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  • Writer's pictureJae Hodges

Contemplating Chanel

My grandmother use to keep a round flat mirror on her dressing table. This antiquated piece of furniture has since been replaced by a large bathroom sink area on which girls can climb on in order to get closer to the mirror, all the better to see as they put their make-up on, or in the absence of space and time, the rearview mirror of the car, stopped for a moment at a light.

On the mirror on her dressing table she collected perfume bottles. Perhaps they were arranged in some order that only she could distinguish, or perhaps they were just aesthetically arranged, as she often put herself together.

As a child I marvelled at the tiny works of art, which to me represented her travels across the world. Some were simple, some complex, all were glass. As I sit here now trying to picture them, I recall specifically one wrapped in white macrame, another the shape of a green marble obelisk, another a broad busty shape in deep blue with a silver top. Regardless of how pretty the bottle, or the scent, none stands out more than the bottle of Chanel No. 5. Iconic is really the only word.

She must have worn these various scents, but I don't ever recall noticing except when she died and I collected them up and saw how many were either partially or fully empty.

I do not have a dressing table, or even a surface large enough, or out of the way enough, to display the circle mirror tray and all the bottles as she did, and besides, I've given away many of them as tokens or remembrances of her, so I've place them instead, usually in groups of three (a whole other topic of discussion), around the house so that she can comfortably travel with me from room to room.

Regardless of how pretty the bottle, or the scent, none stands out more than the bottle of Chanel No. 5. Iconic is really the only word.

The half full bottle of Chanel is in what I call the Men's Room. A little research places its vintage as 1960s. I admit that there was no thought given to the perfume's history or its significance to my grandmother when I placed it there on a shelf just above the toilet at eye level, juxtaposed with a large piece of petrified wood. On reflection, I think it appropriate that it be one of the signature items in this room because one can't help but see them both as they move purposely through the space. I could spend pages writing about the symbolism of these placements even as they contrast to the water and ship art that surrounds them. Suffice it to say, it was all subconscious.

Of Coco, the thing that stands out most in my mind, thanks to Hollywood and whether I like it or not, is that she was a collaborator during World War II. Unfortunately this defines her as much as her perfume, but doesn't, as it did for so many, diminish her power as a woman of prestige and class. This, of course, took place well after she made her name (and her fortune).

The perfume itself, and her first, is fraught with meaning and power. A scent that was designed to give women both. The bottle itself was said to have imitated her lover's whisky decanter, and the amber color, richer and deeper with age, bears this out.

A glass bottle of Chanel No 5 perfume
Contemplative Crystal - Chanel

I photographed the two pieces the other day, primarily for an assignment in a photography course I'm taking, but also as an on-going "art-ifact" project I'm engaged in to catalog all the wonderful things left behind. As I played with different looks, different processing of the image, I stumbled (as I often do) into an inverted version. The petrified wood took on a look of a potent and powerful crystal while the bottle was reduced to an outline around which the rich amber liquid fades out. The whole image was completely transformed, but contains as many representations and symbols as the original.

Perhaps that was, after all, what Coco was trying to sell--transformation--and my grandmother bought into it.

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