Fragrance and fantasy



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Leah Strigler Spring 2006



Objects, Consumption, Desire Molotch/Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
FRAGRANCE AND FANTASY 1: The Case of Chanel No. 52

Introduction: Perfume as Icon

Famously, Marilyn Monroe was once asked in an interview what she wore to bed. Her answer: “Chanel No. 5.” This anecdote is often quoted in books and articles on fragrance, usually to depict the mystique of this particular perfume,3 and perhaps to suggest that its iconic status is equal to that of its famous wearer. To further illustrate the fragrance’s powers, consider these additional reviews of the scent from the Web site basenotes.net: “A truly soft, gentle and comforting scent worn by three ladies I’ve long respected: Marilyn Monroe, First Lady Bess Truman, and my beloved grandmother. Evokes the sweetest, brightest, and fondest memories of my lifetime.” (chriscent, 11 November, 2005) “Perfume begins and ends with Chanel No. 5.” (Serpent, M, 16 November 2003)4 The fragrance is famous for its uniqueness, longevity and popularity; it is associated by others with women, famous and not famous, who have worn it in different eras over its decades-long history of production.

What is it exactly that makes Chanel No. 5 so successful and/or memorable that it has achieved this status? In trying to answer this question I will focus on the example of this fragrance as a particular product while keeping in mind the broader question of what constitutes “the” object in the case of perfume generally, to which the consideration of this individual perfume is a partial answer. While my comments refer to Chanel No. 5 at different points in time, the focus of my investigation is on what made the fragrance such a sensation when it was first launched.

After noting No. 5’s dip in sales in the 1950s, 5 Axel Madsen (p. 283) quotes Diana Vreeland, then “the new editor of the American Vogue,” from the same era: “Chanel No. 5, to me, is still the ideal scent for a woman. She can wear it anywhere, anytime, and everybody – husbands, beaus, taxi drivers – everybody loves it. No one has gone beyond Chanel No. 5.” The sense that Chanel No. 5 is somehow an ideal feminine scent or ideal representation of femininity persists in many descriptions of and references to the perfume to this day. It is also often referred to as one of the perfume industry’s all-time “classic” fragrances; although at the time of its launch it was considered a “modern” and innovative scent.



Lucky Choice: The Creation of Chanel No. 5

The story of the how Chanel No. 5 came to be is almost as iconic as the perfume itself; it is repeated as often as the Marilyn Monroe quote. Essentially it goes something like this: in the early 1920s (the perfume’s launch date is usually given as 1921 6) Mademoiselle Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel,7 already a successful designer based in Paris, decided that she wanted to launch an eponymous fragrance for her thriving fashion house. She employed the perfumer Ernest Beaux to create it for her. He prepared a few different versions of a fragrance for her review. She chose the fifth sample that she smelled and decided that she would simply name it after the number it bore, widely reported to also be what Chanel considered her personal lucky number, and sometimes falsely reported as the date of her birthday.8 The rest, one could easily intone, is history. But in what ways did the perfume “make” history?

What is perhaps most important about the fragrance is that its creation, more than any other perfume, is credited with the formulation of two of the hallmarks of “modern” perfume-making in the twentieth and current centuries (it is a practice that is typically dated as beginning in the late 19th century.) No. 5 could be described as the “breakthrough” product that transformed the field. As perfumer Mandy Aftel notes, (2001, p. 40) “It represented a complete break with the natural model, which had been kept limpingly alive by Guerlain and Coty, with their flower-named scents. With Chanel, the connection between perfume and fashion was solidified.” 9 With these two innovations Chanel and Beaux also recast perfume’s niche in the marketplace. It became less a work of craftsmanship 10 and more the creative product of a design process; it also became a fashionable accoutrement that reflected modern design sensibility. This was true as well of the ingredients used to make the fragrance. “As the first perfume ever created using aldehyde chemicals in such a high concentration, Ernest Beaux was able to compose a fragrance that was both abstract and utterly seductive. Nothing like it had ever been smelt before.” (La Dolce Vita, 2001, p. 46.) The “je ne sais quoi” factor of Chanel No. 5 – its ineffable and “abstract” nature – added to its mystique. The perfume could not be described in the typical ways that had been used to refer to scent up until its launch.

