In the same way that people want to drink a full-bodied red wine or peaty scotch on winter days rather than, say, a vodka grapefruit, perfumistas often veer toward fragrances in the Oriental category when it's cold outside. (I'm in New York City at the moment, and the Weather Channel is telling us that the "real feel" temperature is hovering around 7 degrees. Eeep!)
Well, lucky for me, my shipment from the Miniature Perfume Shoppe arrived. The vintage Tabu perfume I received has been a revelation, not just in comparison with the pathetic Tabu formula available now in drugstores, but in allowing me to think about Tabu's relationship to the Oriental fragrances that followed it and to the concept of overt sexuality in fragrances.
Top notes: Bergamot, Orange, Neroli, Coriander, spice notes
Heart notes: Clove bud, ylang-ylang, rose oriental, jasmine, narcissus, clover
Base notes: Patchouli, civet, cedar, vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin, amber, musk, oakmoss
Created by perfumer Jean Carles of Ma Griffe, Shocking, and Miss Dior fame (co-created with Paul Vacher), it's said that Dana's brief to Carles was along the lines of: "Make a perfume a whore would wear." This makes me chuckle a little because so many commenters on Basenotes said of another Carles creation, Ma Griffe, that their mothers and grandmothers told them it was dubbed the prostitute's perfume! (And let's not forget that Shocking and Miss Dior both have the ol' "whiff of lady's underpants" note.)
Perhaps Carles was simply fine with overt sensuality in perfume rather than merely a hint of it, and given that the bulk of his perfumes were created in the ladylike '30s and '40s, he was certainly being subversive.
But on to the perfume. Tabu is a full-on Oriental — sweet, ambery, spicy and complex. The sweetness comes from the heady florals, clove, benzoin and amber rather than vanilla. (I was surprised not to see it in the notes in my H&R fragrance guide, but if you've ever smelled benzoin, it has a subtly vanillic scent embedded in a heavy cream richness.)
Tabu has an almost spiced, stewed fruit accord, although there are no fruit notes indicated. It's a perfume to curl up to on a cold day — and I'm talking about the vintage formulas only. I bought a bottle of Tabu in a drugstore, and although it's a cliché way to disparage a perfume, I'm not kidding that this wasn't fit to scent a taxicab. It was cheap in a way I cannot recall encountering before in drugstore perfume: the color was an unappealing orange, every note smelled synthetic, and even the plastic label was affixed askew. What a sad fate for a gorgeous Oriental that I bet inspired Calvin Klein's Obsession and probably a few other modern hits. But at least vintage Tabu is readily available online.
Unlike slightly intimidating Orientals like Opium and Magie Noire, Tabu is friendly. (Perhaps it's this, "Hey there, how YOU doin'?" personality that makes it "whorish." But let's think about how gender is constructed in this formula: If you're sexy and friendly — you might as well be a prostitute, but if you're sexy and slightly imperious or intimidating, no one can blame you for enticing the menfolk.)
As for the ads, I love how they directly address perfume's relationship to fantasy. In some, single women lost in reverie appear before the perfume's iconographic image of a couple in a passionate embrace. "Depend on it for ANYTHING!" promises one ad featuring a daydreaming, amorous-looking lady. In another, a cryptic, censored tagline reads, "In spring, ___ ___ ___!" Add your own fantasy, ladies; it's Mad Libs for the frisky woman.
In another ad, a woman with a man looks over his shoulder to a picture on the wall of the Tabu couple in a passionate embrace. Underneath is the perfume's tagline: "The 'forbidden' perfume." And then, the not-so-subtle "Tonight CAN become very special." Ha! Let's break it down, shall we? Wear Tabu, ladies, and get lucky tonight!
This is a pretty radical break with feminine propriety for the time. Women are supposed to want to be desired, but they usually stop short of (consciously) desiring to consummate their romances. I guess this ad lets them have it both ways. Since it's a fantasy — it's OK. The woman in this ad, after all, seems to be simply getting ready for a night on the town.
Unlike Axe cologne ads, which suggest the ladies will come chasing after men who wear it, Tabu ads don't promise that men will fall over themselves if women wear it. The ads do something more interesting: they invite women to have a relationship to their own desire, to dream and fantasize about romance and sex. Ultimately, the taboo of Tabu is for a woman to have a relationship to her own erotic fantasies, however culturally constructed or conventional they may be.
Go for demure perfumes if you must, but for me, if loving perfume made for whores is wrong — I don't wanna be right.