Ms. Frigidaire

A review of Chanel no. 19

Indulge me for a moment. Imagine the year is 1982. The location Copenhagen, Denmark. Nothing like the Hipsterville it is today, nothing like the romantic, copper-roofed old Nordic city seen in movies, but a dire, dour downer of a town. Unemployment is high, spirits are low, and an entire generation is busy declaring they have no future at all with all the passion of the very young and disillusioned.

Picture this: Hanging around the fringes of political activism, underground art, the squatter’s movement and general malaise is quite possibly the world’s cleanest punk. Second-hand Doc Martens, fourth/fifth and sometimes sixth-hand clothes hanging by one thread, black of course. This young lady – for that she is – has few hopes of anything much at all, and maladjusted doesn’t even begin to describe her. She’s eighteen going on nineteen going on a very crotchety ninety, a dangerous age, getting into scrapes, getting into trouble, getting arrested at demonstrations for her fast and furious mouth, hurling old toilet commodes out of the windows of squatted buildings at the police who are there to kick her out, along with her closest eighty rabid activist friends.

When she’s not wreaking havoc with her fellow anarchists, she hangs out in one haven for the misfits and Misfits fans, a book café in a side street that never sells that many books, but people club together for vegan potluck lunches, argue about music and political theory, and where to run if the cops crash the next squat.

Remember, she’s arguably the world’s cleanest punk. Despite her demeanor, despite the forbidding eye makeup and the safety pins and the scuffed boots and bitten fingernails, she is scrupulously clean. Her beloved grandmother did not crawl out of the gutter of the working class just so she could wallow in her own brand of dirt. That, too, gets her into trouble, because soap and water are so oppressing, so bourgeois. So not punk. And there’s that other thing, that other not-cool thing to do that she does – she wears perfume.

One day, when no one is looking and she has a little cash that didn’t go into the communal anarcho-syndicalist potluck/LP/herbal tea kitty, cash she didn’t say she has, she sneaks into a local department store feeling in the mood for something sneaky and stealthily subversive. Two hugely guilty if very happy hours later, she leaves – with a bottle of Chanel no. 19 eau de toilette.

Sure enough, one warm spring day just after her nineteenth birthday, her sometime boyfriend notices an aura that has nothing in common with stale beer, herbal tea or cigarette smoke. Being her boyfriend, he makes a comment, and the poor girl is instantly lambasted for supporting such a capitalist, commercial enterprise as Chanel. Suddenly, even her very political stance is called into question – because of her perfume. She may be a punk – but she’s also a g-i-r-l. At age nineteen, someone finally notices!

Stealth subversion at its finest. A punk in French perfume, and not just any perfume, but Chanel no. 19, as opposed to the far more common no. 5.

These far too many years later, and the former punk is no longer quite so angry or so defensive. All these many years later, she still wears Chanel no. 19, whenever she’s in the mood for a little subversion. It calms her, grounds her and focuses her attention on the things that really matter.

Taking over the world, for instance. She can name at least two occasions where her qualifications – and possibly her Chanel no. 19 – landed her some very high profile jobs.

Chanel no. 19 is a chilly, green and even slightly intimidating perfume. The kind of perfume you’d imagine Sigourney Weaver wearing in ‘Working Girl’ – not compromising on femininity, or much of anything else, for that matter. It’s a take it or leave it scent, from the first cool, muted burst of galbanum to the far dry-down of earthy vetiver, and all the silky-smooth stages of iris and rose in between. It has no need to be loud, no need to wear its heart on its dark green sleeve, but you will notice it, you will pay attention and you will do as she bids you – or else. The perfect scent for Ms. Phrigidaire.

The different concentrations offer a surprising evolution of the same scent. The parfum is like cold, slippery, gray-green satin, emphasizing the happy marriage of iris and rose. The eau de parfum is less focused on the rose/iris and more on the leathery, vetiver and oakmoss base notes, whereas the eau de toilette is lighter, with more of a galbanum kick and a flirtier, more lemony iris middle.

