The Smell of Chanel

The Twenties were roaring and I was in Paris. Autumn leaves paved the boulevards and the crackle they made when walked upon sent vibrations up my spine. I wanted to move and resonant with the world. And I wasn’t the only one.

Women walking the boulevards dressed differently than they had before the war. The new woman was young, athletic, short-haired, and short-skirted. You know, ready for action. Women were no longer prisoners of corsets and meters of fabric. The new fashion was a political statement.

I was visiting my friend, Mona, who lived on rue Chapon in a tiny apartment with a big fireplace. Mona was exotic, intellectually sophisticated, and loved to go shopping. Often we’d have a coffee at Angelina’s on rue de Rivoli (they have the best Mont Blanc in all of Paris!). I was busy talking about my problems with Hugh when I noticed Mona, who is usually very attentive, was not looking at me but looking over my shoulder. “Just what are you looking at?” I asked. “It’s her, Coco Chanel”, replied Mona. “Coco who?” I asked. Mona looked at me as if I were a barbarian and said “How can you not know who Coco Chanel is? She is the most avant-garde fashion designer of our time. “

Feeling that she had to liberate me from my ignorance, Mona grabbed my arm and said “Let’s go!” After walking some minutes, I found myself in front of Chanel’s shop on rue Cambon with Mona introducing me to the world of Coco Chanel.

Gabrielle Chanel’s mother died when she was twelve. Her father abandoned her and her sisters at a Catholic convent in central France.  Here the nuns taught her how to sew.  After leaving the convent, she earned her living as a seamstress but also as a cabaret singer earning the nickname “Coco”.

Coco was not talented enough to sing professionally.  At the age of 23, she became the mistress of Etienne Balsan, a wealthy textile heir who provided her with a life of wealth and leisure.  And much partying.  Coco began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Capt. “Boy” Capel.  Capel got Coco an apartment in Paris where she began experimenting with hat making.  Capel gave her the money to open her own shop but he gave her something even more important—an awareness of style. In fact, it’s said that Chanel’s double C logo represents a ”C” for Chanel and a ”C” for Capel.

Coco’s biggest contribution was that of creating fashion that would permit women to move. Basically she transformed male clothing into female fashion.  She claimed that “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it’s not luxury”. First Coco liberated women from corsets.  Then she introduced jersey fabric, traditionally used for undergarments and sports clothing, to high fashion.

The idea was to be simple yet elegant.  Coco also introduced the collarless cardigan, black sweater with pearls, female trousers, the little black dress, costume jewelry and the shoulder bag.  And of course, there was her perfume Chanel No. 5.

Coco helped change the way women and their bodies were perceived.  Women were no longer still-lifes but action movies.

During WWII, despite the difficulties for her fellow Frenchmen, Coco continued to live a life of luxury at the Ritz Hotel surrounded by Nazi officers. Not only did she party with them, she took them on as lovers, too. There is no doubt that Coco was an opportunist and tried to make the best out of a bad situation.  Unfortunately, post-war France did not guarantee that same privilege to all women.

Tondeurs and tondues.

At the end of WWII, over 20,000 French women were accused of having had “horizontal collaborations” with the Germans.  Even prostitutes, who sold their bodies to the Germans in the same way bistrot owners had sold their wines, were singled out and publicly humiliated by having their hair shaved off then paraded in public semi-naked often with swastikas painted on their foreheads.  This punishment was obviously misogynistic as it was restricted to women.  Furthermore, because of a war instigated by men, many French mothers of young children had husbands in German prisoner-of-war camps. Without pleasure, they slept with German soldiers simply to feed their children.

Coco was not subjected to this shame.  Instead, she went off to Switzerland with her German boyfriend.  Here they lived in style for many years until Coco decided to return to Paris to save the fashion industry as, in her opinion, it had become too male dominated.  Upon her return, she was asked about her Nazi boyfriends to which she replied “I don’t ask my lovers for their passports”.

Nazi documents confiscated by the Soviets indicate that Coco had been a German spy with the code name “Westminster”.  Maybe it’s this that caused Coco to be a morphine addict for the rest of her life. Living with yourself is not always easy.

Inside rue Cambon was the famous faceted mirrored staircase, designed by Coco, that connected all four levels of the building.  That way, while standing on one floor, she could see what was happening on the others. Maybe her staircase been inspired by Duchamp’s 1912  Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 which had been inspired by Muybridge’s photo sequence Woman Walking Downstairs.

Chanel No. 5

Beauty is not just visual. Even fragrance was part of Coco’s aesthetics.  She loved to go to the marche aux fleurs to inhale the mix of intoxicating aromas. Maybe it was here that she decided to put flowers in a bottle. The summer of 1920, Coco met the perfumer Ernest Beaux and asked him to create a perfume for her clients`. He presented her with various samples in numbered bottles. She chose the sample labeled “No. 5”.

Even if one could not eat salt and pepper alone, said Beaux, it was difficult to imagine a meal without their presence. One enhances the other. And this was the philosophy he used when making perfumes. What made Beaux’s perfumes so successful was his revolutionary use of a molecule called aldehyde. Chanel No. 5 was a mix of lily of the valley, jasmine, rose, and iris root. Just like the flower market. And the iconic bottle looks somewhat like a whiskey decanter. It has a very simple label with sans serif lettering.

Elsa Sciaparelli was one of Coco’s biggest rivals.  Elsa’s best known perfume was “Shocking”.  The bottle had been designed by artist Leonor Fini who said she’d been inspired by Mae West’s dressmaker’s dummy. The perfume came in a box that was Shocking Pink, Elsa’s signature color. Jean Paul Gaultier liked the Schiaparelli perfume bottle so much that he appropriated its form for his eau de toilette.

