The sweet smell of success: the story of the popularity of Chanel No 5
It is a curious book, by turns deep and whimsical. Karl Schlögel, professor of Eastern European history at Frankfurt, begins by declaring that he knew nothing about his chosen perfume subject, beyond going to department stores and duty-free shops for meet a “ particular blend of scents … light and radiance. crystal, the rainbow of colors, mirrors and glass ”. Although he always felt it was an alien environment, he was also captivated on several occasions. Then, by chance, he discovered a link between Chanel n ° 5 and the Soviet perfume Red Moscow. Intrigued, he undertakes an intellectual journey to discover the common and distinctive histories of France and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, from the innovative point of view of the creation, distribution and marketing of perfumes.
The result is a pleasure to read, but ultimately mystifying. Schlögel describes how, in Tsarist Russia, two French perfumers, Ernest Beaux and Auguste Michel, worked on related fragrances to mark the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Then, as a result of the revolution, Beaux fled Russia for France, where he developed Chanel No.5, while Michel remained, creating the very similar red Moscow: two fragrances, one meaning the expression of self and hedonism, the other the ideal femininity and feminine solidarity. Although politically divided, France and the Soviet Union were thus united on the level of perfume, thanks to the creative alchemy of the previous works of Beaux and Michel. From this base, the author weaves Russian ballet, 1920s fashion, socialist realism and the Russian avant-garde in Paris.
But, unfortunately, we learn little about the two perfumers. For Michel, primary sources are lacking. He remained in the Soviet Union because his French passport was “ lost ”, but we do not know why or how, or what happened to him after the late 1930s. Schlögel hints at a grim fate during the purges of Stalin; but there are no documents or eyewitness accounts, and Michel simply disappears. Beaux, meanwhile, mixes a range of perfumes in his French laboratory and presents a series to Coco Chanel, who chooses the fifth – hence Chanel n ° 5. After that he too is out of history.
The book covers a range of other personalities. We meet Diaghilev, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and his wife Polina Zhemchuzhina, who helped build the Soviet perfume industry; even Churchill gets a peek, as a friend of Coco Chanel. But beyond how these people moved around the same interconnected worlds, it’s not always clear how they relate to Chanel # 5 or red Moscow.
Schlögel, however, is superb in his account of what he calls “olfactory landscapes”. He advocates a historiography revolving around the world of smell. It is a fascinating and very neglected area, because history is largely built on words and images: documents, texts, paintings, etc. Moreover, Schlögel is right to note that in the hierarchy of the senses, smell is traditionally at the bottom: “It represents everything that is unconscious, unconscious, non-rational, irrational, uncontrollable, archaic, dangerous. He argues that revising the order of the senses, pushing smell higher in the rankings, can reveal a lot that mainstream historiography has skimmed or banished.
The vision is poetic: the simplest trace of a known scent could take us, Proust and madeleine, into long and rich interior worlds, full of the way in which the past lives in us. Although The scent of empire has an unstable hold on his subject, I buy his vision of olfactory landscapes: a magnificently spicy field of exploration.