Heroin chic was a look popularized in mid-1990s fashion and characterized by pale skin, dark circles underneath the eyes and angular bone structure. The look, characterised by emaciated features and androgyny, was a reaction against the "healthy" and vibrant look of models such as Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer.
It is rare that the fashion industry embraces a trend as much as it did the ‘Heroin Chic’ look. During the nineties, every fashion spread and catwalk was dominated by waif-like models with washed-out skin and apathetic expressions. Calvin Klein led the way, signing Kate Moss to front their 1993 campaign. She appeared in simple and revealing outfits which showcased her protruding bones. Sets were styled with props more suited to a bedsit than a supermodels penthouse; Chloe Sevigney’s 1997 editorial in The Face saw her sitting on the floor of a poorly lit and messy bedroom next to a pile of money, looking sick, tired and strung-out.
The Heroin Chic style was a reaction, beginning in the 1990’s, against the idealised and airbrushed models typically used in fashion photography. Models are featured looking gaunt and skinny, with hollow eyes and often featuring signs of drug use or abuse .
A fashion for pale, skinny models with dark sunken eyes and fine, blow-away hair gave rise to the term Heroin Chic. Much was made of the fact that the models looked ill because they really were taking lots of drugs and it was thought that they might encourage kids to do the same. But anyone who took a quick look at the genuine junkies begging on London's streets could see that this was clearly not the way to get the look. Models in 1994 were no more bulimic, nicotine-soaked or coked-up than before. Designers simply had a new look - and needed a catchphrase for it.
All of a sudden a model wasn’t a glamorous representation of impossible perfection, she was shot raw, ungroomed, impure and edgy. There was a certain beauty in this realism. Models looked like they had something to say for once, maybe even be your friend or the ‘girl next door’. Gone were the hair rollers and high maintenance looks of our predecessors and in came the anti-glamour movement called Heroin Chic.
The allure was in the contradiction between the rarefied clothes and the seedy locations, the danger implied in the scurrilous disarray and the thrill of recklessness. Those fashion editorials played off the romantic patina our culture still associates with drug-addled creative types. They also evoked the mad risk-taking of youth.
Back in 1997 when the hype of heroin chic was rife, 13 designers including John Galliano made a statement, “We disapprove of the fashion industry glamorising the use of addictive substances as this could have a detrimental effect on the lives of young people, many of whom are greatly influenced by the appearance and actions of members of our industry”.
This look, which is thought by some in the fashion business to be attractive to young people, and which was typified by a notorious set of pictures in 1997 advertising Calvin Klein clothes, has been dubbed heroin chic because the models look as if they are drug addicts. In fact, there are well-substantiated reports that heroin addiction is common among fashion photographers and models, so the look is not always simulated. In the US, where this fashion is more prevalent than in Britain, it has drawn many protests from anti-drug groups, culminating in a much publicised attack by President Clinton in May 1997 following the death from an overdose of the fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti.
Corinne Day, is a British photographer whose influence on the style and perception of photography in the early 1990s has been immense. As a self taught photographer, Day brought a more hard edged documentary look to fashion image making, in which she often included biographical elements. Day is known for forming long and close relationships with many of her sitters (most famously Kate Moss), which have resulted in candid and intimate portraits. The most notable of these being the photographs of Moss in the 3rd Summer of Love editorial for the FACE magazine in 1990. Days approach as illustrated within the lifestyle and fashion magazines of the 1990s, came to be known as grunge and grew into an international style.
What we see in heroin chic photographs are powerful images of women that play with the idea of desire to gain the attention of particular market niches: young adults and sophisticated middle class urbanites. Heroin chic pictures, which differ markedly from classic fashion photography, show emaciated female bodies in ways that often are uninviting and not conventionally attractive. The meanings of these images—withdrawal, a lack of desire, abjection—are surprising in a medium intended to persuade people to buy goods. The fact that this withdrawal, this corporeal abnegation, is written on women's physical forms, is particularly intriguing. Western culture and philosophy have long portrayed "woman" as the consummate consumer and as the desiring "body," two positions undermined by heroin chic.
Heroin Chic was a fashion movement that gained popularity and notoriety during the early 1990s. At the epicenter of heroin chic was Calvin Klein’s highly controversial and now famous advertising campaign featuring the emaciated and waifish Kate Moss. The images of androgenous, drugged out, unhealthy looking women created a media firestorm when they first came out. [...] Not just in subject, but in look, heroin chic was in polar opposition to that of the previous decade. The photography is often shot in grainy black and white. When color is used, it is often grimy, heavy on the contrast, off-putting and even a little scary.