Illustration by Maxwell Tielman
When I took an introductory course in modern design history as an undergrad, the first slide shown was not a Bauhaus design, a Le Corbusier house or a Mies van der Rohe chair. No, the design item that my professor chose to begin the course — the image that she believed most succinctly encapsulated the idea of modernity and design as a whole — was the bottle for Chanel No. 5.
There were more monumental designs to choose from, certainly, but none that were so immediately recognizable, none that could be called an icon by historians and design novices alike. “When we think of Chanel No. 5 today,” historian Tilar J. Mazzeo writes in her history of the scent, “What comes to mind above all is the bottle. It’s the part of the product for most of us that is immediately iconic. In fact, it’s one of the curiosities of its history that far fewer people are able to identify the perfume by its scent alone — a strange state of things for a legendary fragrance.” Indeed, although No. 5’s fragrance has been deemed one of the most alluring in recent history, it’s not the golden-hued effervescent elixir that caught the eye of so many Parisiennes in the 1920s: it was its container. — Max
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Coco Chanel, a woman whose personal history is largely shrouded in mystery, was notoriously minimalist in her approach to design. Orphaned at a young age, the designer was raised in supremely austere surroundings: at the Cistercian abbey of Aubazine. Although a childhood spent surrounded by nuns in a decoratively sparse abbey might sound like the opposite of inspiring, the minimal aesthetics espoused by the Cistercians appear to have had a profound impact on the young Chanel’s personal style. When discussing her attraction to simple forms and monochromatic palettes, Chanel biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux wrote, “Whenever [she] began yearning for austerity, for the ultimate in cleanliness . . . or waxed nostalgic for all things white, simple and clear . . . one had to understand that she was speaking in a secret code and that every word she uttered meant only one word. Aubazine.”
Above image: Coco Chanel, ca. 1928. (Via Wikimedia Commons)
The very reason that Coco Chanel’s impact on fashion was so groundbreaking was because of her pointed dismissal of all things ornate and decorative. At a time when women were still wearing unbearable corsets and confining crinoline, Chanel’s womenswear was open, comfortable and shockingly simple. The originator of the “little black dress,” Chanel’s early designs eschewed the status quo and, instead, conformed to the needs of the so-called “New Woman,” a woman who was free, romantic, vibrant and athletic. A huge proponent of being outdoors, Coco Chanel championed ideas that today seem commonplace. Things like exercise and, if you can believe it, suntanning. Chanel’s clothing — items that were monochromatic, loose fitting and often tailored from lightweight fabrics like jersey — complemented this newfangled lifestyle wonderfully.
As with Coco Chanel’s clothing designs, her foray into perfumery was full of firsts. Today, it’s not only normal for fashion houses to release a fragrance, it’s expected. In 1920, however, the year in which Coco Chanel first began fragrance-making, quite the opposite was true. When she began her partnership with the Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux, Chanel was one of the first couturiers to have a fragrance associated with their brand. But this was not the only thing that set Chanel’s No. 5 apart from the rest. As with her distaste for florid, ostentatious design, Coco Chanel wanted to steer clear of any floral influences when it came to her personal scent. Rather than relying upon the essential oils or spices that were common ingredients in perfumes at the time, Chanel chose to dive into the relatively uncharted realm of synthetic fragrances for her first scent. With scents that were birthed not from nature but in a laboratory, Chanel was able to craft a fragrance that was as abstract, nuanced and free of association as the avant garde artwork of the time. The scent, meant to be at once clean and sensual, had no reference point — it stood entirely on its own, a work of original beauty.
The same can be said of the glass bottle that held Coco Chanel’s indescribable fragrance. As with much of Chanel’s work, the story of how the Chanel No. 5 bottle came to be is largely speculation. Lost in a mire of hearsay, rumor and mythologizing, the bottle’s origins have become part of the larger Chanel legend. Some say that the perfume bottle was based on a toiletry bottle carried by her lover, Boy Capel. Others claim that the bottle’s design was inspired by a whiskey bottle, while some say that the inspiration was drawn from glass pharmaceutical vials. Whatever the case may be, it can be stated with some certainty that Coco Chanel, in choosing the design for her perfume’s bottle, was looking for something simple, even clinical, to stand apart from the overstated designs customarily seen on the perfume counter. What she ended up with was something understated, elegant and in striking opposition to everything that came before it.
Chanel Perfume ad, ca. 1953 (via Perfume Boudoir)
Although it may have been Chanel’s intention to create a practically “invisible” bottle that would allow her perfume to “speak for itself,” the minimalistic design of the Chanel No. 5 bottle speaks volumes. From its starkly faceted form to the single white label emblazoned with crisp, black sans-serif text, the object is modernity at its finest. As with the fragrance that it contained, the No. 5 bottle attempted no references to antiquated modes of production. It was machine-made and mass-produced, and it was not ashamed. On the contrary, like the modernist designs shown off at the contemporaneous Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs, the Chanel No. 5 bottle was an example of the beauty possible through mechanical production. Over the course of Chanel No. 5’s long history, the bottle’s design has remained more or less the same, a testament to its timeless beauty.
Above image: Chanel No 5 ad, ca. 1960s (via Styleite)
Today, it is said that a bottle of Chanel No. 5 sells once every 30 seconds. Numerous celebrities have voiced their devotion to the fragrance over time, most notably Marilyn Monroe, who famously said that all she wore to bed at night was a few drops of Chanel No. 5. In recent years, silver screen stars such as Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tautou have graced the No. 5’s advertisements — and who could forget Brad Pitt’s endlessly-parodied endorsement of the perfume? Now over 90 years old (one of the few perfumes to have survived so long), there is no denying that Chanel No. 5 is much more than a simple scent — it’s a powerful symbol of beauty, modernity and the longevity of timeless design.