Biochemist and perfume critic Luca Turin’s description of the perfume is similar in its sensibility. As Chandler Burr describes and recounts in his book about Turin, “The abstract school of perfumery, said Turin, had its roots in two all-time greats, Coty’s Chypre11 and Chanel’s No. 5. These two giants set the standard for perfumes without any obvious natural reference point and enabled the autonomous development of perfume as Pure Art. From distilled garden roses, we were suddenly amidst synthesized Carbon atoms. It was like jumping from Delacroix’s neoclassical people with arms that looked like, well, human arms, into a nonhuman, natureless Kandinsky world of triangles, dots, and machine-tooled blobs.” ( 2002, p. 206.)12 Chanel No. 5 brought perfume into the modern world in the same way that Coco Chanel’s designs for clothing and accessories had brought modernity to women’s fashion.



Mademoiselle: The Designer

At the time of No. 5’s launch Coco Chanel was a successful couturier. She was particularly known for her pared-down, modernist sensibility. As Harold Korda notes in Chanel, the catalogue to the recent exhibition of Chanel’s clothing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “More than any other designer of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel revised and adapted fashion to the tenets of utility and integrity of materials, tenets that are the defining features of modernism. Her emphasis on the functionalism of sportswear and her appropriations from menswear, as well as from service and military uniforms, broke with typical haute-couture dress styles and practices. Pragmatic and purposeful, her clothes were designed with realistic lifestyle applications.” (2005, p. 39.) Chanel’s designs were intended for what we might think of as a cliché in today’s fashion world: modern women with active lifestyles.

In her clothing lines Chanel employed form-fitting silhouettes, used jersey extensively, added deep pockets to jackets and bottoms and offered women functional suits, slacks, sweater and cardigan sets and the staple of the “little black dress.” As noted by Nancy Troy (in Korda, 2005, p. 20) Chanel’s “innovations resonated with the wide-spread recognition that women’s roles had changed dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the changes only accelerated with the increased responsibilities women took on during World War I.”

Chanel herself was a woman who broke with traditional convention in her personal life. Troy states “Chanel’s life story became indistinguishable from her clothing, jewelry and perfumes.” (ibid, p. 19) Korda notes, (2005, p. 11) “she was sensitive to the establishment’s ‘rules of the game,’ while remaining free of any impulse to ‘correctness’ that might have been the legacy of a proper, more orthodox upbringing.” Chanel was born poor and raised in an orphanage after her mother’s death and father’s abandonment. She began her rise in society as a “kept woman,” the mistress of Etienne Balsan, (Charles-Roux, p.5) before being funded by Balsan to establish a career in design, beginning as a milliner. Her relationship with Balsan also afforded her entrée into a different social circle: wealthier, artistic, cosmopolitan. (Chanel’s personal history is documented most thoroughly in Madsen’s biography.) “Mademoiselle” never married, although she had a succession of lovers, and focused her efforts on building and expanding her business. No. 5, at its debut, must have seemed inextricably related to the independent, savvy business woman who had created it – a fragrance that embodied the ethos of the newly liberated woman in the same way that Chanel clothing did. Chanel’s purpose was to create “classic” pieces that would serve such women in their every day lives rather than items that were to be dispensed with the arrival of the next season’s fashions. As Cathy Newman quotes Chanel, “I don’t create fashion; I create style.” 13 (1998, p. 132.)



The Perfumer

Perfumes are usually identified by the name of the designers who produce them but they are usually created by professional perfumers, who work in tandem with the designers who commission the fragrances. Given the sensitive nature of these partnerships, perfumers are often rather anonymous. Even those who become famous (one of the most prominent, Sophia Grojsman, is profiled by Diane Ackerman in her essay “A Famous Nose” 14,15, (1990, pp. 45 – 54,)) often do not acknowledge which perfumes they have created and are under contract to not discuss current projects. An exception to this rule is the case of perfume houses that employ “in-house” noses to produce their own branded fragrances. 16

Given this trend it is interesting that the creator of Chanel No. 5 has been immortalized by the story of the perfume’s creation. Madsen and Charles-Roux both report that Chanel met Ernest Beaux while touring Grasse, where he was based, and that she was likely to have been introduced to him by her lover Dimitri Pavlovitch. (See Charles-Roux, p. 184.) Beaux’s father had been employed by the tsarist court and had grown up in St. Petersburg. (ibid) The story adds to Beaux’s mystique. Perhaps it was important for Chanel to highlight Beaux’s upbringing given her own meager origins, a way to gain noble roots by proxy, at least for her fragrance.

