Heroin Chic: The Fashion Phenomenon Analyzed Through the Writing of Christine Harold and Timothy Hickman

By Elise M. Rosser
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |

Heroin chic emerged in the 1990s as a high class fashion trend which appropriated visual imagery of heroin junkies and their environment into fashion photography. Eventually condemned as an immoral glorification of drug use with the potential to corrupt and destroy innocent youth, heroin chic ended amidst scandal and controversy. Issues concerning the exposure of the drug of the fashion industry, and its potential for creating an image of drug use as appealing and ‘cool’ for youth, pervaded editorials, columns and articles, with the majority of discussion focusing upon the concept that the of the fashion industry and their unscrupulous morals for was to blame. It can be demonstrated, however, that many of these perceptions and explanations for the fashion trend of heroin chic have questionable validity both in their structure and evidence and through their construction of a ‘moral panic’ which continued to perpetuate the same analysis. It is clear that further analysis of an in depth nature is required for an explanation of heroin chic. Through her article ‘Tracking Heroin Chic: The Abject Body Reconfigures the Rational Argument’1 Christine Harold discusses the long tradition of heroin culture within American pop-culture, and analyses its occurrence and significance as a counter against the prevalence of idealized and unattainable beauty depicted within the fashion of the 1980’s. Through his article ‘The Visual Culture of Narcotic Addiction’2 Timothy Hickman also proposes that heroin chic is founded upon tradition, but rather in the deliberate manipulation of photographs to depict a physical manifestation of illness for an addiction which betrays no detrimental signs upon the body. Hickman contends that heroin chic developed rather from the transformation and application of these images, and the falsifying of imagery to depict that addiction. Although each of the arguments offered by Harold and Hickman differ in their explanations for the fashion trend, they both explore the issue through the existence of a visual and social tradition already prevalent within western culture, providing decades of precedent for the emergence of heroin chic.

The controversy and debate surrounding heroin chic resulted in an extensive amount of media attention and report on the topic, the majority of which appears to cite the degradation of morality and extensive substance abuse in the fashion industry as the cause for the fashion movement. These ideas are perpetuated within the media and public consciousness, leading to the ideas being cemented as ‘fact’ and inevitably led to the conclusion that youth had been affected by their influence. This can be demonstrated through the consistency of several articles in citing facts and figures concerning the rise of substance abuse among American youth during the 1990’s, such as- ‘...young people misinterpreting drugs like heroin, fast becoming the Rubik's Cube of the '90s.’3 and “In America, where heroin overdoses among the young have jumped by more than 30% in three years...”4 Neither of these assertions are backed up by relevant evidence or sources, an issue which appears to pervade many editorials and articles, which implies to the reader that their content is common knowledge and therefore does not need reference. Another common theme is the association of heroin chic with negative terms and adjectives such as ‘... concentration-camp thin models’5 and ‘Still pouting over the rejection of her heroin and kiddie porn concepts...’6. Through associating heroin chic with imagery that the general public would consider to be atrocious, these articles develop negative connotations with heroin chic without having to provide evidence or examples to support their claims.

Bryan Denham addresses theses media issues in relation to heroin chic through his article ‘Folk Devils, News Icons and the Construction of Moral Panics’7, suggesting that there is a tradition in the media of inciting ‘moral panic’ within society through hyperbole, exaggeration and the proliferation of ‘mass truths’ with no factual basis8. Denham uses a variety of examples from the twentieth century to demonstrate this, setting precedent for its occurrence within the movement of heroin chic and developing a model to explore the media coverage of controversial issues. The most significant area that he identifies is the continual media reports that heroin use within the youth demographic dramatically increased during the popularity of heroin chic. Denham demonstrates that although media reports of heroin use and addiction increased dramatically during the 1990’s, the amount of reported users had no significant fluctuation-

While survey research cannot identify all who use a particular drug, the MTF and NSDUH projects indicate that, overall, heroin use did not appear to increase to “epidemic” levels from 1988 to 2003, or at any point during that period.9

These findings do not appear to support, for example, the claim that ‘Now, with #5 wraps of heroin almost as common as cans of strong lager in areas...’10 or the multiple implications that heroin chic encourages a generation of youth to use heroin, such as Sowers prediction that ‘another’ generation is now at severe risk of heroin addiction11.  If the information and fear over heroin chic in the media can be largely demonstrated as inaccurate and containing no real explanation for the existence and phenomena of heroin chic then it would require researchers to develop alternative arguments, based upon relevant and valid research to develop an explanation for heroin chic; critics such as Timothy Hickman and Christine Harold, who have each taken a different approach to this issue, offering extensive arguments and opinion in relation to the topic.

