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’90s fashion trend set an unhealthy standard, glamorizing the drug-oriented lifestyle

It’s the 1990s. Magazine spreads and fashion show runways are dominated by a fresh new look: "heroin chic." However, the look is far from fresh, hygienically speaking.

The decade had fallen in love with rebellion. Destruction and imperfection were the new fads.

Upscale fashion spreads displayed emaciated models with pale skin; sometimes bruised, dark eye circles under sardonic stares; tousled hair; and red lipstick. Their clothes dangled on their frail bodies, posed in dirty apartments or hotel rooms.

Basically, these women looked like drug addicts.

In the early 1990s, magazines such as Details, DI, and Dazed (formerly Dazed and Confused), brought this look to the attention of the media.

The knotted hair and clammy skin that William Mullen, creative director of Details magazine, referred to as "junkie sweats" were representative of heroin addiction.

Doesn’t sound like the beguiling, "pretty" fashion shoots seen from models like Kate Upton or Kendall Jenner today. Whether you like it or not, mainstream fashion has evolved back to its glamorous state.

Elements of the heroin chic look are scarcely evident in today’s fashion. Here or there you’ll see grunge-inspired teens in overpriced, strung-out clothes from Urban Outfitters. The Olsen twins’ style can also be considered junkie chic.

The heroin chic look was derivative of a realist aesthetic. The seemingly unkempt appearances of the models acted as a rebellious cry to the notion of imposing "proper" beauty.

It drew its cogency from post-rave youth culture and a fixation on drugs and partying. The youthful rebellion of the time created a new image praising these illicit pleasures.

The heroin or junkie chic style mirrored a consummated lifestyle.

"Fashion has always perceived boredom as cool," Tom Ford, the creative director of Gucci, told the New York Times at the time. "The goal is to look like you’ve seen everything, done everything, been everywhere."

"Its an intimidating look," he went on, "and the drug thing is a continuation of all that."

In March 1994, Vogue probed the nature of the glamorization of drug abuse and self-destruction in an article titled "Under the Influence" by Charles Gandee. The article asked, "Who’s pushing drug chic, and why?"

At the time, the answer was just about everybody. And it was about more than just looking like one of Johnny Depp’s ex girlfriends.

But Donatella Versace disagreed. "I don’t think they look like heroin addicts," Versace, designer and sister to Gianni Versace, founder of Versace, stated in a New York Times interview. "To me they look like a young girl on the street now. It’s not about drugs; it’s about an attitude."

Whether it was glamorizing drugs or an attitude, or both, the heroin chic era represented something deeper: substance abuse.

A new mindset of documentary-style photography in a decade of grunge-appeal made way. The creators sought to express the intensity of a moment through its exposition. They did so by staging (or purposefully not staging) photographs that captured raw emotion and intimate truths. Many of these photographs included cigarette smoke, or seemingly unconscious models.

Photographers took the lead of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. The work of these artists gave birth to a revolution. People looked at cameras as an external outlet for visual records of their own lives. Instead of creating photographs, they created tangible memories.

Certain women became staple icons of this era of fashion. The skinny, androgynous appeal of models Emma Balfour, Rosemary Ferguson and Kate Moss was famed in the ’90s.

The contrasting Kardashian-influenced ideal body image of today promotes a full face of makeup, gaudy jewels, sizable assets, and a fuller posterior shape. Though the fashion industry of today has become more inclusive, there is one aspect of the 1990s fashion industry that is missing.

At the time of Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, designers were at liberty to voice their opinion. A designer could have a "clothes-only-look-good-on-skinny-people" mindset and their work would show it. For a designer today to publicly demonstrate an exclusive opinion without being attacked would be impossible on a much larger scale.

With the increasing popularization of heroin chic, more mainstream brands implemented the look to sell apparel. Labels like Calvin Klein felt that this style gave them an edge.

The mimicry of the style sparked controversy surrounding physical health.

This was the era’s most prominent aspect. Suggestive material outraged consumers, causing magazines to apologize and pull entire spreads.

The dangers of glamorizing the junkie lifestyle was noted in February 1997, when fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti, age 21, died from an overdose. Sorrenti had embraced the heroin chic facade in his photography. His downfall was the blurring of the line between art and real life.

This event gained political attention. On May 21, 1997, then-President Bill Clinton spoke at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"You do not need to glamorize addiction to sell clothes," he said, condemning many high-fashion brands. "The glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive. It’s not beautiful, it’s ugly."

Paranoia was heightened by the drug-related deaths of actor River Phoenix and musician Kurt Cobain.

Earlier, controversy had surfaced after the 1993 Vogue photo spread "Under Exposure," featuring teenage Moss by Corinne Day. The photo shoot sparked angry claims of child sexualization and exploitation. Day defended the shoot in 1997. "We were poking fun at fashion," she said. The joke was not well received.

Moss, the heroine of heroin chic herself, had limited experience with the drug. "I had never even taken heroin – it was nothing to do with me at all," she said in an article in Vanity Fair. "I think Corrine (Day) – she wasn’t on heroin but always loved that Lou Reed song, glamoring the squat, white-and-black and sparse and thin, and girls with dark eyes. She loved that look."

The heroin chic fashion shoots lacked the ugly truth of drug use. Instead, they illustrated it, promoted it and glamorized it. That coupled pure addiction with another problem: emulation.

Julie Lillis is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy.


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