It has certainly been reformulated due to IFRA restrictions. The Chanel no 19 I remember at age 19 was much richer, more faceted and less fleeting than the one you can find today, but having said that, some loves last well beyond the age of nineteen. Even this one.

Notes according to Basenotes

Top notes:
Galbanum, Bergamot, Neroli, Hyacinth .
Middle Notes:
Rose, Orris, Jasmine, Narcissus, Muguet, Ylang-Ylang.

Base Notes:
Musk, Sandal, Oakmoss, Leather, Cedarwood .

Image: © SexyEyes69/

10 thoughts on “Ms. Frigidaire

  1. Fantastic story. I love how you became a subversive among the subversives.

    Since my perfume obsession bloomed earlier this year, I haven't smelled any Chanel. I think I'll get to sniffin' this frosty number.

  2. Apparently, there are no. 19 and no. 5 fans. I can't wear no. 5 at all, it metamorphs into some kind of monster on my skin.. I'm not big on many of the others – Allure, Chance etc – that I've tried, nor their many flankers – but some things are classic – and classically subversive! 😉

    I haven't had the opportunity to try any from the Les Exclusifs range, but both Cuir de Russie and Bois des Iles (which used to be their own, and are now part of the Exclusifs) are heartbreaking, or rather, they were, back in the day. I haven't been near either of them in years.

    But good, bad or indifferent, Chanel – one of the last independent perfume houses on the planet, incidentally – always makes quality stuff. Give Ms. Frigidaire a try! She might surprise you!

  3. Ah, good story! I know some squatting/dumpster-diving girls, who make disparaging comments about “perfumey ladies” . . . but I always think smell and taste are the last senses to be subverted – hence my penchant for wearing perfumes that repel and horrify (Dzongkha, Borneo 1834, and icy monster green-chypre demons come to mind), or wearing my (thrifted) Chanel No. 5 with rattytatty clothing . . .

  4. Actually, I can totally understand Borneo 1834. It's not for everyone – indeed, it's not for me – but I can certainly understand the fascination with repellant/unusual/eccentric. I quite like it – on someone else who isn't me.

    Then again, I'm developing a crush on La Myrrhe, so maybe I'm getting weirder and more subversive as I get older.

    Somehow, it goes great with my old Demonia boots and fashionably tattered lace…;-)

    Ah. If there's any Green Monsters out there I might be missing out on, let me know. I've rarely met a Green Monster I didn't like!

  5. … and, thanks to you (and of course Anne-Marie), I've just bought a bottle of EDP! Spring must be in the air…

  6. Wonderful. I read this some time back, but dee's recent purchase reminded me of it. I love the idea of your visit to the department store, but wondered what else you tried, and how you fastened on Chanel 19 (apart from your inherent good taste, of course!).

  7. Anne Marie, you have to remember – this was 1982. Several alternate universes away…and certainly in perfume! I seem to recall an AWFUL lot of..Giorgio Beverly Hills, and awful it certainly was in any incarnation! But I do remember the ones I gravitated towards in those days, so I think I can say that Dioressence was in there, somewhere, and Vent Vert and Ivoire (which I still wear), Fidji, too – the only one of my mother's perfumes I could ever wear, and I dearly wish it wasn't ruined now. There was a Ralph Lauren I really liked called Tuxedo (wonder where that one went?), and one perfume stuck in my mind, but I wasn't old enough to wear it at 19 – and that was Cabochard. Finally, one more I dearly wanted to buy and somehow didn't until later – and that was YSL Rive Gauche.

    You see a theme here? None of these were overly 'floral' or even very girlie, and several classify in the 'green chypre' family – a favorite even then. But these are the ones that I can recall – if not from that one department store excursion, then from several others like it at the time.

    So, then. Chanel no, 19 it was in a square splash bottle. I've loved it ever since in every incarnation.

    But one I shall never, ever, ever miss should I never encounter it again – Giorgio Beverly Hills – a.k.a. The Yellow-Striped Terror…

  8. Yes, I do see the pattern there. How annoying that so many great fragrances have been discontinued, reformulated, rebottled into expensive 100 ml bottles etc (Dioressence and som of the other old Diors), but Giorgio just keeps on keeping on.

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