Chanel No 5: The Story Behind the Icon | History Hit

Chanel No 5: The Story Behind the Icon

Image Credit: Lily, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Arguably the most famous perfume in the world, Chanel No. 5 is internationally associated with elegance, sophistication and luxury. Its understated design and unmistakeable scent has been promoted by stars such as Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and even Marilyn Monroe, the latter whom famously stated in an interview that the perfume was all that she wore to bed.

The brainchild of the French businesswoman Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1921, Chanel No. 5 was primarily created to counteract the limiting and strong association of perfumes with certain types of women. When designing the scent, Chanel told her perfumer that she wanted to create a fragrance that ‘smell[ed] like a woman, and not like a rose.’

So what’s the story behind the iconic perfume?

Different perfumes were associated with different levels of respectability amongst women

Until the early 20th century, fragrances worn by women typically fell into two categories. ‘Respectable women’ preferred simple, understated scents that were the essence of say, a single garden flower. In contrast, sex workers, the demi-monde and courtesans were associated with musky scents that packed a punch.

Chanel herself was once a kept woman from a humble background who used money from her lovers to fund her business ventures. She desired to create a scent that would appeal to both ‘respectable women’ and the demi-monde by creating a scent that blended the allure of aromas like jasmine, musk and flowers that were less understated. This unconventional approach that tied in with the changing feminine, flapper spirit of 1920s women proved a marketing hit.

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, 1920

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, the perfume’s strong percentage of aldehydes allowed the fragrance to linger on the wearer’s skin, which was more practical for busy, ‘modern’ women who focused on more than beauty alone.

Perfumes weren’t originally created by fashion houses

Until the 20th century, only perfumers created scents, while fashion houses made clothing. Though some designers started to create scents in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until early 1911 that French couturier Paul Poiret created a signature fragrance.

However, he named it Parfums de Rosine after his daughter instead of using his own name. In naming her signature perfume after herself, Chanel ensured that her perfumes would always be linked to brand identity.

Coco Chanel had a perfumer create the famous concoction

In 1920, Coco Chanel’s lover was Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov of Russia, now most famous for being one of Rasputin’s murderers. He introduced her to French-Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux in 1920, who was the official perfumer to the Russian royal family. Chanel requested that he make a perfume that made the wearer ‘smell like a woman, and not like a rose’.

Over the summer and autumn of 1920, Beaux perfected the concoction. He and Chanel finally settled on a mixture which consisted of 80 natural and synthetic ingredients. Key to the concoction was Beaux’s unique use of aldehydes, which heightened the scents and gave the floral notes a more airy nature.

First Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel shocked the world’s eyeballs with her fashion designs. Then she shocked its nostrils with a new smell - Chanel No. 5.
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Coco Chanel was drawn to the number 5

Since childhood, Chanel was always drawn to the number five. As a child, she was sent to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage for abandoned girls. The paths that led Chanel to the cathedral for daily prayers were laid out in circular patterns that repeated the number five, while the abbey gardens and lush surrounding hillsides were covered in rock roses.

When presented with the small glass vials containing the sample perfumes, Chanel chose number five. She reportedly told the perfumer Beaux, “I show my collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year, so let’s leave the number it bears, and this number five will bring it good luck.”

The bottle shape was purposefully simple

The perfume bottle was purposefully simple to act as a contrast to the elaborate, fussy crystal fragrance bottles which were in fashion. It has been variously claimed that the shape was inspired by a whiskey bottle or a glass pharmaceutical vial. The first bottle, produced in 1922, had small, delicate rounded edges and was only sold to select clients.

Over the coming decades, the bottle was altered and a pocket-size perfume released. However, the now-iconic silhouette has remained largely similar, and is now a cultural artefact, with artist Andy Warhol commemorating its iconic status in the mid-1980s with his pop-art, silk-screened ‘Ads: Chanel’.

Coco Chanel regretted an agreement effectively removing her from all involvement in her fragrance line

In 1924, Chanel entered into an agreement with Parfums Chanel financiers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer whereby they produced Chanel beauty products in their Bourjois factory and sold them, in return for 70% of the profits. Whilst the deal enabled Chanel the opportunity of getting her signature fragrance into the hands of more customers, the deal effectively removed her from all involvement in the fragrance business operation. However, she quickly realised how lucrative Chanel No. 5 was becoming, so fought to regain control of her fragrance line.

Dmitriy Pavlovich of Russia and Coco Chanel in the 1920s

Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While in power, the Nazis passed 2,000 anti-Jewish decrees, including a law banning Jews from owning businesses. This law also applied in Nazi-occupied Paris during the war. In 1941, Chanel wrote to German officials to try and use this law to regain sole ownership of her fragrance line, since the Wertheimers were Jewish. To Chanel’s surprise, the brothers had legally turned over their ownership to a Christian French businessman (Félix Amiot) before the war to protect their interests, so her attempts were unsuccessful.

(Amiot turned ‘Parfums Chanel’ back over to the Wertheimers at war’s end, who then settled with Chanel, agreed to 2% royalties on all Chanel products, and provided her with a monthly stipend for her personal expenses for the rest of her life. Pierre Wertheimer later took full control of Chanel in 1954, the same year Chanel reopened her Couture House aged 71.)

Famous faces have fronted the brand

Surprisingly, Chanel No. 5’s quick success relied upon word of mouth more than outright advertising. Chanel would invite high society friends to dinner and her boutique, then surprise them with the perfume. Chanel’s friend Misia Sert stated that getting a bottle ‘…was like a winning lottery ticket.’

Famous faces such as Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and even Brad Pitt have fronted the perfume in the decades since, while superstar directors such as Baz Luhrmann and Ridley Scott have created promotional videos for the iconic perfume.

Lucy Davidson