Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tabu: Things Don't Happen the Way They Used To


I don't imagine the Tabu you get at your local drugstore is anything but a remote facsimile of the original.  And how could you expect it to be - at roughly fifteen dollars?  I suspect Tabu was once something closer in spirit to Muscs Kublai Kahn by Serge Lutens, and in fact when I smell many of the Lutens fragrances I'm reminded of the way I've heard vintage Tabu described.  I think of Francis Kurkdjian's wonderfully strange and smoky Absolue Pour le Soir, a raunchier Chanel Coco, Le Labo's Patchouli 24.  The current version of Tabu is a much paler cousin of these, but I like it the way I like other simple things that don't cost me too much, with a peculiar kind of affection I wouldn't afford it at a steeper price.

Though Tabu's creator, perfumer Jean Carles, was known for doing much with little - and by little I mean cheaply, because from all accounts Tabu had everything but the kitchen sink in it - he was like many great perfumers a master of finding the right combination, the most radical alchemy, of these various ingredients, and what's missing from the modern formulation of Tabu, aside from high quality materials, is that careful alchemy.  Many of the things which made Tabu striking in its original form are still essentially there - the patchouli (and how), amber, resins, spices - but much more crudely combined and calibrated.  And the ingredients most crucial to its scandalous appeal - natural musks and civet - have been replaced with synthetic alternatives and their dosages diminished for the tastes of the modern consumer.

Talk to anyone who remembers early Tabu and they will tell you that a certain kind of woman wore it and was known for wearing it.  Tabu was truly, at one time, the kind of perfume synonymous with, if not easy virtue and illicit behavior, then a certain regard for pleasure and candor.  Recently I talked to a woman about the perfumes the women in her family once wore, and they broke down into pretty broad, easily identifiable categories.  Her aunts wore Youth Dew, Marie Becker body cream, White Shoulders, and Tabu.  A floral, White Shoulders is really the far opposite of oriental Tabu, suggesting a traditionally femme respectability.  Tabu, in this woman's family, was shorthand for recklessness and maybe carefully judged abandon, at a time when female abandon necessarily courted disrepute.  Tabu was, it seems, the scent an animal gives off to the opposite sex, indicating anything from availability to the need for caution.  Rumor has it that the brief Carles was given for Tabu instructed him to create "a fragrance for a whore."  Copy for one of the ads (pictured above) called it "the forbidden fragrance".

Tabu was released in 1932 and was said to contain citrus, spices (of these, predominantly clove), jasmine, narcissus, rose, ylang-ylang, amber, resins, civet, sandalwood, and patchouli.  Rest assured it contained that and much more.  But that was the picture painted for the consumer, who probably only needed to hear patchouli, civet, and spices to ascertain the fragrance's carnal agenda.  This particular cocktail would have heated up nicely as the skin did, meaning that ardor could be expected to generate something like a feral frame of mind.  Today's tamer version still has sensual, if not sexual, warmth, but virtues and sexual mores have shifted and expanded and are more elastically defined now - more often than not the average consumer has seen if not done it all - so it's difficult, based on drugstore Tabu and our contemporary climate, to imagine the kind of scandal the perfume once implied.

I've found eau de cologne versions most regularly, but did find an edt not too long ago.  These formulations smelled similar, but I prefer the cologne.  It lasts as long and doesn't feel quite so polite.  I want to get as much roar as I can out of this aged beast, and the cologne is, for me, slightly more ragged and robust.

9 comments:

Melissa said...

I had a bit of an OCD moment a few years back collecting vintage TABU. I have a couple of pure perfumes (now a little like dark syrup) and a small bottle of the body oil, as well as powder and the cologne versions and I'm here to testify that once you've smelled the aged version, you'll only get angry at smelling the new stuff. The original version is truly a sexy beast. I find just a few dots on the pulse points is enough to give you whiffs most of the day without killing anyone near you. I can see the comparisons with Youth Dew, but I find TABU a little smoother and a tad less sweet. I see more of the original YSL Opium in it. It's a shame that they produce the sad weak version of TABU today. If you can't do it justice, I say let it go to its grave.

Heidi said...

I have a vintage edc and a vintage parfum and I get the loveliest suede/leather note. I'm not sure if I've read anyone else experiencing that, but when the syrup-sweet spices lessen, it turns all salty-suede in the dry down.

brian said...

I've always wanted to get a Tabu bottle online, Melissa, and have looked many times, but it's so hard to tell which are the old ones. All the bottles look the same to me, and it seems with a fragrance like Tabu, sellers are apt to call it vintage simply because it's been in production for a long time. Any suggestions?

Melissa said...

I have one that looks like the one in the ad you have posted as well as one I've never seen anywhere. I think it's the oldest one. It's maybe 3 inches tall and a little like an hour glassed shaped apothecary bottle with a small glass stopper. Both arrived to me with very dark perfume. Probably the safest bet is to get pure perfume and the darker the better. I'd stay away from the little violin shaped bottle. I think they still release those. If you get a bottle, you'll have to let us know what you think. Or heck, I'd be happy to send you a sample of mine. Just let me know. :-)

brian said...

I would be happy to trade something with you, Melissa. Just email me through the blog and tell me what you're interested in and don't have and I'll try to figure out if I have anything you might like or want.

brian said...

Hey there, Heidi. I think that's what's missing probably from the modern drugstore variant, don't you? The patchouli is now trying to do all the work musks and civet and so forth once took care of.

FruitDiet said...

I had a bottle of Tabu bath oil from the sixties last summer and it was gorgeous- ass and root beer candies- and I actually used it in the bath rather than as perfume because it didn't last long on skin. What a glorious summer of baths it was! I also owned the current variant and, like you, I enjoy it relative to its price point but find it too plastic-smelling to actually wear, so I sprayed it on light bulbs. The atomiser on it was insane- rather than dispersing set amounts per push, you just pushed it and it sprayed to infinity, like an aerosol can, or cat piss. I currently have a bottle from the 80's or 90's, and while it doesn't have the depth that the bath oil had it smells great. It has a peculiar maple syrup muskiness to it, like you're a waiter at a Waffle House getting off your shift, and I wear it whenever I got too drunk the night before and did something regrettable. It is, after all, the forbidden fragrance.

jen said...

I have a ginormous bottle of Tabu (vintage of unknown age) and love it. It's certainly something that needs to be worn in moderation - or less. But it's really, really good. ;)

L' HOMME VERT said...

orofientI own several boxed presentations of Tabu from the late 30's thru to the mid 40's, these were all made by 'Dana' of France before it was licensed for blending in the USA, the precursor to most modern orientals & yes it does practically contain everything excluding the kitchen sink, for the time it was sophisticated sizzle. Just a few drops on white linen will hold for weeks without aberration, those nitro musks used in the early years of perfumery could set concrete, in fact it was just as expensive as some of the Chanel's, Guerlain's & other top shelf frags of that era. A couple of my bottles are still sealed with black & white plaited silk cord and sit in their hard brown leather tiered coffret's that resemble Inca pyramids. The older bottles are becoming harder to find now although it is worth the hunt, you wont be disappointed ! Vintage patchouli paradise & a veritable blast from the past.