Suffering for Sale

Suffering for Sale


The Immorality of Fashion Advertisements in the 1990s

Heroin chic is a term used to describe the fashion movement that emerged in the early 1990s and ended around the end of the decade. Heroin chic was not necessarily a fashion trend, but rather a photography style that emerged through fashion advertisements that promoted the lifestyle and look of up-and-coming models including Kate Moss and Jaime King. The style of photography, whether used in advertisements or editorials spreads, had the major component of fashion photography; the images were selling something. These photographs aimed to get the viewer to envy and aspire to the life of the model as portrayed in the images in order to convince the viewer to buy the product being promoted. The problem with these photographs is that they promoted and glamorized a lifestyle of drug abuse, anorexia, and affected poverty and idealized the prepubescent body. The photographs of the heroin-chic movement illustrate how fashion photography can use the compositional aspects of photography to promote a damaging message, in this case a glamorized life of drug abuse, that can have lasting, detrimental effects on the society that consumes these images.

Fashion photography has existed since the early twentieth century. Throughout the twentieth century, fashion photography underwent changes in each decade as different fashion trends, models, and photographic styles aimed to authentically capture the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. What remains steadfast in fashion photography is the intent of the photographs. Fashion photography, since its origin, has aimed to convey “fashion or a ‘fashionable’ lifestyle,” and in doing so, sell a garment or brand to the viewer of the image.1 Therefore, while the compositional and aesthetic qualities of fashion photographs change throughout the decades, and many fashion photographs end up in museums and galleries, a fashion photograph is successful in its artistic aim if it can convince the viewer to buy what is being sold. However, as historian Nancy Hall-Duncan attests, the 1990s saw a shift following a Calvin Klein ad that “changed the definition of a fashion photograph from a picture of the featured clothing to the selling of the glamorous lifestyle identified with a specific logo.”2 This new style of fashion photography was popularized with the photographs of the heroin chic movement that aimed to sell the heroin chic lifestyle to the viewers and consumers.

The Calvin Klein Obsession ads of the 1990s, featuring Kate Moss, are perhaps most infamously tied to the heroin chic movement. A 1993 ad for Calvin Klein, shot by Mario Sorrenti, captures a close up of the nude Kate Moss’s upper body. The black-and-white photo highlights her waif-like figure and dark shadows contour her protruding bones. In his essay on the heroin chic movement, Alphonso McClendon describes how her wide, sullen eyes “engage the viewer with a lethargic gaze, seemingly resultant from substance use or indecent behavior.”3 Moss’s upper-body portrait takes up the entirety of the ad. There is no image of the product being sold. It is the text alone, which reads “Obsession for men” in large block letters at the top of the photograph and “Calvin Klein” at the bottom, is all that informs the viewer of what is being sold. This photograph encapsulates the shift from selling a product in a fashion photograph to selling a lifestyle. However, what is controversial about these photographs is the lifestyle being promoted. In heroin chic photography, as fashion historian Rebecca Arnold explains, drugs are never “actually explicit but implied . . . by gestures, settings, and facial expressions.”4 This is illustrated in Moss’s absent expression, sunken eyes, and suggestive posing in the Obsession ad. The seductive posing is common in heroin-chic ads. The posing of models’ bodies in these photographs are suggestive and alluring as if to entice the viewer to buy what is being sold, and ultimately want the lifestyle the models are emulating.

Many photographs in the heroin chic movement captured models with “disheveled hair, ultra-thin limbs, darkened eye sockets, and blank stares, and body postures that included heads hung low and tilted.”5 The styling and posing of the models certainly is suggestive of a person succumbing to the influence of drugs. However, the images of the heroin-chic movement often glamorized the look of a heroin user, producing an unrealistic image of the lifestyle of drug users and their appearance that audiences believed. The images used eyeshadow to make the darkened eye sockets appear more seductive and attractive and the models’ disheveled hair was often still shiny and smooth. The composition of the heroin chic photographs and the posing of the models, who are often seen reclining on a couch, or staring off past the camera lens, were likely inspired by documentary photographs of junkies that had previously been produced by Larry Clark and Nan Goldin.

Larry Clark’s early photographs, taken when he himself was a junkie, depicted a “new, youth-inspired attitude about drugs” in the 1970s.6 Arnold sees Clark’s work as a predecessor to the fashion photographs that came two decades later. It  is clear when looking at heroin-chic photographs that Clark’s “use of black-and-white images, shadowy backgrounds . . . and provocative nudity,” where influential in the compositional nature and aesthetic qualities of the fashion photographs7  However, one major difference between Clark and Goldin’s work and the heroin chic photographs is that Clark and Goldin’s images were documentarian; they took photographs of the friends and the people around them. While many fashion photographers believed that their own photographs accurately represented the fashion industry and society in their images, the photographs combined elements of Clark and Goldin’s work with the glamorous and seductive aesthetics of fashion photographs.