The idea of using aldehydes in the formula is credited to Beaux, but it is not clear that the actual amount used was intended. As recounted by Newman (1998, p. 132) “A popular story said the overdose was the mistake of a laboratory assistant, who added ten times the amount actually called for. Others say Beaux knew exactly what he was doing. And Beaux himself? Years later, when asked about his use of aldehydes in Chanel No. 5, he reportedly slid past the question with an enigmatic remark about how it was best to use new materials in equal proportions.”

The creation of a perfume is a group project that involves designer, perfumer, package designers and company executives at the very least. In terms of the actual character of a fragrance the two most important people are the perfume’s designer and “nose” because it is the designer who’s name and image will identify the perfume, the designer’s concept that drives the perfume’s development and the perfumer’s professional expertise and ability to formulate an olfactory product that embodies the concept that together actually cause a fragrance to come into being and constitutes the essential product that is then packaged and marketed.

Beaux went on to create four other fragrances for Chanel, including No. 22. All are still in production, although only No. 22 is widely available.17 It is not clear why the partnership between Beaux and Chanel ceased after these four years, but it may be related to the subsequent tale of the production of Chanel perfumes, which will be described below. The House of Chanel would not produce another blockbuster perfume for women until 1971, when No. 19 was introduced.18



The Bottle

The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition catalogue includes an elegant elegy to the No. 5 bottle. In “Flacon and Fragrance: The New Math of Chanel No. 5,” Kenneth Silver intones: “the container for No. 5 – with its plain letters on an unadorned label – was an exercise in minimalist design. Its nearly square, clear-glass bottle resembles the pharmaceutical prototypes from which it derived; Chanel may have liked the idea of prescribing the perfume that her fashionable contemporaries would wear. But more important, she shared with the most advanced artists, architects and industrial designers of the era a conviction that less was more… The idea of “construction” was pervasive in avant-garde culture of the 1929s, perhaps not surprising in the wake of the rampant destruction that four years of war had wrought in Europe. Chanel No. 5 was the perfect embodiment of this postwar turn toward the clarity, logic, and precision of the well-constructed work. In the first three years of its existence the bottle went through a number of subtle permutations to arrive at its seemingly inalterable form. It began with a much smaller label and stopper, and there was not beveling of the corners. By 1924 the stopper had become as big as a radiator cap… the label, her name in particular, had grown in proportion to the container; and all the edges were now chamfered… The result was at once utterly modern and profoundly classical. To be both modern and classical: this was the highest artistic goal… By radical simplification she found a way to synthesize the instantaneous and the timeless in her fashion design; with her No. 5 perfume she had found the name, the look and the scent of the inevitable.” (ibid., p. 32.)

Jacques Helleu, design director for Parfums Chanel, is reported by Cathy Newman as saying that the bottle was influenced by the style of a man’s toilette kit. (This influence would make the bottle another example of Chanel adopting male styles for female use.) He also explains that the bottle is updated “every twenty years or so” to match the design trends of the times. (1998, p. 137. This page has an illustration of the bottle in five different eras, from 1921 to 1986.) The allusion to a toilette kit evokes the idea that this perfume was perhaps designed to seem as essential as other toiletry items, a type of necessity, in contrast to the more typical fancy bottles designed to be displayed on vanity tables.

The Packaging

As noted by Nancy Troy, “The hallmarks of Chanel’s style – simplicity, practicality, and ease of movement (as far as her daywear is concerned) – have often been attributed to her adaptation to women’s fashions of fabrics and features associated with men’s clothing. The packaging of her most enduring and lucrative product, Chanel No. 5 perfume, was also marked by a sober, even severe geometry generally associated with men’s products.”19 The packaging of all of the Chanel fragrances is similar: plain white boxes with sober black sans serif lettering and small reproductions of the Chanel logo, two intertwined Cs facing in opposite directions. The labels on the bottles inside are similar: black and white and unadorned. They bring to mind products from an apothecary or the status of an item so luxurious that it need not be dressed up with any fancy color, lettering or image. The message would seem to be that the product itself is so identifiable that it does not need to be “dressed up” with any fancy colors or illustrations. Chanel boxes are to this day notable for their severity. If lined up with boxes of other fragrances, such as one might see in a duty-free shop, the restraint of the packaging is evident: the Chanel section is notable for its absence of color or artifice.



The Formula

At the outset of her book A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman chronicles the experience of smelling No. 5: “Its top note – the one you smell first – is the aldehyde, then your nose detects the middle note of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris, and ylang-ylang, and finally the base note, which carries the perfume and makes it linger: vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet, and musk.” (1990, p. 12.)