Timothy Hickman attains that heroin chic has developed from a long tradition of visualizing addiction within photography and the media. The depiction of the models of heroin chic are characterized by their dark eyes, sunken cheeks, ragged clothing and waif-like figures this, Hickman contends, is not a new or merely a manifestation of the alternative ‘grunge’ movement within mainstream culture, but rather a new phase in the development and representation of addiction. Hickman identifies four main phases in this tradition; definition; demonization; counter culture and commercialization, and explores the manifestation of heroin chic (commercialization) through a discussion of the origins and transformation of the depiction of addiction. Hickman asserts that there are no physical manifestations of narcotics addiction upon the addict; none, at least, which can be noticed by someone who is not a trained professional. This resulted in a need to represent addiction to the general, unknowing population through a visual means and so a system of representing addiction came into being:

"For now we should bear in mind that the difficulty of seeing addiction has never stopped either the professional or lay public from trying to make this inherently invisible condition visible."12

Hickman’s article does not specifically focus upon heroin chic, but rather upon the development of a visual culture of narcotics addiction, and its transformation and implications within as a means for explaining the trend of heroin chic. 

Hickman develops his argument by discussing the four phases of the cultures transformation chronologically, stressing that the structure of his discussion is not meant to indicate that each of these phases has a distinctly clear beginning and end, and that they have overlapped, co-existed and continue to exist within modern culture. Initially, through his introduction, he provides examples from modern media in which the existence of addiction has been constructed visually, so the reader may be able to identify its existence within the subject. This discussion serves to set the premise of Hickman’s argument; that the discussed culture of visual addiction existed and continues to exist on various levels, and it has become so entrenched within modern media and society that the reader begins to automatically associate the visual language employed with narcotics addiction. It also serves to stress the variety of mediums in which the techniques are employed throughout history and society-

While political cartooning,  documentary, fashion and art photography all differ in important ways, what draws my attention and justifies their juxtaposition in this piece is their shared attempt to bring the image of narcotic addiction into focus for those who cared/ or care to look.13

Although Hickman saw the need to justify the inclusion of a variety of mediums, in effect it is an acute way of demonstrating the saturation of photo manipulation and the implementation of his theory of a visual culture, adding weight and validity to his argument. This also added to by his chronological discussion of the history of the visual culture, as its development can then be easily traced, providing precedent for the occurrence of heroin chic. From Hickman’s argument it appears easy to attain that, from the early twentieth century, photographs and illustrations associated narcotics addiction with the poor and African American populations of society; over the next one hundred years it appears simple to trace these early manifestations to becoming a counter-culture which then leaked into high fashion and mainstream culture as heroin chic.

The potential validity of this conclusion can be seen through a vast amount of the media description of heroin chic. Critics identification of the models appearance as deliberately constructed to look like heroin addicts implies that heroin chic is a demonstration of exactly how well the instilling of a set of images that the public associates with addiction worked-

The junkie-look... Toothpick-thin models are scattered throughout the magazine. Whether it's an ad or a fashion spread, the models look alike: dark circles around the eyes, messy hair, lifeless skin and a skeletal body. They look as if they're wasting away, like walking zombies.14

 If a visual language of narcotics addiction did not exist within society then it could be argued that the viewer would not immediately identify the model as appearing to be a heroin addict- this serves to reinforce Hickman’s argument, especially as the attributes of the model that allude to heroin addiction described in the above quote are precisely what Hickman has identified as visual constructs for depicting addiction.

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