Fashion photographers took the attributes of junkies seen in Clark and Goldin’s photographs and created their own glamorous rendition of the junkie that the viewer was supposed to envy and aspire to. The work of Clark and Goldin “engaged the observer to experience the subject’s disturbing predicament” while the heroin chic movement “focused attention to the mental and physical condition of the model.”8 This is perhaps best illustrated in ads that include Kate Moss. Moss was seen as a unique, unconventional beauty and a contrast to the curvy and extremely tall runway supermodels of the 1980s and 1990s. The lingerie spread “Underexposed,” featured in the June 1993 issue of British Vogue and photographed by Corinne Day, shows off Moss’s frail and boney figure.9 Each photo captures a scantily clad Moss in a rundown apartment. The photographs glamorize the setting, showing Moss in pastel lingerie and soft, iridescent makeup. In one photo, Moss’s ribs are visible through her sheer white camisole, as she gazes out with a blank expression, a look of peaceful euphoria. Moss’s pose and facial expression mimic the posture and facial expression of someone who has just shot heroin. The pose and facial expression can be easily compared to a scene from the 1996 film Trainspotting, where protagonist Renton (Ewan McGregor) has just shot up the drug. McGregor reclines onto the floor and looks out with a euphoric gaze, his facial expression starkly similar to Moss’s in the “Underexposed” photograph. Though Trainspotting was released after the lingerie ad, the comparison illustrates how the spread suggests heroin use through Moss’s facial expressions and poses. Another photograph shows Moss wrapped in a bedsheet, her expression looks tortured and depressive, and her oily hair conveys the stereotypical image of an unkempt, impoverished junkie. Furthermore, the setting of Moss’s apartment seems to suggest impoverished living; the barren apartment makes reference to the unkempt, poor junkie. Ironically, Moss is modeling lingerie for one of the most high-end fashion magazines in the world.

Another controversial aspect of the photographs is Moss’s age at the time. Moss was only nineteen, and many saw these photographs as verging on child pornography. Although Moss was of age, the photographs still sexualize her young and seemingly underdeveloped body. The image of her in the white camisole, with her arms stretched out, makes her appear as though she has no breasts. Perhaps more controversial is the 1996 spread for The New York Times Magazine titled “James is a Girl,” photographed by Nan Goldin, that documents the life of the then-sixteen-year-old model Jaime King.10 The model, often captured smoking a cigarette, in a white camisole or unbuttoned shirt, has all the attributes of the heroin-chic model. She is thin, boney, and has dark shadows under her eyes. In many photographs, her expression is a blank gaze, as if to imply she is not fully there. These images sexualize the sixteen year old and promote her thin, underdeveloped figure as the desired  standard of beauty. King’s and Moss’s frail body types are controversial not just because they sexualize young bodies but in idealizing a boney, waifish figure, they promote anorexia and suggest that by living their implied lifestyle of drug use, one can obtain this standard of beauty.

The photographs don’t just promote the models as the standard of beauty, they promote the lifestyle these models are living—or merely modeling. The idea of drug use and poverty as beautiful is neither a realistic nor attainable. It is also not authentic. In the New York Times Magazine spread, there are many photographs of Jaime King in which she gazes beyond the camera, her eyes sunken, and her facial expression lifeless. In one photograph, someone slouches on her as if they are a lifeless body while King looks out at the camera with dark, seductive eye makeup and shirt that is purposefully buttoned the wrong way. These images glamorize heroin use by romanticizing how someone on the drug might look among the landscape of glamorous fashion-week parties and behind the scenes of runway shows. These photographs, because they are by Nan Goldin, are perhaps more documentarian than the Calvin Klein ads or British Vogue editorial of Kate Moss. However, they still portray an unrealistic portrait of suggested heroin use and seek to sell Jaime King as the “It girl.” In doing so, these photographs are seeking to have viewers envy King’s lifestyle and want it themselves. After all, this will make King more successful as a model if viewers and consumers want her lifestyle because they will buy whatever she ends up selling.