When asked what she slept in, Marilyn Monroe responded “Chanel No. 5”.

Moby Dick is the story of men looking for whales. The protagonist, Ishmael, decides to ship aboard a whaling vessel because he wants to find and kill Moby Dick, the whale who bit off one of his legs. At the time, hunting whales was very profitable mainly because of their oil. But whales offer something even more valuable—their rancid vomit known as ambergris that’s used to make expensive perfumes.

During the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette tried to escape so she dressed as a peasant and headed towards the border. Unfortunately, she was also wearing a perfume by Houbigant. Since poor people couldn’t afford fragrances, her smell created suspicion and she was captured betrayed by perfume. But that didn’t stop Marie Antoinette’s dependency on perfume. In 1793 when she was taken to the guillotine, she carried 3 vials of perfume in her corsage to give her strength.

Napoleon loved Josephine’s unwashed smells. Josephine, on the other hand, loved the smell of violets. When she died, Napoleon had her grave covered with the little flowers. Before going into exile, he picked some violets from Josephine’s grave and put them in a locket. He wore the locket until the day he died.


Smells can affect us physiologically. Aromatherapy uses aromas to improve psychological and/or physical well-being. Via the olfactory system, smells affect the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with memories, emotions, and stimulation.

Even insects and animals are affected by smells. Peppermint is a great mice repellant whereas mosquitoes are repelled by the smell of citronella. And bay leaf repels kitchen pantry insects.

Place rosemary under your pillow to prevent nightmares. Inhaling nutmeg oil or valerian oil can help reduce blood pressure. Nutmeg oil also reduces anxiety and anger. The smell of roses has a soothing effect. The smell of sweet oranges increases alertness. A whiff of peppermint can relieve pain and improve alertness. Lavender relaxes but also improves blood circulation.

So why not make a scent necklace? You can use tiny tea balls or little pouches with scented cotton balls. Let’s say you suffer from anxiety attacks so you can fill your tea ball with lavender, rose petals, and lemon rind. Or you can put a few drop of helichrysum essential oil on a cotton ball and put it in the little pouch. And the moment you start to feel anxious, hold the scent up to your nose. Take a long and slow breath filling your diaphragm. Hold a couple of seconds then exhale through your mouth.

Smell diary.

Unfortunately, with all the chemicals bombarding our daily life, our senses have been dulled like a knife that’s lost its sharpness and no longer cuts well. To keep smell alive, it needs moisture. So drink a lot of water and humidify your air. Exercise also intensifies smells. And when we’re hungry, our sense of smell is stronger. But our sense of smell weakens with alcohol. Stay away from stinking places because prolonged exposure to bad smells weakens the sense.

The sense of smell also may fade with age. So to reanimate your sense of smell, why not keep a smell diary for a week. Write about the smells in your daily life and try to describe them. Often we use comparative descriptions such as “it smells like…” but there are plenty of adjectives to explore such as woodsy, leathery, balmy, fresh, delicate, exotic, floral, musky, peculiar, unfamiliar, pungent, putrid, smoky, zesty, sweet, tart, whispy, lemony, aromatic, coppery, burnt, fragrant, metallic, moldy, salty, spicy, soapy, sulfurous, medicinal.

No one better describes fragrance than Luca Turin. He described Chanel No. 19 like a “bitch perfume, like green sharkskin pumps.” Whereas Le Labo’s Oud 27 is “properly pornographic: a wet-hair note and a couple of macrocyclic musks of the kind found near the rear end of deer take over…really raunchy.” Turin also says that in daily life, smell has shifted from symphony to jingle. That is, the smell of your fabric softener is a door chime whereas Christian Dior’s Diorama is a full orchestra. But “fine fragrance is getting dangerously close to a ringtone: inventive, often distinctive, catchy even, but with lousy sound quality.”

And the scent that drives men wild is bacon.

Practice smelling. The next time you’re at the grocery store, sniff the produce. Experiment with the basic method used by perfumers and sommeliers. And, with your eyes closed, hold an orange a little more than 1 cm from your nose. Focus on the smell and let your olfactory receptors take note. Your breath will warm the orange making it easier to smell. Then move the orange away, wait a few seconds then repeat holding the orange under your nose as you sniff it. Smelling takes place in the bridge of your nose so after inhaling, try to hold the odor molecules in your nose. Now try to visualize what the smell does.  Does it create a mental picture or remind you of something?

Smell and memory.

Smell has an important role in the brain’s limbic system. Memory and smell are good companions. A particular smell can resuscitate memories. Every time I smell honeysuckle, I think of Texas. And the smell of cloves reminds me of my mother. She’d invented her own air freshener. Using a white tea kettle with stenciled flowers, she’d boil spices like cinnamon and cloves until the whole house smelled like a bakery.

Smell also influences our sense of taste. Both smell and of taste use the same receptors. And the foods we eat can change our own smell. For example, because of its sulfur compounds, eating cabbage can change your body odor. So can garlic and onion.  Rub a piece of crushed raw garlic on the sole of your foot and 20 minutes later you will have the taste of garlic in your mouth.  


(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)


Burr, Chandler. The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession. Random House, NYC. 2004.

Kummer, Corby. “A Rose by Another Name”.  Retrieved November 22, 2018.

 Vaughan, Hal. Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War. Knopf. New York.  2011

Perfumes: The A–Z Guide Turin  Luca Turin  (Author), Tania Sanchez  (Author) Profile Books; Main edition (August 6, 2010)

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5 Responses to The Smell of Chanel

  1. Yvonne says:

    Another fun, fact-filled post. Thank you.

    And, I love your illustrations.

  2. Pingback: Honeysuckle on my Balcony | Art Narratives by Cynthia Korzekwa

  3. Pingback: Daily Aesthetics | Narratives

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