Chanel No. 5 is historically significant because it was the first to include the extensive use of aldehydes in its formula; other perfumes had utilized aldehydes but not so prominently. (Guerlain’s Jicky, launched in 1889, is usually credited as the first perfume to include them.) The aldehydes are the top notes of the fragrance: they are the elements that are prominent when one first smells the scent. 20

The composition of Chanel No. 5 plays a prominent role in the story of biochemist Luca Turin, which is chronicled by Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent. The book focuses on Turin’s theory of how smell molecules work (by virtue of their vibrations rather than by their shape, as traditionally understood) and his attempt to gain acceptance for his idea within the fragrance industry. As Chandler recounts Turin’s research: “Aldehydes are basically just snakes of Carbon atoms – four Carbons, five… with an aldehyde group, a Carbon atom double-bonded to an Oxygen atom, stuck on the head. Below seven or eight Carbons, they all smelled pretty bad and couldn’t be used in perfumery, but above eight, aldehydes start smelling good and make good perfume ingredients. But the gnomes at Grasse, spinning their olfactory spells, had noticed that these molecules behave in one odd way: all the aldehydes that had an even number of Carbons… smelled like mandarin orange. But all the odd ones… smelled like smoke candles. Now, the aldehydic secret to Chanel No. 5 was that Beaux had used almost entirely the even aldehydes, with just a touch of the odd.” (2002, pp. 113 – 114.)

The individual ingredients of a perfume, especially if they are recognizable in terms of natural matter, may be considered objects as well, although today these ingredients are usually synthetic in nature. Ironically, synthetics are useful because they allow a perfume to be more consistent in quality. Hence, in a way, synthetics enable a perfume to be more reliably “itself” and able to be produced on a mass scale. Chanel No. 5 therefore set the course for the mass production of such regular, identifiable fragrances.

The Brand and Perfume Production

Ironically, the success of No. 5 and the need to increase its production to meet market desire caused Coco Chanel to lose control of this very product. As noted by Newman, Chanel signed an agreement in 1924 with Pierre Wertheimer, “owner of Bourjois, the largest cosmetics and fragrance company at the time in France.” (1998, p. 135.) The two formed Parfums Chanel. Mademoiselle retained her couture business separately, but only received ten percent of the profits from her perfumes, which were produced by Wertheimer. This deal proved contentious and a disappointment to Chanel for the rest of her life. Newman notes that the “Wertheimer family owns and controls all of the business, including all rights to the Chanel name.” (ibid.)

The saga of Chanel’s sale of her fragrance business to Wertheimer (who worked with his brother Paul) illustrates a difficulty that continues to plague designers to this day. Once a name has become a brand it may be sold in order to remain with the products it already graces. A number of designers have found themselves in the position of being unable to market new items under their names, while others continued to do so. It is ironic that Chanel No. 5’s production was removed from Mademoiselle’s control so early on in its long life.

The strife between Chanel and Wertheimer was particularly charged because the Wertheimer’s gained the overwhelming majority of the riches produced by the success of Chanel No. 5 and because their production standards did not always match Chanel’s exacting standards. In the original agreement Chanel included the following statement: “The Parfums Chanel can only sell top quality products. Given the fact that Mlle Chanel is the owner of a luxury article couture house, it is understood that the merchandising under her name of inferior perfume products could case her serious prejudice.” (Madsen, p.139.) a particularly bitter round of fighting in the period immediately after World War II. During the War, the Wertheimers had been in America, where they had commenced production of Chanel No. 5 with the help of founding a new company, Chanel Inc, but without the benefit of being able to obtain ingredients from Grasse. (Madsen, p. 266.) Chanel was furious and sought legal recourse. Their legal settlement in 1947 afforded her the right to sell “Mademoiselle Chanel,” her version of the original formula but without the number attached to the name. Hence, for a time, there were actually two versions of this perfume on the market, both named “Chanel” but the arguably more “authentic” version not being named “No. 5.”

The relationship between Chanel and Wertheimer shifted again in the 1950s, when he decided to finance Chanel in her effort to rebound her career in couture, which she did with great fanfare. (Madsen, p. 289.) Wertheimer’s control of her empire increased but Chanel was able to continue to work. Perhaps the most bizarre iteration of their uneasy alliance concerned the request from producer Frederick Brisson in 1962 to create a musical and movie based on her life. Brisson approached Chanel and then realized that he should check his plan with Wertheimer. Wertheimer refused; Chanel was incensed and threatened to quit working. According to Madsen, “Wertheimer gave in shortly before he died. He would not interfere, or sue, or make trouble. Brisson could go ahead with the show, as long as he, Wertheimer, was not portrayed in the musical.” (Madsen, p. 314.) The musical may be the only Chanel “product” that is so free of Wertheimer’s influence.

