Icons: Marilyn Wears Chanel N°5

Posted on August 17, 2011

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Marilyn and the only thing she wore to bed

Last May, I posted a piece about one Ed Feingersh’s iconic image of Marilyn Monroe anointing herself with Chanel °5. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the fragrance’s introduction. This week comes news that the legendary woman behind the perfume, Coco Chanel, spied for the Nazis in occupied France during World War II. (The revelation comes from a new book,  Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War , by Hal Vaughan.) This August also marks the 49th anniversary of Marilyn’s death, so I thought this would be an auspicious time to re-post my earlier piece.

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Fifty years ago, the world started smelling much, much better: On May 5, 1921, Parisian couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel launched her first perfume, Chanel N°5. You might say it was one of the modern world’s greatest achievements of olfactory design, and of course you would be correct. (The New York Times’s Chandler Burr heroically described the scent as being “like a bank of hot searchlights washing the powdered stars at a movie premiere in Cannes on a dry summer night.”) But the cultural status of Chanel N°5 rests on more than just one of our five senses. Ironically, a product meant to delight the nose owes a great deal of its success to a medium meant for the eyes.

A circa-1980s ad campaign by Andy Warhol

We could start, perhaps, by talking about Chanel N°5 not as an aroma but as an object. The Chanel N°5 bottle itself—seductively solid, like the scent—is one of the most identifiable pieces of 20th-century industrial art.

The container and the scent within were made famous in long string of advertising campaigns that blurred the line between commerce and culture. One of those campaigns also provided the answer to a question man had pondered from the beginning of time: “Every Woman Alive/Loves Chanel N°5.” Was it merely a slogan, or was it a poem? In the luxurious world that Coco created, does it even matter?

Chanel for the Mad Men Set

This history of Chanel N°5, and the story of Coco Chanel, raised as an orphan at the monastery in Aubazine, France—a place filled with “the bracing scents of order and severity,” are told by Tilar J. Mazzeo in her book The Secret Of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History Of The World’s Most Famous Perfume (HarperCollins, 2010). Mazzeo writes that for Chanel “Aubazine was a secret code of smell, and in the years to come it would be at the heart of everything she would find beautiful.”

It is ironic that the scent and sensibility Chanel created would one day be symbolized by another woman whose early years were less than luxurious. Or perhaps the gods of good living were simply having a fun when they put  Chanel N°5 and Marilyn Monroe on the same planet at the same moment in time. So powerful was the affinity between the two that decades after Monroe’s death her spirit could be seen (in this ad) inhabiting the souls of modern Chanel N°5 wearers.

In what still stands as one of the great mutually-beneficial brand associations, Monroe famously told a reporter in 1954 that all she wore to bed was “five drops of Chanel N°5,” thereby creating millions of fantasies among her own admirers and long lines at department store perfume counters.

The most memorable manifestation of the bond between star and perfume, however, was a photograph, which is only appropriate. It was in photographs that Monroe’s allure shone brightest. And in the picture that photographer Ed Feingersh shot in 1955, that allure was glowing.

At the time, Monroe’s career was at a crossroad. Wanting out of her contract with 20th Century Fox, the studio that made her a sex symbol, she abandoned Hollywood and settled into the Ambassador Hotel in New York City. She formed a production company with the photographer Milton Greene and began studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. Her attempts at forging a new, more serious identity were less than completely successful, however. According to some accounts, it was Greene who arranged for her to appear in a cover story in Redbook magazine, in an effort to put her back in the public eye. Feingersh was hired to follow Monroe around New York for several days and create intimate, documentary-style images.

Among the pictures Feingersh took, there are captured moments that ring with authenticity, especially a sequence showing the star bursting into tears of frustration and anxiety at a costume fitting for her appearance the Ringling Brothers circus.

Feingersh photographing himself and Marilyn in a mirror at the circus fitting.

Marilyn, near tears at the fitting

In Monroe’s hotel room, Feingersh photographed the star as she dressed for the Broadway opening of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Monroe adjusted the level of her sexuality for the camera, as she had so often done before; this time, as she splashed on Chanel N°5, she got it up into the red zone. In grainy black and white, Feingersh captured something approaching pure radiance.I think the image, for all its sexual explosiveness, derives its enduring power from the sense of revealment Feingersh captured–or, to be exactly correct, that Monroe and Feingersh created together. The few days they spent together for Redbook yielded a number of images that are now considered iconic, all of them drenched in realism. And one of the realities was this: Marilyn Monroe wore  Chanel N°5.

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