Wednesday, 27 January 2016

A paler shade of black: vintage Lancôme Magie Noire - my '80s cat's pyjamas scent, and other cat/perfume crossovers

My eBay purchase
It's over four years since I wrote a post about my lack of 'long term perfume loves', or what might perhaps better be called my decidedly chequered perfume wearing cv / career, before I was struck down by sudden onset perfume mania on 28th January, 2008 - ooh, it's my anniversary tomorrow!

I do commend that post to you if you weren't reading Bonkers back then, not least for the gallery of photos of a Greek national flag-themed T-shirt dress which becomes progressively more holey over time...Much like Greece's finances, for that matter.

In that piece I wrote about my 'fairly indifferent, casually monogamous relationship' with fragrance, and also drew up an inventory of the perfumes I had owned from my youth up until the date of my epiphany, grouping them by category - it really didn't take long as there were so few overall!:

- Unsolicited presents from boyfriends
- SA-driven impulse buys at airports
- Purchases prompted by a wish to be vaguely in tune with the Zeitgeist
- Purchase prompted by a wish to emulate my very cool lodger, Caroline

And finally, and most significantly...

- Purchase prompted by a wish to enhance my pulling powers during a decade of peak opportunity

Lancôme Magie Noire

As I mention in the post, the reason this is significant is because I somehow managed to light upon Magie Noire with no reference to outside influences as far as I can recall. And because I really thought I was the cat's pyjamas in this witchy oriental chypre. Given my aversion to civet, which was pretty entrenched until relatively recently, it is quite remarkable that I should have found such a forbidding animalic scent so bewitching.

But bewitching I found it, and to this day Magie Noire has haunted me - like one or two men from my past indeed! - as 'the one that got away'. I say 'got away' because the fragrance has predictably been reformulated on two occasions: 1986 and 2005. I think - though my memory is fuzzy - that I would have bought the 1986 version in the so-called 'mushroom top' bottle, quite possibly in the very year of its re-release. The fact that the perfume was created (in 1978) by a trio of perfumers (Gerard Goupy, Jean-Charles Niel and Yves Tanguy) and that it has a very long 'kitchen sink' kind of note list, brings to mind the scene in Macbeth with the three witches, lobbing yet another faintly disturbing ingredient into their bubbling cauldron.

'Sabbat' by Tony Grist via Wikimedia Commons

Notes: bergamot, hyacinth, mimosa, galbanum, blackcurrant buds, raspberry, iris, jasmine, lily of the valley, narcissus, rose, tuberose, ylang ylang, honey, patchouli, sandalwood, cedarwood, oakmoss, amber, labdanum, musk

Fast forward to last year, when I was given a cast off (mostly used) bottle of Magie Noire by a friend of my mother's. From the mid-90s, it hadn't aged quite as well as its owner, who is IN her 90s, but it was not off as such, and its rich, pungent, mossy, funky brew was unmistakable. I can't say I have worn it since - or not until the other day. Well, it would be nearer the mark to say it wore me, but I wasn't sure if this was because it had become so 'stewed', as it were. And the wearability of Magie Noire in my mind was almost by the by, for at this point in my perfume 'j***ney' the fragrance had taken on an iconic status in my mind, and was symbolic of my starting out on my own: first job presiding over a multi-million pound empire of coleslaw(!), first house, not first love exactly, but a major one.

The bottle I inherited from my mother's friend

And so it was that on a whim I started googling vintage bottles of Magie Noire on eBay - there were a few, one with a buy it now price of £89.99(!), albeit that was 100ml. However, it looked an even more evil colour than my 'stewed' bottle from the same era. My eye was soon caught by another bottle, the juice in which was the colour of pale straw, like the precise shade of pee we are encouraged to produce as a mark of optimum hydration. Its lack of excessive maceration looked too good to believe, and in a cynical moment I even wondered if the seller might have watered it down or even filled the bottle with 'modern' Magie Noire. Though you would have to be pretty determined to prise those black plastic shoulders off to do the swindling deed.

