My grandmother and aunt, both nurses, have definite feelings about Tabu. Apparently, through their nursing careers, they both encountered countless incontinent elderly women who wore Tabu heavily in an unsuccessful effort to cover their own unwashed human scent. For them, the scent memory of Tabu is irrevocably tied up with stale body odor and urine. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Tabu launched in 1932 and has had a lot of time to build up a loyal fanbase, many of whom are now rather elderly. But it's a shame for Tabu that it now has a reputation for being just a strong, cheap perfume that your gran wears, because it can be genuinely rather beautiful, if it works on your skin.
Despite my childhood household's disdain for Tabu, there was always a bottle of it around--I'm not sure why, except that I think in the 1980s in the US, with big fragrances very much in fashion, there was probably a bottle of Tabu in most houses. And fortunately for me, my own interest in Tabu was not tainted by the smell of unwashed biddy, so I'd wear the occasional squirt.
My grandmother gently encouraged me to find a sense of femininity through experimentation with dress, makeup, and perfume. So while she did point out that, to her, I smelled like an old woman, she never stopped me from wearing whatever perfume I liked. And I liked Tabu--well, with reservations that I couldn't have verbalized at the time.
I didn't know the story that Tabu was created for prostitutes, but I suppose I was coming to understand its certain seductiveness, in my own nascent way. There was something about Tabu that was so different from the Electric Youths and Exclamation!s and Love's Baby Softs that all the other girls were wearing, something more womanly and more sophisticated, but also more difficult to wear. Women in boardrooms may have been bathing in Giorgio, but girls my age were wearing simple citrus and uncut baby powder, not patchouli and cedar.
Recently reminded of some of my old-time favorites, I set out to find a vintage bottle of Tabu, having read that the pre-1970s formulation was less brash, with a closer sillage than the modern drugstore version. I did a quick internet search and found a beautiful vintage bottle for not too much cash, and bought it straight away, with the thought that even if the perfume was no longer wearable, at least I'd have the pretty bottle.
The bottle had a customs adventure, but it finally arrived--and I was so pleased to find that the perfume within still had full integrity! There is no hint of sourness or spoilage, which to me is amazing for a bottle that is almost certainly over 50 years old.
Yes, yes, you're saying, but what does it SMELL like?
Europeans do not have the same associations with Tabu that Americans do. Many of them have never smelled it at all. So I sprayed my new arrival liberally, then walked back into the living room and sat 3 feet from my husband.
"Can you smell my perfume?" "Hm? No." "Not at all?" "No . . ." "Here, have a sniff and tell me what comes to mind." "Ok. *sniff* Hmm. Talcum powder. Flowers . . . fresh flowers of some sort. It's nice. This may sound weird but there's something that reminds me of an old-fashioned men's aftershave, like Yardley Gold?" "Interesting! What's the mood? Is it a daytime or evening scent? Is it particularly sexy?" "Hm, yes, this would be a daytime smell, something you could just wear at home. It's not particularly sexy."
I totally agree. Contrary to virtually everyone else's experience of Tabu, on me it has always turned into something very wearable that just works with my chemistry. I can smell the spice and musk attempting to dominate straight out of the bottle, but on my skin it just settles into a warm, innocent, kittenish scent. The bergamot, patchouli, and clove are present (and these are the notes that are shared with Yardley Gold, another drugstore bargain), but for me the dominant notes, pretty much throughout Tabu's life on my skin, are talc and clover--though the overall fragrance is still recognizably Tabu.
So yes, I like Tabu, and I will probably keep wearing it from time to time, until I am finally the old woman I've been smelling like since I was 10. (But don't worry, Granny and Cathy, I won't bring this bottle with me on my next visit. Not least because that old bottle I used to use is probably still in the bathroom!)
Tabu, Dana, 1932 Notes: bergamot, orange, neroli, coriander, spice notes; clove bud, ylang-ylang, rose oriental, jasmine, narcissus, clover; patchouli, civet, cedar, vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin, amber, musk, oakmoss