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.