Even more artificial are the 1996 Gucci ads that fuse glamour with implied heroin use. One Gucci advertisement “identified the characteristics of heroin chic with seemingly semi-conscious models strewn across a sterile room.”11 The ad captures three female models in black lace dresses with heavy, dark eye-makeup and disheveled hair. However, the ad does not seem to want to capture a realistic or natural setting like Nan Goldin photographs do. Two of the models lay on a clean white sofa and all three are in Gucci dresses. The barren setting is still suggestive of poverty in its emptiness but the image romanticizes this stereotypical junkie narrative. The ad conflates the impoverished lifestyle typically associated with a junkie and the glamorous, high-end fashion brand, Gucci. The ad portrays junkie who is disheveled in Gucci and exists in a crisp, white, unadorned dreamland. The models appear tortured and lifeless but their expression is suggestive of a peaceful bliss. Their heavy black eye makeup creates the illusion of sunken eye sockets. The ad blends the effects of heroin with the glamour and spectacle of high fashion. Another Gucci ad shows a model staring off into space with green eyeshadow creating a sunken-eye socket effect. These campaign images seems to promote an idyllic lifestyle of heroin use where the models almost appear otherworldly.

In defending the photography of the heroin chic movement, photographer Corinne Day claimed the photographs “were more honest and realistic, as an attempt to move on from fashion’s traditional representations of impossible beauty.”12 However, these photographs only created a new standard of impossible beauty. This standard of beauty praised a boney, anorexic physique and an adolescent body. Furthermore the images seemed to suggest that using narcotics would produce these bodies, even though, “attributes of being thin, dazed, and unkempt are misleading accounts of a junkie.”13 Additionally, fashion photographers wanted to express “a greater realism in fashion imagery.”14 Many photographers saw the images as a more accurate representation of the fashion industry. Fashion photographer Francesca Sorrenti, mother of photographer Davide Sorrenti, claimed that “Heroin chic isn’t what we are projecting, it’s what we are,” implying that many of the photographers taking these photographs were doing heroin themselves, thus justifying the creation of these images.15 Furthermore, many photographers and designers defend the movement as simply being consistent with the cultural zeitgeist. In the 1990s, movies including Kids (1995) and Trainspotting (1996) also conveyed images of drug abuse. However, this argument undermines the fact that these films were fictitious and not advocating for the lifestyle they were portraying. Furthermore, these films were not explicitly promoting or glamorizing the use of the drugs. For example, Trainspotting, shows a heroin addict’s life as it falls apart because of the drug. Heroin chic photographs, on the other hand, only show the glamorous side of drug use or implied drug use.

The 1990s saw heroin “attain a certain chic . . . it has acquired an aura of romance, excitement, and darkness,” to middle-class Americans noted Dr. Robert Millman of New York University’s narcotics treatment program when discussing the type of people that associate with heroin.16 The heroin-chic photographs were undeniably one of the reasons for society’s shifting ideas about heroin. The movement produced alluring and aesthetically pleasing photographs that romanticized heroin use. The photographs show how photography can be manipulated to promote a false image that can have destructive effects on society at large. Not only did people’s understanding of heroin change but there was an increase of heroin use; an estimated 2 million Americans began using in the mid-1990s.

Disturbingly, this actually makes the photographs successful. Fashion photographs aim to sell the product the ad is promoting, and the heroin-chic movement sold a lifestyle. While photographers likely did not want to increase heroin use, their photographs did successful “sell” the lifestyle they were promoting, as seen by the changed cultural perception of heroin and its increased use among the upper and middle classes. The heroin-chic photographs show how photography can create a false narrative, through alluring compositions, light and shadow, and seductive models, to promote an immoral message. The photographs illustrate how the aesthetic qualities of photography can be used to create an idealistic image that can alter how people perceive a certain lifestyle and have devastating effects on society. Furthermore, the photographs illustrate how artistic intent and reception can vary greatly. The fact that the photographers saw these images as honest and realistic is what is most troublesome. In these images, they did not accurately capture life but idealized death. Their photographs not only glamorized but promoted anorexia and heroin use. The photographs of the heroin chic movement show how transgressive images such as these, that glamorize a destructive lifestyle, can have harmful and lasting effects on the viewers, and, in turn, society.

  1. Nancy Hall-Duncan, “Fashion Photography,” The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie

    Steel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 300.

  2. Hall-Duncan, “Fashion Photography,” 300.
  3. Alphonso McClendon, “Fashionable Addiction: The Path to Heroin Chic,” Fashion in Popular Culture: Literature, Media, and Contemporary Studies, edited by Toni Jonhson Woods (Intellect, 2013, 76.
  4. Rebecca Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele (Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 406.
  5. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 75.
  6. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 78.
  7. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 78.
  8. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 81.
  9. Corrine Day, “Under Exposed,” British Vogue, June 1993.
  10. Nan Goldin, “James is a Girl,” The New York Times Magazine, February 1996.
  11. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 75.
  12. Corinne Day quoted in Rebecca Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety (Tauris Publishers, 2001), 48.
  13. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 69.
  14. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 48.
  15. Francesca Sorrenti quoted in Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 51.
  16. Arnold, “Heroin Chic,” 51.
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