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Bombay Duck London

The 12 Scents of Christmas No. 5: Chanel No. 5

Now, what else could I have chosen for No. 5 in the 12 Scents of Christmas…?  But even for an old scent-hack from way back, it’s challenging to put digit to keyboard about the most famous fragrance in the world.  Ever.  In all of creation.  Still a bestseller, getting on for 90 years since Ernest Beaux first slipped with the vial of aldehydes (so scent legend goes), and sloshed an overdose into one of the blends he was creating for the very discerning Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel.  Miss Picky-Picky herself worked her way through the numbered samples, and stopped at No. 5.  (Though as I heretically suggested in my review of No. 22, here, I actually think that’s even better.)

I could talk about its sophistication, its elegance, its sheer essence-of-grown-up-ness.  But what Chanel No. 5 really does for me, though, is catapult me back through the decades faster than you can say ‘Dr. Who’.  I am one of those clichéd children whose first memory of this scent legend was my mother, leaning over to kiss me in bed before she disappeared into a purring car outside, for a rare evening out.  A bottle sat on her dressing table throughout my childhood.  (Sometimes it fought for space with Femme and Madame Rochas, and later Chloé, but Chanel No. 5 was the faithful sitting tenant that never got booted out.)  As perfume was, then, it was reserved for the most special of occasions.  Gala dinners, after which we looked forward to an origami-ed napkin full of contraband petit fours.  (Extraordinarily, if I ever nowadays eat a fondant-covered Cape gooseberry – not that it happens very often – I still smell Chanel No. 5.  That’s synaesthesia for you.)  Dinner parties for my father’s colleagues, when everyone would arrive costumed as if in an episode of Mad Men, get through a lot of gin, and fill all the ashtrays.  And – this is a guess – for romantic interludes with my father.  For all I know, Gabrielle Chanel may be personally responsible for the births of any of my three younger brothers.

Revolutionaire that she was, I’m sure Coco Chanel wore No. 5 to work, as well as a masterful tool of seduction.  But I remember the level of my mother’s precious bottle dropped incredibly slowly, while we were busy growing up.  And what I want to say is that I think she had the right idea.  I’ve long believed that we have too casual an attitude to perfume:  spritzing it on morning, noon and night so that we can barely smell what we’re wearing.  Perfume-hopping promiscuously.  (So many scents, so little time…?)  Wearing scent as part of our daily armour, for the office.  In reality, there’s something to be said for reserving perfume for Big Nights Out, when it becomes as much a part of the preparation ritual as having your hair done, or choosing your lingerie. A touch of perfume then acts as a Pavlovian trigger, preparing you to party even when you’d love to stay in and veg out in front of The Apprentice – the scent equivalent of an icy glass of mood-shifting Moet.

I doubt we’ll go back to those Dark Ages of perfume self-rationing.  But everyone should have a go-to fragrance (or two) that instantly puts them in the mood for socialising.  The bottle of Chanel No. 5 photographed here serves that purpose for me:  saved for the most soignée of soirées, generally involving a red carpet or a velvet rope or maybe some Wagner.  (As in Richard, not the X-Factor’s.)  Do I think it’s the greatest fragrance in the world, ever, as well as the most famous?    Probably not, although I love its classic proportions:  the whoosh of effervescent aldehydic top notes jostling for headspace with ylang-ylang (then softened as the orange blossom emerges), the jasmine and rose heart (together the Little Black Dresses of modern perfumery), the sandalwood and oooh, yes, vetiver in the base.

But it works as a party fragrance for me precisely because it worked for my mother – because, in fact, it was her scent, and I’m continuing that tradition.  And the wonderful reality is that for as long as the people who love us can go on smelling the fragrance we wore, we are immortal.  So it is with Gabrielle Chanel, whose greatest legacy No. 5 is.  And so it is with my mother Vivienne, who wore it – and who I am now able to remember smilingly with every party-prepping dab:  her auburn hair, her twinkling, blue eyes, her ivory-and-freckled skin, her giggle, the cigarette in her right hand (a fire hazard with every grand gesticulation).  Chanel No. 5 is long white gloves and a mink wrap and red lipstick:  a liquid time machine, in an exquisite bevelled bottle which deserves to be unstoppered and enjoyed on high days, holidays – and most definitely for Christmas.

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