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.


March said...

Actually ... Habanita is one of the vintages I've failed to fall for, for the reasons you lay out. It's too sweet and powdery. I know that's heresy, but there you have it. I remember smelling it (new) at Aedes, I think, and thinking, so what? It doesn't have the fierceness of so many other vintage frags.

Divina said...

Ah, Habanita, I feel like a philistine but I've only smelled this once (the modern version) and I was completely tired by the time I found it in Paris and it didn't make much of an impression. Whether it was the olfactory fatigue or the modern juice that is to blame, I do not know. But I do know I want to try it again.

Perfumeshrine said...

As you, so savant that you are, point out this is best in vintage extrait. I am afraid that the overwhemlming talcum note of the other formulations is too much for me to go through and I am not averse to powder in the first place (thn again I do powder myself with a giant puff in the warmer months in very Jean Harlow mode!)
Sorry it didn't work out for you.

Olfacta said...

Hello dear ladies --

It does truly make me sad, because I love the vintage perfumes. But I guess I'll hang onto the vintage extrait (last night I tried layering it with some Bal a Versailles -- interesting) and, after a decent interval, put the vintage bottle up for swap.

pikake said...

Dang, I still need to smell this baby! I can't believe I never have and your review just makes me want it more..LOL.

Lucy said...

I'm sorry to hear you say you are not a fan. I feel I must defend the honor of Habanita. I am a big fan, and on me the tobacco comes to the fore. A light powder in the background, but not oppressively so -- I am not a bit powder fan. It kind of has a boozy, benedictine aura for me as well. One of my favorites about a year ago, I went through a large decant last winter. I still love it...I did not realize there were so many variations that were wildly disparate out there.

Olfacta said...

Hello PiKake and Lucy --

Goodness gracious, no one is sadder about this than me! But, even though the vintage Habanita like to choked me half to death with all the powder, the vintage perfume is more what I had, and have, in mind, boozy as you say and full of tobacco and not so much powder. I think it's fairly available on fleabay, and not as expensive as many of the other vintage perfumes.

pikake said...

Tobacco and booze...yum! I wonder if the Perfumehouse here in Portland has the vintage in stock? Might have to go visit them this weekend :-)

~x~ said...

was wondering your spin on things.