Source: Pinterest
Also, there was a photo of the label on the base, which matched the one on my mum's friend's bottle, bar the coding. A bit more googling led me to a blog post about carbon dating vintage Lancôme bottles, and I was able to verfiy that the bottle on eBay was from 1991. It had presumably just had a less rickety life than the one I owned, secreted in dark wardrobes and drawers perhaps, rather than living it large on bathroom windowsills or sun-drenched dressing tables. And obviously I made up the 'carbon' bit, but it does carry on our noire theme...;)

I was also amused by the byline in the eBay listing:

'Opened and spayed twice, so completely full'

Which reminded me that I need to book Truffle's op soon - once she has had the procedure, I doubt that she would want to go through it again, mind. And this unexpected cat imagery rather fits in with my cat's pyjamas scent of course. ;) Magie Noire does have the personality of a black cat to my mind - you know, a black, witch's familiar kind. It has that sensual feel of sleek fur, with an animalic underbelly - think muddy paws that have recently scattered cat litter, hehe...Then the green, sharper aspect (which is reportedly more pronounced in the edt that I have), conjures up cat claws nestling in between paw pads - retracted, but ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. The chypre facet also evokes that 'en garde' stance which cats adopt - with an arched back and fur standing on end - which phenomenon I have just learnt is called 'piloerection'.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Really and truly, Magie Noire is so far off anything I should like really - it's in the same vein as Cabochard (though lose the leather) or Ormonde Jayne Woman maybe, if you were to recast that as a vintage scent and added a civet-y base. I am puzzling over why I should have liked Magie Noire when I was so young, but of course our noses were more attuned to diva scents in the 80s - this was before the aquatic tsunami engulfed us and washed all our filth-forward scents clean off the stage. I mean I also wore Ysatis around the same time, which seems overtly animalic to me now. And the tuberose fright wig that is Giorgio Beverley Hills was also riding high, flanked by the fearsome spicy duo of Opium and Coco Chanel. So bombastic 'elevator clearers' were very much the thing in that era, just as we fell prey to a zillion frumpy fashion disasters and pottered round the house weighed down by a head full of Carmen heated rollers.

Anyway, if you are curious to read a real review, Victoria of Boisdejasmin has written a corker on Magie Noire, perfectly capturing its dark, brooding character and chypre-oriental duality.

Pukka pale straw plays (very) golden (shower?)

So I bid on the bottle, and won, and it arrived yesterday. The plastic is 'out of the box' shiny and new, and the juice as pale as advertised. The fill level is a good 25% lower, mind, and I assume the seller did not spot it under the shoulders. I am not going to make a big thing of that, because I have enough for my own needs and feel that it is still a bargain given its mint condition. The scent itself is lighter and fresher than my 'stewed' bottle, but unequivocably genuine. So I wrote to the seller to advise her about the fill level and also to inquire about the bottle's history. She offered me a box of Cerruti Image body lotion to make up for the missing perfume - which is kind of her, but I am as well stocked with body lotion as I am perfume! - and also told me more about how she came by the bottle:

"Yes the perfume is from my grandma's collection - she has over 60 perfumes that she has collected over the decades - really, very nice taste. Unfortunately due to age a lot of them are stale so we're only listing useable ones currently and going though her vast collection. Over 70% were completely unused - she had a habit of collecting and going though phases. She's still with us but we're slowly clearing out her house, as she will be moving into care in the next few months."

It's funny to think that I bought my original bottle of Magie Noire a number of years before this lady, who is someone's granny! I refuse to designate this as an old lady's scent, however, even if I am moving inexorably along that particular travelator, teetering non that delicate cusp between cougar and care home, as I like to think of it.

And finally, I will sign off with these cryptic lines from the Procul Harum classic track, a mangled nod to which features in the title of this post - there is arguably a small oblique commentary here about the acceptability of musks...

"If music be the food of love
Then laughter is its queen
And likewise if behind is in front
Then dirt in truth is clean"

1920s ad for Ipswich Hosiery Stockings Or IPSWITCH, should that be?!


  1. Love your description of Giorgio as a "tuberose fright wig". Indeed! Wore all the other stinkers you list, but never that.

    1. No, never ever that. Though I once shared a house with someone who did. Whose room was right across the landing, imagine that!

  2. I had a good laugh with "spayed twice" - I'm glad this Maggie Noire didn't lose the bewitching power through the procedures. :D Definitely, in my mind, MN is a black cat; a witch's black cat to be precise.
    I'll raise a glass to the anniversary of your rabbit hole journey into the perfumedom tomorrow!

