Last week my toddler had chicken pox, so we spent the whole week self-quarantined in our house, trying to find imaginative ways to distract and entertain our way out of both cabin-fever and genuine fever. I was shattered from late-night wake-ups and the many extra hours that seem to be added to the day when looking after a sick child… hence no blog posts until now!
I did briefly escape the House of Pox for a trip to nearby Westfield, where I could quickly stock up on some necessities. While I was there, I stopped at a Chanel counter and (waiting impatiently for a salesperson that never came) I spritzed myself with an old favourite of mine, Chanel No. 19. That single spritz carried me back thirty years on its wings of fine mist, making me instantly feel like a sulky, bored-in-a-small-town, teenager again. As you probably know, the olfactory neurons in our upper noses connect to the nearby limbic system (responsible for memories and feelings) in our brains, so scent is intimately connected with our emotions. This is why scents like a familiar perfume, freshly cut grass, a baby’s skin, a cedar chest, cookies baking, rain on warm asphalt, and a host of other things (like Proust’s madeleine) can be so loaded with powerful feelings and rich memories for us. While I know this on an intellectual level, it is still a shock to see how instantly my mind and heart time travel with scent.
Anyway, back to Chanel No. 19… When I was a teenager, my father frequently travelled abroad for work. On one of his trips to Paris, he went to the perfume counter at a department store and asked a saleswoman to help him select one perfume for me, one for my sister, and one for my mother. She asked him to describe our personalities so that she could get a sense of us and help him choose the right perfume for each of us. For my mother, they chose Joy by Jean Patou (which I used to steal from time to time as a teenager when I wanted to feel fancy). For my sister, they chose Guerlain’s Shalimar. And for me, they chose Chanel No. 19. They were spot-on for all three of us. Chanel describes No. 19 as “audacious and assertive. Never conventional” which is probably very close to how my dad would describe me to a stranger! I wore Chanel No. 19 for many years; I considered it my signature scent. After all, a perfume expert in Paris helped choose it especially for me, so who was I to disagree? At some point, I ran out while I was travelling, and since I’m obsessed with perfumes and am always buying intriguing new ones, I just never re-purchased it. Until last week! I did some online research and saw that like all perfumes, the original components of Chanel No. 19 that I knew and loved have changed (Chanel reformulated it in 2000), so I tracked down a vintage unopened bottle on Ebay, and couldn’t be happier with it. I bought the Eau De Parfum version instead of the Eau de Toilette, and it smells exactly like the bottles of No. 19 I wore years ago.
I love the history and stories behind perfumes. In case you don’t know much about Chanel No 19, it was named after Coco Chanel’s birthday (the 19th of August) and was launched in 1970, a year before she died. The perfume was created by Henri Robert (who later created Cristalle) as Coco’s signature scent for her personal use and for her to give to friends. It is a perfume with an extremely high concentration of iris root (‘orris’), which was revolutionary at the time… and still is, actually. The roots of iris plants have to be dried for several years and a surprisingly fresh, powdery scented ‘butter’ is extracted from them. Chanel uses it in such great supply that they cultivate their own fields of iris flowers in Grasse (Grasse is the perfume capital in France, and where I spent my 40th birthday, such is my perfume obsession!) so that they are not dependent on other producers. In Chanel No. 19, there are also top notes of hyacinth, galbanum (a Persian resin with a musky green scent), neroli, and bergamot. The middle notes are mostly iris root with a bit of jasmine, rose, narcissus, and ylang-ylang. The base notes are the traditionally masculine scents of sandalwood, oak moss, leather and cedar. The overall effect, despite the many flowers involved, is not remotely flowery and girly. This makes sense given that Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel herself was quite a tomboy and this fragrance was created specifically for her. She popularised trousers instead of corsets-and-skirts for women, outdoorsy suntans instead of porcelain-white skin, and a working-man’s Breton striped tee instead of ladylike prints. I love the juxtaposition of green freshness against rich warm leather in No. 19; they contrast beautifully. To me, this fragrance will forever remind me not just of Coco Chanel (my fellow Leo and tomboy feminist), but of my father going to magical foreign places and bringing back an extraordinary present, chosen just for me by an unknown lady in Paris who seemed to somehow know just what I like, even now at 46. Maybe I can also blame my deep associations with Chanel No. 19 for my love of all things French, including my husband, who grew up in Paris.
I love this quote from Coco Chanel: “No elegance is possible without perfume. It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory.” I’m sure I’ll write more on perfumes in the future (that’s most of my collection below; I genuinely love every single bottle) but I wanted to start with Chanel No. 19, a gift from my father and my first step into the world of grown-up style.
Here are some of the magazine ads for Chanel No. 19 that I remember seeing in the 70’s. The original #girlboss looks like she’s having a lot of fun.