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The Enduring Allure Of Chanel No. 5

The Chanel boutique, at 31 Rue Cambon in the heart of Paris, is a glittering shrine to fashion and fragrance. And that fragrance, of course, is Chanel No. 5, the world's most famous perfume.

Supposedly, someone somewhere in the world buys a bottle every 30 seconds. Marilyn Monroe notoriously claimed to wear nothing to bed but a few drops of Chanel No. 5.

Cultural historian Tilar Mazzeo has written a new book about this legendary scent, The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume.

The world knows Coco Chanel as the inventor of the little black dress, the embodiment of style and luxury. But Mazzeo tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that you can find the earliest inspirations for her perfume in her unlikely childhood. Chanel was abandoned by her parents at an austere medieval convent in southwestern France.

The Smell Of Clean

"There are two things about the convent that are very, very important for her, I think," Mazzeo says. "Because it's Cistercian, and the Cistercians believed in the symbolism of numbers, the number five was all around her."

Mazzeo says that mystical belief in numbers was at the root of Chanel's obsession with the number five, a number that she considered lucky all her life.

And more important, the convent gave young Coco Chanel a deep appreciation for the simple scent of cleanliness, of fresh laundry and scrubbed skin.

"I think that also was a register of cleanliness that really influenced her interest in scent," says Mazzeo.

When Chanel set out to invent her perfume, she was living as a kept woman with a succession of rich lovers. By the conventions of the day, that meant heavy, exotic scents like jasmine and musk.

"If you wore jasmine, you were a racy lady," says Mazzeo. "What a respectable young lady would wear would be rose or violet."

But Chanel thought women shouldn't smell like flowers; they should smell like women. So she designed a scent that married sensual jasmine and musk with new fragrance chemicals called aldehydes that created the clean laundry smell she remembered from the convent.

The combination was revolutionary at the time -- and it remains a best-seller even now, 90 years after Coco Chanel first put the tester bottle to her nose.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.