    1. Hi Yukiko,

      Wasn't that line in the ad great? Glad you agree with the witch's black cat analogy and thanks for your offer to toast my perfume mania anniversary tomorrow! I happen to be in London with an international posse of perfumistas, so that seems quite a fitting way to spend it. ;)

  3. Funny how our tastes change.Backin the 8os I hated MN and all the other orientals. I was more a Chypre girl. Now I can't get enough ofdark and broody scents. And btw. Mael and I were discussing Truffle yesterday (yes, we do discuss friend's cats, what of it?!) and wondered when she would have her op and be allowed to explore the great outdoors...

    1. Hi Sabine,

      Interesting that your tastes have also changed quite a lot over time, though MN does also straddle the chypre category.

      Truffle is due to have her op next month and will be going outside in early March if all goes to plan! How sweet that you and Mael should discuss friends' cats. ;) Truffle would be chuffed if she knew.

  4. I thought I would like MN and bought an old bottle, but (funny with Sabine's comment) I thought it was too much of a chypre for me. And more green than noire too. But I completely understand the hunt for old 'loves', so congratulations on your find.
    And as for cats and scent, much as I like your image of the witch's cat, I think I prefer the cat and the chocolate ;-) A shame Truffle ate the Maltsers rather than lie on them, since kitty + chocoate= divine smell, almost worth the hassle of bathing them afterwards :-)

    1. Hi Asali,

      Aha - that is the opposite of Sabine's comment if you found MN too chypre-like. It is green and noire I agree, and it's that duality that makes me think of witches in the forest, I guess.

      Kitty + chocolate is a divine smell, haha. I love the smell of Truffle's fur on its own, though, and that is a lot less messy. Plus she shouldn't be encouraged to lick chocolate, obviously. ;)

  5. Loved the "aquatic tsunami" yes, precisely it was one and didn't we all get drenched!

    Maybe Magie Noire in its original form is one of those wear everywhere scents. I used to think those were mostly floral aldehydes, but now guess they may be anything which isn't seasonal, like a good animalic oriental. Also you and Undina seem to have both had Lancomes as early perfume loves. A great company when they're on...

    1. Hi Blacknall,

      Yes, we did get drenched, haha. I used to describe Eau d'Issey as a big melon note in a freshly exited shower cubicle. ;)

      I am still puzzling over the wearability of Magie Noire back in the day, as I can't imagine it was ever all that wearable! Though not seasonal, certainly.

      D'you know, I thought that very thing about Undina and her Climat, which she makes reference to in her own comment below. ;)

  6. MN was one of the few perfumes known (I won't say "available" 'cos that it wasn't) in my childhood/adolescent years. I think I didn't like it though I have no recollection whatsoever either about how it smelled or under which circumstances I tried it. Back then I was a one-perfume gal. So for all I know I might even like it now - after all, one of the perfumers created also my all-time favorite Climat.
    Congratulations on your new (old) bottle! I hope you'll enjoy wearing it beyond the first renewing your acquaintance.
    Have you ever tried Lancôme's Magie (without the Noir part)? I have this one (in 2005 La Collection re-issue). It's not bad but I never found a reason to wear it.

    1. Hi Undina,

      Well, well, that is interesting about MN being 'known' at least when you were growing up. I can imagine you not liking it - hey, I can so easily imagine me not liking it, and yet I seem to have done, big style! I would be happy to send you a snifter from my bottle in the next mule run.

      I have not tried Magie, though in the course of my research into the history of MN I did come across references to it. I must take a look at the notes. Oh, I got myself a sample of Ubar at the PLL event last night, in deference to your mentioning it as a big love of yours. I remember finding it too bold years ago, but the jury is out now that I have embraced the likes of MN and Salome!

  7. Too funny, Bonks - it was Ma's Magie Noire that I swiped and wore to school at age 12/13, alternating with her equally neglected Maja. I applied a teeny weeny smidge, to avoid incurring the Wrath of Ma for filching her fumes, but it still boggles my mind considering it now.
    I hope you thoroughly enjoy wearing your MN, and fair play to your mum's friend for wearing it too.
    Anna in Edinburgh ;-)

    1. Hi Anna,

      What a precocious perfumista you were, to have nicked this at such a young age!

      I am very impressed at your mature and discerning taste, and glad you didn't get into trouble - that might have put you off perfume generally!

  8. Magie Noire had vivid connotations for me back in the day, due to a then-boyfriend's pouty and disagreeable ex-girlfriend, who was still his flatmate...AnnieA

    1. Hi AnnieA,

      Oh dear, sorry that Magie Noire has anything but positive associations for you. The ex-GF does sound like a bit of a witch in her own way!