More than 100 years ago, in May 1921, Coco Chanel launched the scent that was destined to become the world’s most famous – Chanel No 5. She had chosen it a year earlier, when she sniffed the contents of several small glass bottles that held different perfume samples. When she put the fifth one down, so the story goes, she turned to the man who had made them and said: “Le voilà!” And so history was made.
Chanel had wanted to launch a perfume that was new and different. The scents then worn by smart women were pure flower essences such as gardenia, rose and jasmine, which were light and fresh – and quickly wore off. Only the cocottes (prostitutes) wore more sensual, longer-lasting perfumes, based on musk and civet, that added to their sexual allure.
But Chanel believed that, three years after the end of the First World War, a more liberated generation of women would welcome what their demi-mondaine sisters found so successful. Her chance to achieve this came about through one of her lovers, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who introduced her to a master parfumeur – hence the glass phials.
On the podcast | Anne de Courcy discusses Coco Chanel, and some other famous faces who graced the French Riviera, during the interwar years and the era of Nazi occupation:
Chanel’s assumption proved correct. Success was immediate: when she wore Chanel No 5 women stopped in their tracks when they passed her table in a restaurant. The impact on global markets was huge.
While only the very rich could buy Chanel’s chic, streamlined clothes, almost anybody could buy a bottle of Chanel No 5 – and with it, a small piece of the Chanel style and magic.
The square bottle with the CC logo in which Chanel No 5 made its entrance is still around today. Yet its real legacy is not so much its decades of popularity but its inspiring of a new trend: the custom of fashion houses selling aids to beauty as well as clothes. For after perfume came cosmetics; now virtually every fashion house has a perfume and make-up range.
But perhaps the most impressive moment in the story of this iconic scent came at the end of the Second World War, when Chanel, who had spent most of the war years living with her German lover, fell under suspicion of being a collaborator and was thus in the sights of the authorities. When the US army entered Paris as liberators, she gave orders that every American soldier could call at her perfume boutique and receive a free bottle of Chanel No 5. The queue lasted for hours, with those who could not speak French simply holding up five fingers. As Malcolm Muggeridge, in Paris for MI6, said, these men “would have been outraged if the French police had touched a hair of her head”.
Anne de Courcy is a historian and author whose books include Chanel’s Riviera (Macmillan, 2020)
This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine