I’m starting to doubt that heroin chic ever really existed as the mainstream fashion phenomenon that people think it was. That is not to say that there weren’t junkie celebrities in the 90’s — people like Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Perry Ferrell, Chris Robinson or Layne Staley who were more or less open about their heroin use. Or that heroin didn’t take on a kind of dangerous glamour, encroaching on cocaine’s territory in the back rooms of hip New York parties. Or that there weren’t people in the fashion industry who were using heroin (Marc Jacobs, Davide Sorrenti, James King, Corinne Day). But it is extremely hard to find fashion photographs that fit what I think people mean by heroin chic — pictures of models who look like they use heroin and who make heroin seem appealing.
The pictures that are probably most associated with heroin chic are what is more accurately called dirty realism, a group of young photographers (Corinne Day, David Sims, Glen Luchford and Mario Sorrenti) taking pictures of scruffy teenagers on spec for i-D, The Face and Dazed and Confused. These pictures were unretouched and purposefully anti-glamour, trying to capture something about what fashion and style meant to young people, with enough designer items to make them fashion photography instead of photojournalism. These images, in imported magazines and later in Fashion Photography of the Nineties (Nickerson and Wakefield, 1996) made me (a scruffy, androgynous death-rocker) feel that I was included in fashion in a way that I had never felt included in glamour.
A watered-down version of dirty realism made it to the mainstream “glossies” and was the cause of all kinds of moral panic — about anorexia, pedophilia, drugs, smoking. I don’t see any evidence that the dirty realism models were any younger, skinnier or more drugged-out than their more glamorous counterparts — they just had smaller tits and weren’t wearing as much makeup.
The harkening back to an earlier time of curvier “super-models” was misleading. The concept of super-models as it was understood in the 90’s (as glamorous and sexy celebrities) was a marketing creation of Versace, who chose models whose bodies would showcase his own brand of over-the-top sexiness. These women’s bodies were no more attainable for the average woman than was Kate Moss’s or Rosemary Ferguson’s. It is true that dirty realism did not confront the ideals of youth and skinniness in the way it confronted ideals of glamour, wealth, luxury and physical perfection. (Corinne Day recruited young women like Rosemary Ferguson and Georgina Cooper to be her models because she thought they had the right body type for fashion.) But that is not the same as being responsible for the damagingly unrealistic representations of the female body in contemporary fashion.
Nonetheless when dirty realism moved out of the youth-oriented magazines and into advertising campaigns and mainstream fashion magazines, it made a lot of people uncomfortable. One of the most successful instances of an outsider photographer working with a major label can be seen in Glen Luchford’s beautiful pictures of Guinevere Van Seenus for Jil Sander SS 1996 , with Van Seenus’s meditative and introverted gaze and Pat McGrath’s revolutionary sheer makeup. These pictures were singled out as heroin chic by Amy Spindler in the New York Times, but fifteen years later, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about — Van Seenus is now a well-established model (muse to Paolo Roversi) and sheer makeup is uncontroversial.
The only 90’s fashion photos I’ve found that seem to fit the current idea of heroin chic are Nan Goldin’s pictures of James King for the New York Times and for Matsuda Autumn/Winter 1996. At the time, James King was using heroin (just another example of why giving a 16-year-old free run of New York might be a bad idea) and she had all the markers of heroin chic — pale shiny skin, dark circles under her eyes, a cigarette in her mouth and a kind of sexy self-destructiveness possible only in someone young and beautiful whose bad choices haven’t caught up with her yet. It’s hard to know how to think about the Matsuda pictures — by the mid-nineties, Goldin was sober and explicitly opposed to the glamorizing of drug abuse, especially as a cynical marketing ploy, but created some of the most enduring heroin chic images.
If you look at what is tagged “heroin chic” on Tumblr, you find some of Goldin’s pictures of King, some early pictures of Kate Moss for Calvin Klein, and a lot of attempts to recreate 90’s heroin chic. The most successful of these are the pictures of Abby Lee Kershaw for Rag & Bone DIY campaign — technically flawed photographs of a skinny model with dark circles under her eyes, no makeup and messy hair — but even these seem overly theatrical and to me they seem more creepy than sexy (but I guess that’s how the older generation saw heroin chic in the 90’s). Tellingly, many of the “heroin chic” images are also tagged “thin” “skinny” “legs” “thinspo” or “thinspiration” suggesting that the contemporary interest in these images is focused on extreme skinniness as opposed to glamorizing drug use, per se. Many of the images tagged “heroin chic” do not seem to have any marks of heroin chic other than the extreme skinniness. Other images focus of pallor and dark circles under the eyes, ironically using makeup to recreate the no-makeup style of dirty realism. But most of these images are missing the authenticity of dirty realism or the danger and sexiness of the few heroin chic images that actually made it into fashion magazines in the 90’s.
In time, No one will remember our work Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud And be scattered like Mist that is chased by the Rays of the sun For our time is the passing of a shadow And our lives will run like Sparks through the stubble. I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave