A perfume that embodies every major avant-garde movement since World War I?
It's a mighty claim, yet one that a new exhibition, which opened in Paris earlier this month, is happy to make. Entitled Culture Chanel (I know, only in France), the exhibition is actually a pretty serious attempt to demonstrate how Chanel No5 stands at the fragrant intersection of art, music, fashion, design and the dramatic social changes that took place after 1918.
Launched in 1921, Chanel No5 was undeniably a radical perfume. For one thing, it was the first to use synthetic aldehydes. That doesn't sound romantic, but Coco Chanel, mainlining the heady androgyny of the Jazz Age, wanted her first scent to smell utterly modern. As ever, she was ahead of the curve. La Garconne, Victor Margueritte's novel about a young woman who, on discovering her fiance has been cheating on her, decides to live her life on a man's terms – with multiple lovers and cropped hair – caused a stir when it was published in 1923. In many ways, it could have been written for Coco.
So it was an androgynous scent, at least by the standards of the day. That meant no single dominating floral notes, nor any overpoweringly woozy musks. The only way to achieve it, Chanel's accomplice Ernest Beaux (a dashing native of pre-revolutionary Moscow and a famous "nose") convinced her, was with aldehydes, which he argued enabled him to create the fragrance of a garden in all its complexity – and what's more, one "with shade".
Chanel, who hadn't wanted any flowers in her juice, ended up choosing a bouquet's worth of blooms, including jasmine, iris and rose – plus a further 77 ingredients, which I challenge you to identify, since true to Beaux's promise, they're seamlessly blended. It was Beaux's fifth version, hence No 5.
Or is there another explanation for the name? "Five" was significant to Chanel for many reasons. For a modern woman, she was remarkably attached to charms and symbols. Five is significant in Hinduism and Buddhism. Moreover, Igor Stravinsky, whom she had welcomed into her home outside Paris in 1920 for over a year, had composed a collection of short pieces for children while he was there, entitled The Five Fingers.
Then there was that minimalist bottle, now a classic – a direct steal from Cubism and an audacious rebuttal of the ornate, emphatically "feminine" bottles ubiquitous at that time. Chanel borrowed the typeface from leaflets the Dadaists were producing at the time, the black lines and collage effect on the label from the Bauhaus, Picasso and from Marcel Proust's galley proof corrections, which he made by cutting and sticking rewritten passages over the old ones. Originally the cardboard packaging was beige and black because, for Chanel, beige was the colour of nature.
Beige turned to white when she realised that in order to keep up with demand for her scent in her four boutiques she would have to industrialise production. It's ironic that Chanel, who blotted her otherwise inspiring copybook big time when she hooked up with a Nazi officer during World War II, ended up going into business with a Jewish family. But that's what happened when she signed a deal with Paul and Pierre Wertheimer in 1924, with whom she co-founded the Societe des Parfums Chanel, still one of the world's most successful perfume houses. It was about this time that the stopper was fattened up into the shape of an emerald, to make it more robust for the foreign distribution that was about to take off.
So, yes, though the exhibition is a shrewd piece of marketing, it also works as social history.
If you happen to be in Paris and go, be sure to book a session afterwards in the workshop upstairs. You'll need the accompanying booklet – the display cases, as airily glassy as that bottle, are also as minimalist in their explanations. But you'll have plenty of time to browse – it's open from noon till midnight.
The opening day was packed. It seems the further we move from Chanel's life, the larger she looms. Certainly No 5 has played a big part in the lives of many major figures from the past 90 years.
A discerning patron of the arts, who carried her favourite poems around with her, Chanel was a loyal friend to Cocteau, Picasso and Dali. There's a snap in the exhibition of the latter lounging in the garden of La Pausa, her villa in the South of France, which recently came on the market for €33 million ($52 million).
I hope the Wertheimers buy it, if only to prevent it being turned into a dodgy nightclub for lizard-skinned billionaires.
As it happens, Chanel had quite a thing for millionaires, but she was also a feminist by example if not dogma, a proto-Green, an early proponent of global exporting, and one of the first designers to star in her own ads. She also followed the most meticulous spritzing regime I've come across.
According to the exhibition's brochure, "Every morning a young assistant would spray No 5 in the entrance to the building of her empire on the Rue Cambon in Paris, a moment before Mademoiselle Chanel walked in, having been warned of her imminent arrival by the porter of the Ritz. The perfume still lingers around the mirrored staircase and in her apartment. Incidentally, she sprayed No5 on to the live coals in her fireplace".
Cha-coal No5. Now there's a product waiting for an elaborate launch.
Culture Chanel is at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris until June 5.