Monday, December 27, 2010

Back to Black Part II: Noir Perfume by Weil

Noir, or if you prefer it in English, Black. What did this name mean to Jacqueline Fraysse and why did she choose it for this perfume?

Today, the term 'noir' conjures up images of 1940s film stars striking fierce poses, trapped in dire situations. Prior to that however it was most likely connected to ideas about the color black, as in fashion. But from the 1800s, even much earlier and through to the 1920s, black was something of a rarity in women's clothing.

 1880 mourning outfit

Black was reserved as a color to be worn for mourning, exclusively. There were strict protocols concerning the mores of mourning fashion; plain cotton or wool, solid black for the first year and a day, with only solid black accessories allowed. Women were rarely seen in public wearing this full mourning black. For the next period lasting nine months, black satin was permitted. In the last three months of mourning women graduated to somber dark tones usually shades of deep purple sometimes with purple or lavender jewelry.
 1884 Madame X, John Singer Sargent

In 1884 John Singer Sargent set out to change all of that when he showed his doomed painting Madame X. He hoped the supposedly anonymous picture would launch his portrait career but instead it tanked. The painting failed partly because everyone recognized the subject: Virginie Amélie Gautreau. Born in Louisiana in 1850 Gautreau was as well known for her rumored infidelities as for her great beauty. But it was her appearance, the fit of her dress, and especially the color- a stark column of black velvet against an expanse of glaring white skin- that was most widely and hotly criticized.

But somehow in the eye of history it didn't matter. The tide had turned towards black. It's elegance, economy and flattery to the female form, particularly in photographs and on film, was undeniable. Then in 1926 American Vogue ran a picture of Coco Chanel's newest creation, the little black dress and hailed it "Chanel's Ford".  Her claim to the LBD was not undisputed; Nettie Rosenstein is championed by some as its true innovator but through the eyes of history Coco clearly won this one.

Wallace Simpson was an early, well known proponent of wearing black for the sake of fashion alone. She is quoted as saying of the LBD: "when it's [right], there's nothing else to wear..." In 1937, Noir continued to exist primarily as a color choice of fashion's avant garde.

The Elsa Schiaparelli black wool hat, fitted bolero and dress above was designed for an elite clientele, circa 1937 from the Conde Naste Photo Archive.

A decade later in this 1947 fashion shot Richard Avedon showed us the daring drama of a cocktail dress in black. Fifteen years later the mod club kids in London took to wearing it  usually with jolts of white and Andy Warhol filled the Silver Factory with his beautiful people dressed in black.

Finally movie stars like Audrey Herburn and teen model Twiggy made noir over into something gamine, impossibly young and fresh. And that was how black became cool.

In 2011 it's easy to forget the difficult journey noir traveled to become our uniform and our comfort zone.

This year Santa brought me a sealed bottle of Weil's Noir Perfume for Christmas. He couldn't have known at the time how well he did. I couldn't either because once Noir landed in my hand I was crushed to discover the stopper was firmly wedged into the neck of the perfume bottle.  Like a true perfumer fiend, I quickly went to my bookmarked favorites and opened Dimitri's post about unsticking stuck stoppers. I re-read it before clearing a workspace for myself. I assembled my tools- a plastic pipette, some vegetable oil, a clean cloth. I applied the oil just so and waited the required time before carefully placing the wrapped bottle into the [frost free] freezer, waited some more and in 30 minutes or so with the bottle thoroughly chilled, proceeded to carefully made my first attempt at opening it. And: nothing. Again, all steps were repeated. And again: nothing. I paced a bit; I thought about whacking it like a mole. I even had sort of a mini tantrum and debated boxing it off to someone else, like Dimitri- not that he knows me or anything about the perfume but, maybe someone else could work some magic on it and get it open. Someone should enjoy it, right? Ah, the things we go through for our perfume fix!

