1920s products you can still buy: Chanel No. 5

Growing up, I wanted to be like my mother, much like many other girls. I would go through her makeup drawer, experiment with her lipsticks, and I remember her ivory hairbrush. And while Mom never wore perfume to my recollection, she did wear Chanel No 5 body lotion on “stepping-out” occasions.

Chanel No 5 has thus been my go-to fragrance since I was a teen. I sometimes used the bar soap and the lotion, or the dry body oil that Chanel came out with back in the 1990s (discontinued). I was also big fan of the eau de toilette and, later, the eau de parfum.

No 5 was the first fragrance put out by fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel — it was the fifth vial she smelled, and it was released on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1921 (Chanel had a thing about the number 5, and believed that it was good luck).

Artist/cartoonist Sem’s caricature of Coco Chanel gazing up at a bottle of No 5, 1921

What’s interesting about the fragrance is that, until it came out, scents of women’s perfumes were of single flowers — e.g., rose, Lily-of-the-Valley, violet, jasmine, etc. But No 5 was not meant to be smell like a flower or single anything. Chanel famously said women should smell like women,, not roses. Chanel No 5 was advertised by Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Kidman, and other famous female celebrities; 100 years later, it still sells in its classic simple square bottle that was a reaction against the fussy bottles that many other perfumes came in 100 years ago.

An original 1921 bottle of Chanel No 5, image courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Collection

In 2008, 37 years after Coco’s death, her company came out with an updated version of No 5 called Eau Premiere, which I absolutely love. I think Chanel was very smart to do this, because, while I love the original No 5, it is pretty heavy and powdery and it just wouldn’t appeal to many modern olfactory sensibilities as a regular fragrance. According to Fragrantica.com, the top notes are Aldehydes, Ylang-Ylang, Neroli, Bergamot and Lemon; middle notes are iris, Jasmine, Rose, Orris Root and Lily-of-the-Valley; base notes are Civet, Amber, Sandalwood, Musk, Moss, Vetiver, Vanilla and Patchouli.

For me, the original is great for a winter evening at the theater or a Christmas party (I don’t know why I associate Chanel No 5 with Christmas and winter, but I do). By contrast, Eau Premiere is lighter, fresher, and more citrusy, suitable to wear for everyday and my go-to when I’m just heading to work… so I have both.

My nightstand table with No 5 Eau Premiere on the left and original No 5 Eau De Parfum on the right

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