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Behind the Icon: Chanel No. 5


What makes a product iconic? That was the question we asked as we edited this year’s list of the 100 most iconic beauty products of all time. Though every lipstick, mascara, hair spray, and cleanser on the list deserves its moment in the sun, there are a few key beauty icons who have earned to have their stories (legends?) expanded on in greater detail. First up: a mini history behind Chanel No. 5 perfume.

Maybe you’ve never worn Chanel No. 5—but you know what it means to wear it. There’s only one fragrance that telegraphs sophistication as quickly as this rich floral scent, which debuted 100 years ago. It was the first Chanel fragrance; it had to make a statement. Gabrielle Chanel’s vision was that a woman’s scent was as important as her dress.

Made in concert with perfumer-to-the-stars Ernest Beaux, No. 5 was seen as a departure from the perfumes that were popular at the time, which were all single-flower scents and utterly simplistic. Beaux got his inspiration from as far away as the Arctic Circle. He wanted to give the scent freshness and light, and he achieved it by adding aldehydes, synthetic substances he was researching that gave the fragrance an airy quality. They also have this fantastic ability to make all the ingredients more complex and almost impossible to decipher. (Aldehydes would later be commonplace in perfumery, and dominate the 1980s. Beaux was a revolutionary.) At the same time, Chanel herself was feeling bold, pushing Beaux to add more and more jasmine, one of the most precious essences. The end result is an opulent, heady, and completely modern floral.

And then, of course, there’s the bottle. In the 1920s, perfumes were fussy, romantic, flowery little things. Chanel No. 5 was Spartan by comparison. It looked like a lab flask, with its geometric shape. The black blocky letters. The name. No. 5? It was simply the fifth sample Beaux sent over, which Chanel approved. It didn’t hurt that Chanel felt that the numeral 5 was especially lucky, and her sign, the Leo, was the fifth sign of the zodiac. It was so different, so refreshing; it worked.

Marilyn Monroe poses with a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

Public adoration for No. 5 reached a fever pitch when actress Marilyn Monroe began mentioning the bottle pictured on her nightstand. “You know they ask you questions like, ‘What do you wear to bed? A pajama top? The bottom of pajamas? Or the nightgown?’ So I said Chanel No. 5, because it’s the truth,” Monroe says in a recording obtained by Chanel. “And yet I don’t want to say nude. But it’s the truth.” Monroe cemented No. 5 as more than just a fragrance—it was now the scent of the world’s most internationally beloved sex symbol.

Today, the century-old fragrance sits among new launches looking and feeling entirely modern. The trend right now is about scents that combine synthetics with precious naturals. And aesthetically, the austere designs are the order of the day. Chanel and Beaux were ahead of their time, creating a revolution in a bottle.


From Harper’s Bazaar US

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