Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Chanel N°5 and Soft Florals (Aldehydic Florals)

Floral is the most popular fragrance family. Floral fragrances are seen as traditional, feminine scents. There are many ways to dissect them into microsubgenres but right now, I want to talk about Soft Florals which smell powdery. I'm on a powder kick lately. Soft perfumes are gaining in popularity and I wonder how it makes me feel wearing them.

Soft Floral is another name for Aldehydic Floral. Aldehydes are chemicals used in perfume to create scents that aren't found in nature or to replicate scents in nature which can't be extracted. Aldehydes are commonly used in feminine perfumes to give them a powdery scent. When perfumers combine them with flowers, what we get is the Soft Floral. It's called Soft Floral but it's an abstract floral in that you'll smell more powder than actual flowers. Iris and vanilla are often used to enhance the softness. The most famous perfume in this genre is the most famous and celebrated perfume of all time, Chanel No.5 (yes, the one Marilyn Monroe said she wore to bed and made famous).

To me, Chanel No5 smells mostly powdery. Sometimes I think it's like the inside of a makeup bag; other times I smell baby powder. Powdery scents also make me think, "there's something in the air that I shouldn't be breathing", so I'm not sure I actually love the smell of powder. Don't get me wrong; No.5 is absolutely a great French perfume, the "benchmark" as it's called, and it's still among the bestsellers worldwide since its original launch in 1921. It's a wonderful scent introduced to me by Mom who once had a scented bath product in No.5--it's not a heavy scent but it's also not a light scent. It's full-bodied and has great reach in a room, but the powdery texture gives it the illusion of softness even though in reality, aldehydes are sharp (they're high-pitched notes on the olfactive scale). It's complex and rich and absolutely unique--nothing else could ever smell exactly like No5 and the formula is kept very secret.

It's interesting how Chanel No.5 became known as the ultimate feminine scent even though couturier Coco Chanel's vision was to create a scent that didn't smell traditionally flowery-feminine. The champion of modern women's fashion and creator of the little black dress wanted a perfume that was at once chic and abstract, and that's what she got when perfumer Ernest Beaux composed the powdery blend for her. "Women should smell like women, not roses" she'd said, and sure enough, with No5, people began putting the scent of powder and femininity together in their heads. When Marilyn announced over the radio that she wore five drops of No.5 to bed, No.5 had arrived as the world's most coveted perfume.

Powdery perfumes: Do I agree that they're feminine-smelling? Sure, but as a woman, I don't want to be soft all the time, and I sure wouldn't want to get messages from the world that I should be. I can enjoy a powdery soft perfume now and then but I wish the world would let us just be our fabulous multidimensional selves without having to quiet down for fear of not seeming feminine. Sometimes I want soft perfumes and sometimes I want powerscents. I don't think that takes away from my femininity.

Over the decades, No.5 has survived and spawned many Soft Florals (and Soft Orientals, heavier than Soft Florals), many which have become bestsellers (some famous powdery perfumes are: Lanvin Arpege, Flower by Kenzo, Donna Karan Cashmere Mist, Cacharel Lou Lou, Jean Charles Brosseau Ombre Rose and Love's Baby Soft). In the US, Victoria's Secret Dream Angels Heavenly is a popular mass-market perfume which mirrors the powdery warm whisper of No.5. It's a little heavier on the generic vanilla musk compared to the real McCoy (that is CHANEL) but what can I say? It may not be in the same league but I just like it. When you want something different than or can't afford No.5, there are some lovely alternatives out there that are worth trying. Of course, if I had the chance to smell No.5 once, I wouldn't pass it up.