I enlarged the above photo so you can see the little tiny hole in the bottom. Yes we had to drill into it. Now I won't pretend it was an easy-peasy process. It was actually kind of a major pain what with balancing the bottle and drilling over a bowl in case the bottle shatters way under the pressure of drilling, constantly lubricating the bit with oil and stopping to  check progress every minute or so. It took some patient work to get through the glass, and near the end I just tapped through with a pin-thin metal file. Extracting the perfume from such a small hole was a whole other challenge- save yourself the heart-ache and just go get a syringe equipped with a needle before you start.

I finally decanted the perfume into a pretty little Coty bottle but probably lost at least a ml or two trying to empty the bottle without the syringe! On the whole it was a trying process; and in the end I really hate not having Noir in it's correct container. But the alternative of not experiencing Noir wasn't happening- not on Christmas! And after getting into it, there was a rich reward; a soul-satisfying scent the likes of which I've not experienced since discovering Chanel's own Cuir de Russie (1924).

Noir is a perfectly executed tender-yet-seductive floral leather.

Like a great little black dress Noir goes on easy, at first. Orange blossom, bergamot and mandarin combine sweetly while Rose, jasmine and iris hum and thrum along. A thin green ribbon of vetiver laces up the leather, amber and styrax notes... Admittedly these notes are cribbed from Chanel's CdR yet it is also what I visualize upon smellng Noir. There is a sweetness in Noir that is lacking in Chanel's masterpiece but it is restrained. There is also a distinctly milky peach skin like effect that plays against the darker notes like a view of white skin against a rich black gown.

As I worked to clean up the tools and traces of perfume debauchery, the space around me was filled with an exquisitely delicate cloud of leather. Soft, suede like, the leather is more of a fur scent, exactly like the smell of a fine sable paintbrush complete with the snap-sharp odor of lacquer/glue that clings to new brushes; I find it quite addictive.

Through a veil of iris and balsams comes a clear impression of make up; the vision of a woman seated at her vanity. She dips a marabou puff into her Caron powder scented with the finest Rose de Mai. In the ashtray, incense papers smolder while Nina Simone plays in the background. She dabs on Weil's Noir parfum and anticipates her plans for the evening. Noir ends with the strong, raw musk of an intimate encounter; only traces of flowers, leather and powder remain all hidden under the spice that keeps it just wearable in public.

Brassai Le Corset Noir 1934

The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.

natalie portman as the black swan at
coco chanel in black at viaconanso.blogspot
1880s mourning outfit at millionthingstosay.tumblr
double indemnity at metaphilm
John Singer Sargant's 1884 Madame X at
Duchess of Windsor - lost reference
Mods at HouseofKhan.blogspot
Andy Warhol at
Audrey Hepburn at thelittleblackdressforless.wordpress
twiggy at simplychic.blogspot
Victoria Beckham at HarryPottering
barbara stanwyck from
lady at vanity at
Brassai Le Corset Noir at blogaboutablogabout.blogspot


Angela Cox said...

Too wonderful , you could almost imagine your desperation getting to phoning 911 and having it rushed to the E.R . I know I would have , my husband would have had to lock me in the cupboard before I took a hacksaw to it . I think your patience was amazing . It sounds gorgeous too , enjoy !

Amelia said...

Thanks Angela:)

Anonymous said...

A perfume friend in Germany is sending me this, and I can't wait! I love Weil perfumes, and the name Noir is so evocative.

Also, I'm really impressed with your perfume bottle drilling. You must have been terrified it was just going to explode! (I would have been.) I guess you were determined...

Ines said...

This was very interesting and you made me imagine the cloud of Noir wafting around me. Enjoy!

Amelia said...

Yesterdaysperfume: Noir is evocative isn't it? There's so much symbolism and meaning imparted to the concept of black. I await your review and look forward to learning more about this rare and beautiful perfume. Happy 2011!

Amelia said...

Ines: I wonder if technology will ever allow us to send puffs of scent to each other from our computers?

Stay tuned for something interesting:)