The Story of Chanel No. 5

By Laureen Simons –

Chanel No. 5 is not for nothing one of the most famous perfumes in the world today.

But this iconic fragrance may have been born by pure accident.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was leading the fashion world in the 1920s. An immensely talented designer and business woman, Chanel was an icon of the Jazz Age. An idol to flapper girls everywhere, Chanel combined the qualities of the respectable society lady and the mistress in one. When she decided to conquer the world of perfumery at the beginning of the 1920s, she wanted to create a fragrance that represented both those elements of her character. She wanted a perfume for the modern woman, more liberated than ever before after the end of the Great War and the victories of the women’s movement.

This combination of elegant respectability and lasciviousness reflected her background. A mistress to many upper class Frenchmen, she had grown up in a Cistercian convent where life was strict and religious devotion the primary focus. There she had observed rigorous cleanliness, an instinct which stayed with her for the rest of her life. As an adult, socialising amongst high society ladies, she was often disgusted by their stench- a mix of body odour and musk. She was determined that her perfume creations combined the soapy cleanliness she had had such an affection for since her childhood with a seductive beauty she cultivated as an adult.

She travelled to Cote d’Azur late in the summer of 1920. There she visited the perfumer Ernest Beaux. A deeply cultured man, he and Chanel got on well. A chemical whizz who pioneered the use of aldehydes, Beaux was able to create a perfume with far greater staying power than the standard fragrances of the time, which usually lasted no more than an hour. He created a series of numbered fragrances for Chanel to sample, and- a superstitious woman- she chose the fifth, as it was her lucky number. It just so happened that no. 5 was borne of a curious laboratory mistake, with more aldehydes than is usual having been added to the mix. Thus a serendipitous series of events involving luck and accident came together to bring the world a revolution in perfume.

Chanel no. 5 was a fragrance from out of the blue. It contained eighty ingredients with no dominant note and contained flowery scents including rose, jasmine and lilac. Her vision was of a perfume that combined the tastes of upper-class women, who opted for the pure essence of a single garden flower, with the predilections of those mischievous women of the demimonde, who preferred sexually enticing fragrances heavy with animal musk or jasmine.

The bottle’s simple, geometric shape was radically different to the ornate crystal bottles that had been in vogue at the time. It represented a sleek modernism in tune with Art Deco. It is shown on much of the gorgeous and now vintage art which would follow in the decades to come. We at Vintage Advertising Art are great fans of the Chanel aesthetic. Our site has stocked a number of vintage print ads for Chanel No.5 as well as other perfumes from the legendary couturier, which are some of the finest vintage French posters available.

It is said that a bottle of Chanel No.5 is sold every thirty seconds. The perfume generates over £200m a year. The advertising art has accompanied its image throughout the years and will live in legend alongside the perfume itself. Why not invest in some Chanel retro wall art today?


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