Why are you so fat?

Bee Wilson

  • Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez
    Profile, 620 pp, £12.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 84668 127 1
  • Chanel: Her Life, Her World, The Woman behind the Legend by Edmonde Charles-Roux, translated by Nancy Amphoux
    MacLehose, 428 pp, £14.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 1 906694 24 1
  • The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand, translated by Euan Cameron
    Pushkin, 181 pp, £12.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 1 901285 98 7
  • Coco before Chanel directed by Anne Fontaine
    July 2009

Spray a rose scent and you think of roses. A jasmine scent, and you think of jasmine blossom. The representations may be better or worse – you may smell a rose perfume and think: this smells nothing like real roses – but they are imitations even so, however pale. The genius of Chanel No. 5, invented by Coco Chanel in collaboration with Ernest Beaux in 1920-21, is that – in keeping with Chanel’s friendships with Diaghilev and Stravinsky – it was the first abstract perfume: it smelled like nothing else. Chanel No. 5 was not the first compound perfume. Jicky by Guerlain – with notes of lavender, civet, vanilla and herbs – has been in continuous production since 1889. But Chanel No. 5 – first known as Eau Chanel – was the first to move beyond perfume which smelled of something to perfume which smelled of pure fashion. In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which reviews perfumes as if they were works of art (which they are), Luca Turin compares No. 5 to a Brancusi sculpture:

Alone among fragrances known to me, it gives the irresistible impression of a smooth, continuously curved, gold-coloured volume that stretches deliciously, like a sleepy panther, from top note to drydown. Yes, it contains rose, jasmine and aldehydes in the same way that a perfect body contains legs and arms. But I defy all who smell this to keep enough wits about them to worry about the parts.

Before Coco Chanel, as Edmonde Charles-Roux writes in her 1975 biography, women (and men) who wore perfume were generally forced to choose between various floral concoctions – heliotrope, gardenia, violets – none of which lasted well. ‘Therefore you had to be overperfumed at the beginning of the evening if you wanted to be scented at all a few hours later.’ Charles-Roux thinks this explains the ‘outrageously perfumed men and women’ who crop up in Edwardian memoirs. You might arrive at a party reeking of lily of the valley and leave it reeking of sweat. Chanel suspected that overscented women had ‘bad smells to hide’, and in her world there was no worse sin. No. 5, with its 80 indistinguishable ingredients mixed in a stable formula using benzyl acetate, a coal tar derivative, made it possible to smell mildly, elegantly, indefinably perfumed all day long.

Chanel told Ernest Beaux, the perfumer who laboured with his test tubes on seven or eight samples before she was happy, that she wanted no ‘hints of roses’. She wanted, she declared, ‘a perfume that is composed. It’s a paradox. On a woman, a natural flower scent smells artificial. Perhaps a natural perfume must be created artificially.’ The pharmaceutical rectangular bottle – in stark contrast to the baroque, cupid-plastered flasks then fashionable – continued the abstract quality. ‘It was no longer the container that aroused desire,’ Charles-Roux writes, ‘but its contents.’

Never one to downplay her own achievements, Chanel called No. 5 ‘a perfume unlike any other ever made. A woman’s perfume, redolent, evocative of woman.’ Really, though, it allowed women to replace their real scent with something less offensive. Chanel had a horror of other people’s smells. If someone presented her with flowers, she swore she could smell the hands of the person who had picked them. The highest compliment she could pay to women – ‘women never amuse me’ – was to say that they smelled ‘clean’. When she was in her eighties, and living in the Paris Ritz, several empty tables had to separate her table from those of other diners: ‘To eat with the smell of other people’s food, what a horror!’

Chanel’s personality may have been better reflected in another abstract perfume, Chanel No. 19, invented for her by Henri Robert in December 1970, the month before she died. It was named for her birthday, 19 August. Tania Sanchez describes it as ‘a striking and admirably dissonant portrait’ of the 87-year-old Chanel, ‘from the silvery hiss of its nail-polish-remover beginnings to its poisonously beautiful green-floral heart’. It smelled so delicious, Chanel told a press conference, that a man had stopped her in the street outside the Ritz – ‘not bad at my age’. She never stopped expecting everyone else to smell like her and look like her. ‘I imposed black,’ she told her friend Paul Morand in the collection of reminiscences he published after her death as The Allure of Chanel, ‘it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.’ Chanel No. 5 – still the bestselling perfume in the world– also wipes out everything else around. Instead of making you smell like a rose, it makes you smell like another woman, a less disgusting one, or so we imagine; like Nicole Kidman in black velvet, or like Audrey Tautou, the latest face of Chanel No. 5, who also plays the young Coco Chanel in Anne Fontaine’s Coco before Chanel.

So far as one can tell, Chanel was never fully contented (she boasted that she did not require ‘that daily dose of poison, recently invented, that we call happiness’ and her restless scissors were always revising, improving, correcting), but it is hard to imagine a film of her life which could have pleased her more than this one. Fontaine’s film – made with the blessing of the House of Chanel – depicts her in the 1910s, torn between her relationship with Etienne Balsan, a wealthy French playboy and horse breeder, and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, a wealthy English polo player and tycoon. This is exactly the period of her life Chanel liked to dwell on. Boy Capel, she later said, this ‘magnificent’ figure of a man, was the ‘great stroke of luck in my life; I had met a human being who did not demoralise me.’ Capel financed her first Paris shop in the rue Cambon and it was his polo shirts that inspired her obsession with jersey and with sportswear in general. And then he broke her heart, first by getting married and then by dying in a car crash in 1919. Amazingly, given his infidelity and her propensity for badmouthing people, she was always generous about him (‘Boy was a rare spirit’), perhaps because to look back on the time when Boy was alive was to remember how brilliant and adorable she had been. ‘I was highly intelligent, far more intelligent than I am now. I was unlike anyone else, either physically or mentally.’

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