Heroin chic: the infamous oxymoron

Lily Paternoster


   A national glamorization of gaunt, drug-addicted models began in the early nineties under the name, “heroin chic.”

   Characterized by extreme thinness, dark under-eye circles, angular facial structure, and pale skin, heroin chic pushed the boundaries of fashion photography to uncomfortable places. In a photoshoot for Vogue Magazine by Corinne Day, model-turned-photographer, young Kate Moss is seen draped in Christmas lights, wearing only a tank-top and baggy tights, looking emaciated yet alarmingly beautiful.

   Day spent decades defending this photograph following the fall of heroin chic. She was accused of hyper-sexualizing and exploiting Moss’s then-seventeen-year-old body to gain recognition; though Moss had very little popularity at the time.

   “We were poking fun at fashion,” Day said of the shoot in 1997.

   Now, there is more of an understanding. Heroin chic, aside from arguably increasing the use of speed and opioids amongst models, actors, as well as common people, was a rebellion against the hedonism of fashion photography in the eighties. Big hair and bright lipstick were pushed out and replaced with mysterious, strung-out men and women; bony and often dressed in understated clothing.

   Revolutionary, sure, but there’s no denying the negative effects . Most notably, and what called for the moral panic over heroin chic, was the untimely death of Davide Sorrenti, descendent of the acclaimed Sorrenti family photographers, boyfriend to model Jaime King, and known fashion photographer himself. Dead of an overdose at 21, Sorrenti’s family called for the end of the glamorization of drug use, and prompted the release of Designer’s Against Addiction, (DAA), a statement signed by thirteen of the most prominent fashion designers expressing concern at “the waste of human potential” and disowning the industry’s use of drug glamorization.

   Although it has been decades since heroin chic was at its peak, the images of rawboned models still circulate the internet and become “thinspo,” a term coined by eating disorder culture to mean inspiration to lose weight.

   The implications are immortal, but the models are not. Heroin is deadly. Addiction festers unknowingly and overtakes people’s lives. The photographs are cutting-edge and inspired a rebellion against the definition of beauty, but heroin does not have to be part of that as it claimed roughly 15,500 American lives in 2016 as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC).

   “The glorification of heroin is not creative,” remarked President Bill Clinton in May of 1997, “it’s destructive.”

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