Habit Rouge (Guerlain)

Understanding old perfumes can be challenging, especially if you delve into things that don't suit your style. It's the end of September, and cooler weather is coming. Before long it'll be time to break out the autumnal treats, followed shortly thereafter by ancient, moth-eaten winter blankets like Habit Rouge. The good thing about Habit Rouge, however, is that it's casual enough to warrant autumnal use as well. It possesses just the right gauzy temperament to lift anyone out of the dreariest October day.

I had an opportunity to try Habit Rouge recently at a duty-free shop in John F. Kennedy Airport. It was the Eau de Toilette, which I applied liberally to my wrist. Based on everything I'd read about it, I expected this Guerlain to be a tough sell, as I'm not a big fan of orientals. There's something about the smell of concentrated spices that makes me recoil, particularly if there are generous handfuls of cinnamon involved. For me, spice should be complementary, not central to a fragrance theme. If used judiciously, as in Kouros, aggressive spices like coriander and sage can become refreshing accoutrements to a lusty fougère's composition. If abused, spices like cinnamon, pepper, and nutmeg can gunk into a slightly-fetid overload of ick. That's bad for me because I try to keep my ick-factor as low as possible. I'm a geek to begin with; I can't afford extra ick.

So imagine my surprise when a very tame, powdery, not-so-spicy oriental wafted pleasantly up off my cool skin. What's this? Orange and lemon zest? Hints of rose, powdered lilac, talc, orange blossom, and vanilla? Well, vanilla I expected. This is Guerlain, after all. But the softness of Habit Rouge was such that I immediately associated it with being feminine. It's no surprise then that the fragrance is often adopted by women; the composition flourishes in a way that lets the spices intermingle seamlessly with the creamiest woody notes and just the barest hint of earthiness, perhaps tree moss? 

Or maybe it's oak moss paired with tonka bean that gives off the warm, earthy glow in the scent's otherwise-powdery base. Whatever the case, vanilla is still the central accord, flanked by the bold assertions of amber and carnation (for a floral spice). The composition is staid, warm, secure, and relentlessly friendly from beginning to end.

After my initial surprise, I became disappointed. Habit Rouge is pleasant enough, and of the highest quality. But it isn't my style. I'm just not moved by the fuzzy and pared-down Guerlinade of citrus, rose, and vanilla. I'm not inspired by the comforting warmth, or the fleeting woodsiness that laces the drydown. I smell none of myself in this kind of 1960s fireside, leather-bound library smell. My m.o. is freshly-cut grass and a morning breeze through a field of wildflowers in Sarrazac. When you think about it, the differences here are vast. When I thought about it, I realized that every scent can be abstracted in one's imagination, enough so that whatever image you end up with will either draw you, or send you away. The abstraction of Habit Rouge is a wall of old coverless books with a crackling fireplace and a dram of whiskey waiting on the hearth. You have to be an intellectual for that kind of thing. In case you haven't already noticed, I'm no intellectual.

Brilliant or not, Habit Rouge surely holds a good bit of appeal for plenty of other guys (and gals) out there, and I suppose that's all for the better. If soft orientals are your style, this fragrance could be right up your alley. Even though it's not my thing, I appreciate it as a classic fragrance that will never go out of style.