I thought I knew Chanel No. 5, and I thought it wasn’t for me. No. 5 was too uptight with her whistling aldehydes. It was a little, well, banal. And on top of that, not particularly pretty. In 2007, I posted a tepid review.
Wow, was I ever a dummy. Last summer, I bought a bottle of vintage No. 5 Extrait at an antiques mall, and my perceptions whipsawed. I just invested in a big bottle of the Eau de Toilette. No. 5 isn’t uptight — it’s warm and welcoming. As for banal, are soft, clean cotton bed sheets banal? How about a room’s warmth on a December day, or a napping cat? To me, No. 5 is similar in that it feels both unpretentious and comforting.
Once I went to a cocktail party in a neighborhood fancy enough that I wondered if my pickup truck would get towed. A mutual friend introduced me to the hostess, saying that I wrote about perfume, and the hostess responded by listing off the four or five fragrances she owned. She wrapped it up by saying that her favorite perfume — the sexiest in her arsenal — was “the Chanel.” Once I figured out that she didn’t mean Coco, I started thinking about the glamorous reputation No. 5 has. To me, though, it’s much less Marilyn Monroe sleeping in the buff than it is the lovely, soothing second grade teacher on whom the kids have a crush.
No. 5 isn’t about fashion, either. I don't think the fragrance smells like 1921, the year it launched, but it doesn’t smell like today, either. No. 5 is smooth and graceful, with occasional tendrils of jasmine or ylang ylang-washed rose coming forward then retracting into the fragrance’s satiny body. Between that and No. 5’s delicate sandalwood-vetiver-musk base weaves an old-fashioned hint of straw soaked in dry Vouvray that steers the fragrance away from Grace Kelly’s icy elegance and closer to Alice Faye’s alluring but slightly maternal warmth. Either way, it's still packs a hint of old movie.
So, why did my take on No. 5 flip? I’d say it might be that I’ve had more experience with perfume, but No. 5 isn’t a difficult fragrance, really. Maybe my taste has changed, and I welcome something more feminine now. Or, it could be that I simply have a broader understanding of beauty.
Whatever it is, I’m grateful. It’s a good reminder not to write things off too hastily. Some frogs really do becomes princes.
How about you? Have you ever done a complete 180 on a fragrance?