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"This was my mother's perfume..." Thus probably begins many reviews of Chanel No. 5. I have seen people accuse it of being an "old lady" perfume. I can't say I find the scent to be "old lady" so much as "perfume." For me, those perfumey aldehydes just don't work. On me, it smells like hostess soap. As a young woman, just establishing herself after college, I preferred the crisp, green of No. 19.
On my mother, however, it was lovely. She had many fine fragrances in her collection, but No. 5 was "hers." My cousin Joan wore Shalimar, her sister Irene wore Je Reviens, and their mother, my Aunt Mary, wore Joy. On each, her chosen perfume was lovely, but whereas my 20-something-cousins seemed to "wear" their perfume, my mother and my Aunt became their fragrance, or rather, it became them. After having so often complimented my cousin Irene on her Je Reviens, she gifted my mother with some. It was awful on her; it smelled like the worst possible cheap soap (even worse than No. 5 smells on me). It was hard to convince her that on her this wasn't the exquisite essence it was on my cousin, and I was left with no great opinion of Je Reviens. Thankfully, my mother returned to her No. 5.
Many years later, as I kissed my cousin Irene good-bye after a visit, I was greeted with the most entrancing scent. "What are you wearing!?" I asked, astonished. "Je Reviens," she answered, as if to say, "what else?" I had not remembered it being so wonderful. Not long after, when I visited her sister Joan, I was greeted by the most celestial garden of spice, and after the same, shocked "What are you wearing!?" she nodded, knowingly, "Shalimar." Years earlier, I had not sensed the spiciness of that "powdery" vanilla.
What is this long tale meant to illustrate (apart from that the women in my family have excellent taste in perfume)? That, even among the closest family members, there will be great variation in how fragrances present. We all know as much. But there is a theory I have developed from this experience as to why some people consider perfumes like No. 5 to be "old lady" perfumes--because their best expression is achieved on older women, and so we associate the scent with older women. My cousins had to grow into their perfumes; the fragrance, likewise, evolved on them. This isn't simply a matter of maturity or class. As women's body chemistry changes, as their skin density changes, so too, I believe, does their fragrance. (Not to be too sexist, here, I imagine the same happens with men, but we don't yet have a generation of mature men here in America who boldly wear what are considered "women's" perfumes to test this theory.)
Not long before her death, as I brought my lips to my mother's cheek to kiss her goodbye, I smelled the most perfect perfume. I couldn't describe it as anything in particular--just the most wonderful and perfect scent of a woman. When I asked the inevitable "What are you wearing!?" she said, "Chanel No. 5, as always."
06 August, 2012