Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tabu by Dana (Vintage Perfume)

Few perfumes have the bad reputation of the 1932 Tabu by Dana, "un parfum de puta", the prostitute's perfume. I remember in the play "Love, Loss And What I wore" there was a snippet about someone looking and smelling cheap. As Tyne Daly explained on stage: "she was wearing Tabu". The audience roared with laughter, knowingly. Why, of course, what else could it have been?

Once upon a time, Tabu wasn't a drugstore perfume priced at around $10. The advertisement campaigns appeared in the best magazines and the perfume was rumored to be a favorite of Ava Gardner. The sultry and passionate aspects, though, were always firmly in place, used by Dana to their utmost power and effect, as you can read in this article on Cleopatra's Boudoir.

I have a really old bottle. I never managed to date it, as the box seems to be even earlier than the ones I've seen in 1950s ads. I bought it sealed in a crumbling crusty cellophane of some sort and held my breath as I opened it, unsure of what to expect. What I found was a breathtaking heavy animalic oriental. The note list seems to include just about every strong raw material in the universe. Smelling and wearing it I get a spicy patchouli-civet blend that takes no prisoners and doesn't take no for an answer. In today's standards perhaps it isn't pretty. We tend to be scared of perfume that is so aggressive and doesn't try to hide its raw sexuality under a layer of pastry or fruit. Tabu is a little extreme. It wraps you in an intoxicating mix of exotica, lures you in and then puts on the moves. It dries down to a leathery civet, very faint sweetness and a lot of flushed skin.

My bottle is of the "colonia" concentration, yet it's shockingly deep, rich and long-lasting. Dabbing might be the more tasteful thing to do, but I've decanted some into a small sprayer and I give myself a good 2-3 spritzes for full effect. Yes, I do leave the house smelling like that.

Notes: bergamot, orange flower, basil, neroli and coriander, heart notes of carnation, jasmine, rose, clover and ylang-ylang, on base notes of patchouli, civet, oak moss, amber, musk, vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, benzoin and vanilla.

Photo of Dana Tabu Colonia by me.
Ads from 1943, 1950 and the original "The Kreutzer Sonata" by Rene Prinet from


  1. This sounds INCREDIBLE. Oh my. I can't even imagine how good you must smell when you wear this.

  2. Growing up in the early 1970s, I had a visiting aunt who wore this and she accidentally left the bottle behind at our house. My mother kept the bottle but I don't think she liked the perfume. But I loved the scent and would often dab it on my wrist. I had no idea that I was wearing a "forbidden" perfume. :) Though I suppose I should have guessed, from the name! I just thought it was a nice sweet scent.

  3. I liked it, too, many years ago. I had never heard it was a prostitute's perfume; although I do know it was fairly cheap there for awhile. I loved it, though. The one I linked to tawdriness was Evening in Paris.

  4. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, some point in my teens, in the mid-late 1970's, I wore Ambush by Dana, by that time also a "drugstore" fragrance. I looovved it! Years later, when Helmut Lang came out with his original 2 scents - I think there was one for women and one for men?- the more feminine one was..Ambush! At least that was what I smelled - it was Ambush all over again.

  5. Tabu sounds like the Opium of its day! I bought some of the reformulated stuff once, out of curiosity, and can say that it is the only perfume I have ever, knowingly, deliberately and happily put in the bin.

    I'm not a huge fan of Tilar J. Mazzeo's book on Chanel No 5, but I was intrigued by her speculation that Chanel 's ideas about perfume were inspired by a desire to avoid the heavy, musky, jasmine based perfumes that were associated with prostitutes, but also to avoid the simple, light soliflores that 'nice' girls wore. She wanted something both clean AND sensual, and got it, Mazzeo late says, in No 5.

    Perfumery in recent times seems to me to be in part an exploration of what is 'sexy' and what will attract. Is it sexy to be 'clean' or or is it sexy to be slightly 'dirty'. Since the 90s especially, the answer has been 'clean' for many people.

  6. As a European, I had no knowledge of Tabu and its rich cultural heritage until I read about it online. Obviously, I HAD to get a bottle! I love it.

    1. We had it in Liverpool in the 1970s. Tabu soap or perfume was a favourite gift for women on holiday in Spain to bring back to their friends as a gift. It was very strong and animal, unlike any other scent.

  7. I have an ancient spray bottle of Tabu (courtesy of my beloved friend C) that could rip your hair out. Nothing 'ladylike' about it. It is fantastic! I'm going to spritz some today, as I rip out the veg garden, in honor of this fabulous post!


  8. I wore this back in the late fifties-early sixties and adored it. I always felt adult and worldly beyoind my years when wearing Tabu. I've never tried the reformulation and have no desire to try it. I'd rather remember the Tabu of my youth and how sexy and womanly I felt when wearing it.

  9. Why, why, why doesn't Dana (and some of the other companies) re-release some of their oldies in a better quality. This is a rhetorical lament, obviously. Avon has some oldies in a coffret for the holidays; I wonder what they smell like? For 40.00 I'm not buying unshelled.

  10. I just love Tabu I have been using it for the past 40 years and everybody coments on how great it smells The men say they love it,

  11. I have been wearing Tabu since I was in high school in the 70's and still wear it to this day. It did have a different scent back in the day but I still like the newer version too. Nothing compares.

  12. Hello,
    interesting article about Tabu.
    Ive been wearing since I was 16 and the formula was great even though it wasn't expensive to buy. I'm now almost 49 and broke a huge full bottle of Tabu that was heavenly scent lasted to next day! So here I am looking for the right vintage bottle to buy. I came across a bottle for sale that looks just like yours except the cap is different design. Does your box say Mexico on it anywhere? The one I'm looking at says something about Mexico on the back and its a blue and white striped box. I just want to make sure I get an old batch of perfume, the new stuff is horrid!
    Thank you in advance for a reply.


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