Thursday, January 8, 2009
Habanita and Regret
In the days before air conditioning, well-bred Southern ladies covered themselves with dusting powder after each bath. This was applied generously with a large puff, while humming “Dixie” and dreaming of gentleman callers….uh, probably not! My guess is that you didn’t make it from the tub to the towel without breaking a sweat.
Most of the dusting powder became exactly that – dust. I can still remember my very un-southern mother complaining about having been expected, as a young wife, to clean sinks, mirrors, floors and bedroom furniture thickly coated with dusting powder after her mother-in-law’s baths.
This very Blanche du Bois-like scene comes to mind whenever I smell vintage Habanita. It is a perfume out of time. Released in 1921, it was invented to scent cigarettes, so that they would smell more feminine; at some point, the daring smokers began applying it to themselves.
There is a bitterness to the vintage Habanita. It is thickly powdery, and opens with a scent that reminds me of cherry cough drops, but it morphs quickly into that bitterness with very little of the aromatic tobacco note Habanita is supposed to have. (I’m not sure how old my bottle is. From the way the gold foil peels off the sprayer, and the engraved, not stickered, bottom of the bottle, I’d say it was surely pre-Eighties.)
I have a modern decant, too, and it is a little different. As it opens, the powder is there, but in the background, and there are other notes: florals, and an aromatic note that I suppose is the tobacco. On the drydown, though, the powder eclipses them -- just not quite as much.
I thought I’d love vintage Habanita. As soon as I smelled the modern version, I began looking for an old bottle. I found it and (never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance) and set about convincing myself that I loved it. I also found some vintage extrait, in a strange, squatty little gilded glass bottle, and grabbed that, too.
Of the three, the vintage extrait is the most appealing. The tobacco is very much out front, and the powderiness is less obvious even at the end. Was this how Habanita originally smelled? Without a visit to a fragrance museum, I guess I’ll never know.
The truth is, though, that Habanita is a relic.
I say this as someone who loves and wears vintage perfumes all the time. I even wear Coty Chypre, as its austere quality speaks volumes. Fracas is lush, Bandit bitter, Ma Griffe spinsterish and strange. But Habanita, to me, is oppressive, as oppressive as coating yourself with powder lest anyone see you sweat.
This is what you learn by doing. Reading about painting isn’t painting; reading about travel isn’t traveling; reading about Habanita isn’t wearing Habanita.
I wish it was.
Notes for Habanita include bergamot, orange blossom, galbanum, oakmoss, jasmine, rose, ylang ylang, heliotrope, amber, leather, sandalwood, benzoin and vanilla.