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The Rise of Heroin Chic

An exploration of the Heroin Chic ideal and its advertising in the nineties.

Published onDec 01, 2022
The Rise of Heroin Chic

 The commodification of women is a tool for advertising that has turned into an entire industry. Beauty standards have fluctuated throughout centuries bringing both women and advertising along with its togas, corsets, and low-rise jeans. Often we put blame on the way society is for impacting the advertising industry, constantly forcing its hand in making ads that do not reflect reality. But there is one clear example of advertisements and media directly affecting society’s trajectory: heroin chic.  

A heavy hard drug culture intersected with unrealistic body standards, shifting trends from the curvier full-bodied in the 70s and 80s to fully leaning into the stick straight, disheveled, desired heroin chic look of the 90s.1 The idea of heroin chic was entirely characterized by certain features in top fashion models of the time; pale skin, dark undereye circles, dangerously thin, and generally androgynous features.2

It is vital to understand why these ideals were glamorized in the way they were because often a modern culture will look back on trends and be appalled by their hold on society. This new style highlighted a struggle for people in their teens and twenties often not represented by mainstream media. Drug use and the lifestyle that came with it was heavily stigmatized in the 70s and 80s in response to the War on Drugs and the HIV/AIDS crisis. Education systematically created a negative perception of anyone who “gave in” to addiction.3 Heroin chic began to form like many popular fashion trends: a counterculture movement opposed to ideals from periods before. The photographer Corrine Day pushed unconventional fashion, steering away from the perfection and beauty airbrushed into magazines.4

She photographed a young Kate Moss in an “exhausted beauty”, along with other models that reflected what she felt was true nineties life. Journalists criticized the unkept appearance and contorted bodies, noting it glorified anorexia, but Corrine responded by saying “I make real images…. It’s not what people are used to seeing in Vogue.”5 Later, the same journalist that interviewed Corrine would later officially coin the term “heroin chic” in a 1997 article covering the photographer Davide Sorrenti’s death, another founder of the Heroin Chic ideal.6

Davide Sorrenti. Polaroids 1994-1997 (IDEA Books)

Born into an artistic Italian family, Sorrenti’s photography was well-known within the fashion world as soon as he picked up a camera at 18. His images of disheveled-looking teens were what popularized the characteristics of heroin chic before it had a name.7 Sorrenti photographed a glamorized form of youthful rebellion without having to display the costs. Model’s fragile bodies beaten and bruised by existence were seen as art; a jarring representation of mortality and realism not often seen in mainstream fashion. His death, caused by kidney failure8 gave antagonists of the movement an example of the harm heroin can do to young children and that the lifestyle glamorized in his pictures was deadly. A journalist noted how Kate Moss, one of Davide’s most famous subjects, asked for cigarettes during her interview.9 The director of Public Health in Liverpool wrote to The Independent about how Kate’s lifestyle is essentially tobacco advertisements for teens.10 Outrage over photography and fashion can only carry a trend so far. The market entirely shifted when clothing companies began using heroin chic in advertisements.

The whole purpose of an advertisement is to create models and advertisements pleasing to the eye, so terrifying images are often thought to deter consumers. Mainstream brands quickly learned how attracted people were to imperfection. It added grunge to their brand, catering to the “deranged youth” lost in a world that pressured them to be perfect. Brands rapidly appropriated the aesthetic, sparking outrage from smaller creators in the photography community.11 Heroin chic characteristics with a cleaner edge seeped into clothing advertisements, taking the context behind the art away to serve images appealing to consumers.

Steven Meisel Advertising Age, September 5, 1995

The Calvin Klein advertisements seen above were so shocking to the public that there was a child pornography investigation into the company by the FBI.12 Although none of their models were found to be underage, the thin, wiry, innocent look was harder to come by in older models, which transitioned into teen models being sexualized and photographed on a more mainstream level. Realism and messiness sparked attraction, giving way to a movement that revolutionized fashion styles for the coming decade.

The effect of leaning into this grunge and imperfection is still felt today across multiple industries. Equating thin with imperfection accidentally established a new standard of perfection for teenagers all over the world. Size 0 was the new size 6, dieting articles rose in teen magazines, and drug use rose rapidly.13 Kids as young as five tried to maintain what they describe to be a perfect body, taking those ideals from the images they consumed and their parent's habits.14 The photography focus on the hardships of the real life of teenagers was bastardized into yet another box for children to force their bodies into. As we continue to redefine beauty standards in our current generation that is obsessed with social media and beauty, understanding the background of these twisted ideals is necessary to combat the negative mental health impacts of the Heroin Chic and broader fashion world.

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