Chanel no. 5 and our aspirational, fantasy selves

People like to say that Chanel no. 5 is an iconic perfume, but it is so much more than that. Not only is it a consumer superstar and a genuinely interesting fragrance, its cultural associations with history, elitism, and a very particular version of femininity mark it as a watershed creation no matter how you look at it. And for folks both inside and outside the fragrance community — both serious enthusiasts and casual perfume wearers — Chanel no. 5 often functions as a yardstick for gauging how well we are meeting our own internalized standards for being a sophisticate, or a properly feminine “real woman.”

I had a friend some years ago who reported to me that she’d gone to Macy’s and bought a bottle of no. 5. “I don’t really like it,” she explained, with unusual insight and candor, “but I like the idea of it very much.” She was in a transition moment, open to change in her life, very deliberately curating the image she felt might propel her into her late 30s and beyond. Her relationship to perfume wasn’t to be defined on grounds of pleasure, or even as a “signature scent” she felt might accurately express her identity (whatever that might mean). Rather, it was meant to push her closer to an identity she’d begun to cultivate imaginatively. It still astonishes me that some perfumes, though surely only a very few, carry so much cultural weight they can actually make us feel closer to these fantasy versions of ourselves. It sounds innocuous when expressed this way, but Chanel no. 5 is so fraught its worth further considering the magical promise it dangles before us.

For example, lots of us can’t help but connect no. 5 to maturity, as a bygone aldehydic scent that we have been viscerally conditioned to associate with our mothers or grandmothers. And, of course, it’s got a vibe of sophistication, in part, surely, because it’s unabashedly French, and North Americans can be almost self-loathing in our attachment to French cultural tropes. And the sophistication of no. 5 is surely also related to its challenging nature as a scent such that coming to love, or simply appreciate it, can feel l Ike an achievement. Just as we may believe we should like exotic cheeses, bone dry expensive red wines, or inscrutable art films, no. 5 stands as an elitist dare. There is also, of course, this perfume’s specific association with sophisticated femininity, perhaps even with Coco Chanel herself, that icon of effortless style whose consumer appeal seems mostly undamaged by her well-documented coziness with Nazis.

If you think I’m about to launch into a defense of populism, of folksy good taste — the “I know what I like when I see it” variety — you’re wrong. Our tastes arise from very particular sets of social expectations and conditioning and it is one of the great joys of life to push beyond them. I am unimpressed by those who “honestly” report that they tried no. 5 once, hated it, and that’s that. Worthwhile cultural experiences often require patient open-mindedness, and I cringe to imagine where my tastes would reside if I had approached them so narrowly. Let’s just say that I ate, and enjoyed, an awful lot of Kraft boxed macaroni and cheese in grad school. On the other hand, there’s no need to torture oneself, either. And there are far too many fabulous perfumes out there to give no. 5 too much of one’s attention, let alone fetishize it because it’s an “icon.”

I am, as it happens, one of the many who had to “learn to like” Chanel no. 5, and aldehydic perfumes in general, just as I had to intentionally develop a taste for cilantro, blue cheese, and modernist fiction. My affection for such stingingly effervescent perfumes grew on me over time, after repeated exposures. I wanted to like no. 5 because of its venerable place in the perfume canon, the love it got from connoisseurs I respected, and, yes, because I wanted to be “that kind of woman.” But if I had not developed a taste for it, I hope, but am not certain, that I would have let go of any worries, however faint and unconscious, that I was irredeemably uncouth and unsophisticated. Because though I do feel I have a responsibility to expand my horizons of taste and style, life is too short to sit around pining for an elusive love, even if it is Chanel no. 5.

So despite the fact that I am an unrelenting social critic, one whose livelihood depends on my sensitivity to classism, racism, sexism, and the like, no. 5 is a poignant reminder to me that I am a product of the very social and cultural worlds I critique. It’s no good for me to deny how much my deepest tastes and desires — even those I may regard as most reflective of my precious individual personality — have been shaped by consumerist trends that may actually be distasteful to my conscious mind. This is hardly big news. So many of us have an ambivalent relationship to the sexist, elitist consumerist machine that endlessly promises us better versions of ourselves.

As for that friend of mine who, with eyes wide open, bought a bottle of inspiration in the form of Chanel? I don’t know what’s become of her, but I bet she’s still wearing no. 5, even though she doesn’t really love it.

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