Princess Beatrice was a guest of honour at last week’s gala dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum to celebrate its newChanelexhibition.
The princess will no doubt have been intrigued to see one small item in particular among the many magnificent artefacts from the most famous fashion house in the world: a letter from her own grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth II.
It was written to thank her husband’s chief of staff for a gift ofChanel no 5.
For more than 100 years, since Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel launched it on May 5, 1921, no 5 has been the indisputable queen of all scents.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, founder of the most famous fashion house in the world – pictured here in 1929. Chanel no 5 was the first scent she launched
The Victoria & Albert Museum is hosting a major exhibition about the Chanel fashion house
The exhibition features this letter from Queen Elizabeth in which she praises Chanel no 5 as ‘just the very thing I particularly wanted’
It was addressed to ‘Boy’, the nickname ofSir Frederick Browning, who ran Prince Philip’s private office
Year after year it is voted the top fragrance of all time and a bottle is bought every 60 seconds.
It has long been reported that Elizabeth wore Guerlains LHeure Bleue, but in the new exhibitions third room about Parfums Chanel – titled The Invisible Accessory – sits the thank you note from Elizabeth for the present she received on her 29th birthday in 1955.
And she praises it in glowing terms.
Written on Windsor Castle notepaper and dated 26th April 1955, the letter is addressed to Boy, who was Daphne du Mauriers husband – Frederick Browning.
A senior officer in the Army who, upon retiring, ran Prince Philips private office as part of the Royal Household.
The Queen writes to Boy that that he had, as usual discovered just the very thing I particularly wanted and that she is already using it, hoping that she is smelling all the better for it!
The exhibition, Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto, is a co-venture with Pariss Palais Galliera.
The late Queen’s letter has been lent byJustine Picardie, an expert on Chanel and author of Coco Chanel – The Legend and the Life.
In 2019, Justine’s husband discovered the letter in a Rowley’s auction house sale relating to the Du Maurier family, and they purchased it.
Princess Elizabeth in 1948 pictured with her correspondence in Buckingham Palace
Princess Beatrice and husband Edoardo attend the private view of Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto at the V&A
Coco Chanel, right, pictured with actress Ina Claire in 1931
Apparently the Queen and Prince Philip stayed with Daphne du Maurier and her husband at Menabilly House a few years later in 1962.
Of course the house was the inspiration behind Manderley in the author’s iconic novel, Rebecca.
Photos from their visit were also in the sale at the Cambridgeshire auction house.
Chanel no 5 was the first scent launched by Gabrielle Chanel.
It was created by the Russian born, French perfumeur (or nez as they say in the industry) Ernest Beaux.
It is said that Coco chose the fifth vial of the ten samples he prepared for her, because the number had had particular significance ever since she was twelve years old and moved to live in an orphanage in Aubazine.
The number five was thought to be the purest embodiment of a thing, both spiritually and mystically.
She also decided that no 5 would be its name after all, she showed her collections on 5th May, the 5th month of the year this number five will bring it good luck she has long been quoted as saying.
The scent, which went on sale in 1921, was innovative in that it didnt have the heavy overtones of roses, which most female fragrances were based upon, up until then.
The signature note was and still is jasmine, along with the tropical flower ylang-ylang, vanilla, sandalwood and alcohol derivatives called aldehydes. It was also extremely expensive to produce, which perhaps added to its luxuriant appeal.
The iconic flacon, in which the scent is bottled, was also novel Mlle Chanel wanted something that would distinguish it from what she thought were the ostentatious bottles of Baccarat and Lalique; and just as she dressed women in trousers she wanted it to be more masculine, than feminine.
In the exhibition we see one of the original bottles, that is slightly different to the one we are so used to the shoulders of it were rounded whereas now they are faceted. One of the first influencers (she was the first face of the fragrance in a 1936 Harpers Bazaar advertising campaign), she was also an early marketeer.
She misted the perfume throughout her Rue Cambon boutique, and was thrilled when passers-by, stopped to inhale the scent lured by its enticing and sensual smell.
Daphne Du Maurier with husbandSir Frederick Browning – the ‘Boy’ of Queen Elizabeth’s letter
At first, it was only available to special clients, the flacons were beautiful but not well made and therefore hard to commercialise.
But at the races in 1924 she met Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who owned Bourjois et Cie, and who promised to assist her in the bottling of the fragrance.
They then became the major shareholders in the new company Parfums Chanel something which Gabrielle regretted for years afterwards.
The late Queen, was not the only royal who loved no 5.
Lady Diana Spencer adored it, too, and sprayed the scent all over the inside of her gown before she walked down the aisle of St Pauls Cathedral in 1981.
Unfortunately in her exuberance and nerves, she spilled more than she wanted and when she arrived at the altar to become the Princess of Wales, tried to cover up the stain in the silk with her hand.
- Gabrielle Chanel – Fashion Manifesto at the V&A from September 16 – February 26 2024
- Josie Goodbody is a jewellery expert and author @josiegoodbody