She may not have been French, but when an interviewer once asked Marilyn Monroe what she wore to bed and she answered in her gorgeously hushed sort of way, “five drops of Chanel No. 5” the French perfume immediately became something all women wanted in the 1950’s.
Before the creation of Chanel No. 5 in the the 1920’s, women stuck to fragrances that were divided in to two categories. Ladies of the night, like courtesans and prostitutes, used scents that were overtly sexual and heavy with musks; while women who regarded themselves as a respectable lot went with less complicated perfumes that were reminiscent of gardens and not sex. Coco Chanel, always a lady ahead of the time when it came to fashion, felt the 20’s and the new liberation of women (flappers!) who were finally embracing their sexuality needed a fragrance that would epitomize that lifestyle. She worked with Russian-French chemist Ernest Beaux to create the scent that she felt was ideal for this new generation.
When it came to choosing a name, Chanel chose the number five because of the impact it had had on her upbringing after she was handed over to Catholic nuns. Not only was the number five steeped in mysticim according to the numerology that she studied, but the paths that led to the catherdral where the children were to have their daily prayer were laid out in circular patterns that repeated the number five over and over. Even outside of the name of the perfume, Chanel was always true to her affinity for the number.
In 1920 she was present with vials of potential scents on which Beaux had been working. She reached for the fifth one and told her chemist/perfumer: “I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck.”
Once she had chosen the fragrance that would become the most iconic of all perfumes, she needed a bottle that would aesthetically match up. Chanel didn’t want a bottle that would outdo the scent in some sort of gaudy presentation that was common for the time. She wanted a clear glass bottle with rounded shoulders that was simple and classic. Stories differ on the origin of the shape she chose, but either way she was inspired by her lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel, and it was either his Charvet toiletry bottles or the whiskey decanter he used and she loved in which she found her inspiration.
The very first ad for the perfume (and the entire line of scents) appeared in the New York Times on December 16th, 1924. The idea was to market it to Americans first and more specifically New Yorkers, as that was where things were happening in the realm of this new generation of women. (The Great Gatsby, anyone?) It could only be found at the most high-end stores and the interest in it grew mostly by word of mouth. Chanel No. 5 and the other fragrances in the line would not be advertised in France until the 1940’s.
Despite WWII sales of No. 5 did extremely well as it was marketed toward soldiers as the ideal gift to bring home to their gals who were awaiting their return. Once it was discovered at the war’s end that Chanel had been messing around with the Nazis, in an attempt to save her brand she offered free bottles of No. 5 from her boutique on rue Cambon to any American solidier who wanted one — of course, the lines wrapped around the block.
In the 1950’s, thanks in part to Monroe, Chanel No. 5 became a staple for any woman who could afford it. During the 60’s fashion magazines drove home the idea that the perfume was the fragrance to own as it was true mark of femininity, but despite these efforts sales took a dive in the early 1970’s. It was the decision to use French actress and icon Catherine Deneuve as the face to bring it all back in the late 1970’s.
From that point on Chanel No. 5 has remained at the forefront of the top perfume to own — that is if you’re anyone who’s anybody, of course; and we all think we’re somebody.
Photos: Chanel Ads