and the fresh linens piled in high cupboards left lasting impressions on the very young Madame Chanel. It’s no wonder that she was quite particular about soapy clean cleanliness, and for her time, this perfume, even in its civet-y original formula, was considered quite clean.
That is not how many consider it now, even in its less anamalic reformulation. This is probably due to the fact that soap itself smells differently now and our definition of clean has gone the way of strong detergent – chemical detergent. Sadly, perfumes that have any trace of gorgeous skank are not favoured by the contemporary general public. Thank goodness there is niche perfumery for the rest of us! Most mainstream fragrances these days seem to be either super sweet or squeaky clean, à la Bath and Body Works variety.
This fragrance created by Jacque Polge contains the following notes:
- neroli, ylang-ylang, peach, bergamot, aldehydes
- jasmine, lily of the valley, iris, may rose
- Mysore sandalwood, vetiver, moss, patchouli, Bourbon vanilla
A lot of people, and I include fragrance lovers here, think this fragrance is reminiscent of urine. They’re not wrong, because that is apparently not an uncommon side effect of musk – real musk, at least. Others say it reminds them of bug spray. A lot of the negative talk I read or hear on social media is about its so-called dirty underside – the urine, the diapers, the sweat, the griminess. All of that is not all that perceptible to me to begin with – in fact I love moss and patchouli – and bring back the civet, fake civet is fine)!
The reason I don’t care for it is firstly because florals are simply not my favourite genre of perfume, and this is floral – big and center. A much bigger reason for not being a fan, however, is the type and sheer volume of aldehydes here. Quite simply. I just cannot take them! I find this perfume heavy and migraine-inducing. The odor profile of aldehydes is soapy, fatty, fresh fresh laundry-like, and frosty. That all sounds nice, but the exact mixture of soapy flowers in this particular fragrance just makes me gag a little. Maybe it’s just me? I’m so sorry, No. 5 lovers!
But OK, if I try and get past that, here’s what else I get: It’s well-blended, bright and sunny, effervescent, powdery, but also so… strongly perfume-y… so vintage.
One thing I will say is that this perfume is much better with time. Meaning after the aldehydes bid farewell. After a couple of hours, the scent is calmer, and the smooth richness of No. 5 starts to play out. This is when I start to feel I might like No. 5…
But no. Overall, I don’t like it. I do admire it, though. But I mostly admire it because of its history – it was the first famous perfume, the bottle is gorgeous, the marketing is clever, the mythology surrounding it is legendary. All of this makes it sophisticated, classy, and timeless. Look, I don’t hate how it smells, but I do think there are so many much more beautiful concoctions to relish on one’s own person. I’m willing to bet money that many bottles of No. 5 serve more as shelf décor than fragrance for many women (and men) in addition to myself.
Actually, I think Chanel’s big commercial hit perfume by now is probably Coco or Coco Mademoiselle. These are most definitely more relatable to a larger number of people today. I do smell these out and about in the real world.
Perfume for many of us is a purely sentimental, though. Sometimes it’s not the actual juice in the bottle, but rather what that liquid and its container symbolize to us that gives us value – memories of life in your prime, days of happiness past, successes or milestones in love, work, sport, art or whatever. Coco Chanel or even Coco Mademoiselle is probably to younger people what No. 5 is to my generation. To particularly young people, perhaps they are all old lady fragrances. Or wait, perhaps I am wrong there. I do see plenty of young women giving it high praise on YouTube. They seem genuine…
The only constant is change, so I hope Chanel innovates more and rests less on laurels. At the same time, I do hope No. 5 – the juice, not the myth, doesn’t become obsolete. If IFRA regulations continue to weaken it, it’s possible that this could happen. Fortunately, I don’t think the Chanel No. 5 legend ever will. Even if people don’t wear it anymore, which is unlikely in the near future, I do think it’ll continue to be celebrated.