From Modern to Classic

Cathy Newman opens the final chapter of her book with the following exchange: “’So what if Chanel No. 5 were launched today?’ I ask Ann Gottleib, the New York consultant, one day at lunch. ‘How would it do?’ ‘Oh, it probably wouldn’t be a smashing success,’ she says thoughtfully. ‘It’s difficult to get into. It’s got an old-fashioned top note – floral aldehyde. But once you’re into it, it’s glorious in wear, and I think the market is forgiving of it because of what it is… A piece of history.” (1998, p. 131) The comment is tells something of the changing fashion in perfumes.

Scents are, thanks especially to Proust, well-known to powerfully evoke memory. It seems to me that besides the passage of time and the changing of fragrance fashions, Chanel No. 5 also became “classic” or “old-fashioned” because younger generations remembered it being worn by older generations and thereby began to associate it with earlier eras.

Chanel’s passing also changed the character of the perfume. If a perfumer’s designer is no longer living, how could it be considered “modern”? Classic, even timeless, yes, but certainly not contemporary, not when one’s grandmother likely wore the same fragrance. Additionally, the perfume industry is one that closely guards its secrets. Much writing about fragrance is hyperbolic or relies on stories that reek of mythologizing. It is a characteristic that I have been increasingly aware of in writing this paper. It seems appropriate in the case of Chanel No. 5 because it is possible to argue that, more than anything else, it is the collection of mythical stories about the product that really constitute the “object” and mystique of No. 5. Would the perfume have been such a resounding and continuing success if did not have attached to it such a strong association with a powerful woman, her tumultuous life and career and her drive to offer women the fashion tools to craft modern images to match modern lives?

I have not said much about the advertising used to promote Chanel No. 5. This is in part because it was a later invention. Chanel herself relied on word of mouth; she began her launch of the perfume by distributing bottles and acting as if it were a fragrance that she had found on a lark in Grasse. Once acquaintances and customers indicated interest in the perfume she began to produce and sell it in earnest. (This story is recounted in both Madsen and Newman.)

One of the strategies that Parfums Chanel has used to update the profile of the fragrance is that of choosing a single model to represent it in ad campaigns, acting as the “face” of No. 5. Actress Catherine Deneuve is the most famous model to have done so. No. 5’s current “face” is Nicole Kidman; her image graces the ads that appear currently in fashion magazines. Ads for No. 5 tend to be almost as spare as the packaging; rarely is any image featured other than that of the model and the bottle. This simplicity speaks to the style of Chanel and to the conundrum of understanding what constitutes the true essence (un intended) of what perfume is.



The Object

In the case of perfume, what constitutes the object? A perfume is usually presented in liquid form,21 which means that it will eventually evaporate. Along the way it may warp and case to smell true to its original composition. Perfume is perishable – an object with a finite shelf life. And perfume is evanescent – one experiences it in passing. If an object is a slow event, then perfume is an event of shorter duration than most other objects, for it does not endure.

Perfume has many accoutrements: a bottle, packaging, a name and usually a brand name as well, an advertising campaign, a product range. A fragrance may be associated with a particular fragrance house or design house or designer. All of these elements add to the formulation of the perfume as an object or product. These additional elements are all the more significant because the language and terminology available to describe perfume is so imprecise. The visual and conceptual cues provided by these help consumers understand what feelings or experiences particular fragrances are meant to evoke.

Perfumes are also in some sense unfinished products, incomplete until they come into contact with human skin. Fragrances are accessories that literally intermingle with the bodies of the men and women who wear them. Fragrances mix with body chemicals as they are worn and alter in combination with individual body chemistries. It is for this reason that perfumes smell different on different individuals: they can indeed become different objects in combination with individual essences. The sillage, or trail of perfume left in the wake of a wearer, that one smells is a mixture of the product and the person’s essence. It therefore makes great sense that memories of perfume should be so often connected with the wearers of fragrance, for in the end perfume is an object that exists most fully in combination with its wearer. Perhaps it is this quality that adds to the difficulty of describing fragrance. Or it helps to explain how, when the perfume itself fades and only memory is left, it is easiest to explicate its essential nature by attaching it to a story or person. If so, then the memory is, perhaps not the object itself, but a byproduct of the perfume that proves more enduring then the matter itself.



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