August 5, 2006

Feminine No. 5

Growing up in a house with older sisters, separated by wide gaps of age, I had occasion to be exposed to Chanel No. 5 while very young.  It was my oldest sister's "signature" scent at the time, when many women cultivated such a signature. My next oldest sister's was Shalimar.

Now I know that over the years perfumes have changed or been somewhat reformulated so that what we have now will not be exactly what we might have known years ago.

In the past, one of the tasks of a woman as she became an adult was to choose a "signature" scent.  Receiving a bottle of this perfume as a gift from a man was an affirmation and validation by a precious expensive substance of your choice and your identity.

Different perfumes had different meanings, as all the ads would have you still believe, and we do, because actually it is true, they do. Chanel No. 5 symbolized the modern European sensibility combined with Hollywood blonde glamor of Marilyn Monroe as she existed in her black and white portrait photographs. Sensuality translated into black and white, the modern chemical combined with the supremely natural. Little black dresses with red lipstick and black heels.

Shalimar is another story. I remember it for that intensely Persian image, powdery, spices in the distant background. I have not tried it on recently but going near it gives me the impression of very fine old cognac laced with aromatics and brocade. I think because of the Eastern presentation it has a connotation that is less modern woman, more traditionally romantic and surrendering than other perfumes we all might still wear today.

As for myself, I never took the difficult task of finding such a scent signature. I have many perfumes and essences and fool around with essences as well as enjoy other people's creativity.

I think my predilection for roses may seem simplistic in some ways but does in fact have a valuable direct connection to early childhood. Growing up in the city with only a small backyard, my primary connection to nature in that formative time were the roses climbing the brick wall, and smelling tea roses incessantly as a special event of the summer which I repeated on each new flowering of each different color. I thought I would find differences and special qualities connected to each shade, and there were.

There was also lily of the valley in early spring, and orange blossom, and cut grass in the parks, but we know that those scents are notoriously difficult or impossible to capture in an essence.
Above image: The Figure Five in Gold by Charles Demuth.

The No. 5 painting is based on a poem by William Carlos Williams -- very urban:
"Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city."

Copyright 2006, Lucy Raubertas, All Rights Reserved. 


Anya said...

Luccia, I was such a precocious No. 5 lover. Here is a funny story: Christmas. I'm 7. My aunt, glamorous world traveler. Over the years, as many of my aunts and mother's friends have done, she has given me bottles of perfume that were almost used up. They knew to charm me all they had to do was give me a little bit of this and that, I was easy ;-)

She handed me my Christmas gift on Christmas Eve, saying don't open until tomorrow. As I sat next to her on the sofa, I gently shook the package and announced "a four-ounce bottle of Chanel No. 5 cologne." She looked stunned, said nothing. I felt I had overstepped some boundary of childhood. Strange, eh?

Even then, I knew the differnces in the size, heft and bottling of the precious gold liquid.

Fast forward. In the post office a few months ago, a tall, well-dressed Haitian lady of perhaps 50 years of age was standing at the lobby table filling out a form. I doubled back and said her Chanel No. 5 parfum was lovely. She said her sister brought it back for her from Paris, and in her opinion, it is formulated differently (better) there. I agree.

Anya said...

Here are some Chanel ads from youtube:
and Coco:

Lucy said...

Those ads are amazing, true masculine/feminine extravaganza ag-go-go...

Stanzi said...

That image is actually a composite of two paintings: Charles Demuth's The Figure Five in Gold (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Georgia O'Keeffe's City Night (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts).

Lucy said...

Interesting, Stanzi, now that you mention it, I see the background...I am not familiar with the Demuth in the original, so didn't catch that, good catch by you though...