The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume reframes the story of Coco Chanel through a carefully filtered lens. Tracing the classic perfume to childhood smells and later personal olfactory experiences, Tilar Mazzeo shows that all roads in Coco Chanel’s life led to No. 5. The bottle design itself, even the perfume’s name, have deep connections to the designer’s past. Especially influential were the clean, austere aesthetics of the Aubazine Abbey, where the orphaned Gabrielle (a.k a. Coco) was raised. As a result of this clever spin, the book reads as a sort of symbiotic biography of the person and her perfume. Together they weather the storms of love, war, and business.
Throughout the narrative, Mazzeo weaves smooth transitions to clearly written lessons on the history of perfumery and ingredients, including a final chapter (“The End of Modern Perfumery”), on increased restrictions on materials imposed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA, the perfume industry’s self-regulatory organization), a real threat to perfume formulation as we know it.
One of the book’s premises is that myths have been perpetuated about the perfume’s provenance and reception; even the quotes that preface the volume serve to set the record straight. Mazzeo identifies the true source of a well known quip about perfume and a woman’s future, often attributed out of context to Coco Chanel. Her full statement, from a 1969 interview, reads: “Perfume, it’s the most important thing. As Paul Valéry said it: ‘A badly perfumed woman doesn’t have a future.’” The three major myths treated later in the book seem a bit too dependent on arcane details to be widespread. For example, Mazzeo dispels the misconception that No. 5 was the first perfume to use aldehydes. Perhaps I’ve read too many perfume books and blogs, but this myth has evaded me. It is possible, though, that due to its massive success, its rivals, its imitators, its legacy, Chanel No. 5 has been given credit for putting aldehydic fragrances on the map: it is the one that created a trend and a genre, and in that way, it is the first. Likewise for the other myths, which I leave for you to discover. I imagine the perfume obsessed know better, and the remaining souls who buy a bottle of Chanel No. 5 every 30 seconds (yes, every 30 seconds claims the company, see page xiv), don’t pay much attention to historical fine points.
Overall, the book provided as much perspective on Coco Chanel as on Chanel No. 5. Many aspects of the perfume’s creation remain a mystery not be solved any time soon. Yet when her life unfolds as the the story of a perfume, Coco Chanel's tremendous drive, along with the less admirable aspects of her character, take center stage. From the savvy orchestration of a whisper campaign for the first formulation of No. 5, her push to launch competition for her own perfume, to her anti-Semitism and collaboration during the Occupation, Coco Chanel provokes more awe than empathy. Because her portrait is so spare (with even her fashion design rarely mentioned), there remains little material to soften those rough edges.
Mazzeo sets up anticipation throughout the book. Chapters close with cliffhangers or foreshadowings: “Someday, but not yet” (22); "It would be a future that none of them could have imagined" (72). Although some of the suspense and connections between Coco Chanel’s life and the eventual production of Chanel No. 5 seem over determined, the book remains a pleasant, easy read. Each of 18 chapters is short enough (10 pages or so), to be consumed in small doses, with plenty of summary and repetition within and between chapters, so that the book is easy to pick up, put down, and pick up again.
As Mazzeo concludes, “the secret of Chanel No. 5 and its success is us and our relationship to it” (214). This rings true today as it did during the Occupation and Liberation of France, when Nazi soldiers and American G.I.s lined up to buy bottles of the French perfume for their loved ones at home. As I savored quotes from interviews and letters, I found myself wanting to know even more about the people who bought and wore the perfume in those hard times. I also found myself longing to try all the early formulations of Chanel perfumes (not to mention those of her many competitors), and I am inspired to sample Chanel's current offerings for weeks to come. But Fragrant Readers, beware. If you were charmed by Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel (or in the sultry No. 5 ad directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet), this book may burst your bubble. A pre-Hays-Code Joan Crawford would win my casting call.
The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume
New York: Harper (2010)
Hardcover: 304 pages
Note: examination copy provided by the publisher.