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. 1/1

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 corruption 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 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.

Through a discussion of the rise of popularity of heroin and its depictions across a variety of different cultures and time periods Hickman effectively demonstrates the complexity of the reasons and nature of heroin chic in the fashion world. Contending throughout that heroin chic can be explained through an examination of the visual culture of narcotics addiction within the media, and that this culture has become ingrained within society, Hickman clearly demonstrates his argument through a systematic approach of description and analysis of the progression of the culture.

"The emergence of the Heroin look in fashion photography was neither a symptom of moral lapse nor, conversely, of some liberation of desire that was specific to mid-1990s Anglo-American culture. It was, and is, part of a much longer, relentless process of envisioning narcotic addiction that stretches back for at least 120 years."[15]

While his argument is focused upon the visual language employed by various agencies to illustrate narcotics addiction, he also demonstrates the role that other factors play; such as counter-culture icons and the effect of heroin chic in an emotional and personal sense upon the viewer.

Christine Harold identifies the discussed trends within the media and, though she does not discount them completely, introduces an alternate explanation of the causes and implications of heroin chic, proposing that its origins are embedded in a tradition of counter-culture that challenges societal perceptions of health and beauty and that heroin chic is a mainstream manifestation of this tradition. She asserts that the reactions and evaluations of heroin chic propounded by many media institutions and notable figures (such as Bill Clinton) are founded upon a logocentric tradition in western culture to apply rationality and moral truths as a framework for assessment16. Harold maintains that the application of this logocentric reasoning is unsuitable for an issue such as heroin chic, as its nature defies rationalizing and, furthermore, that heroin chic serves to highlight the inadequacies of such frameworks for arguments. This concept is also propounded by various members of the fashion community, though at a more basic level17. In essence Harold is engaging with the artistic and cultural aspects of fashion photography. These aspects are often discounted by critics as a viable characteristic of the fashion industry, rather seeming to adhere to the popularized notion that financial gain and exploitation is the main driver behind its actions. This is a key feature of Harold’s article; she is focusing upon the subjective and emotional explanations for a fashion trend rooted in cultural tradition, developing her premise that this type of investigation would be difficult to fit into the parameters of a logocentric framework, as conventional morality and ‘rational’ reasoning cannot be effectively applied to such an issue.


Harold opens her article with two opposing quotes concerning the nature of heroin use and heroin chic. The first, a quote from Henry A. Giroux, identifies heroin chic as an expression of disdain for human suffering and the use of a deplorable aesthetic as a source for financial gain.  The second is a quote from the Trainspotting, in which the character Renton identifies that the arguments against heroin ignore the physical and pleasurable aspect of it; suggesting that heroin addicts would not continue to use if it was all misery and degradation of the self. The juxtaposition of the quote from Trainspotting with Giroux serves to imply that Harold is suggesting that while such negative criticisms of heroin are not necessarily incorrect, the arguments against it fail to incorporate the idea that its use is tied up in sensation, pleasure and the body. This is further indicated by Harold’s continued use of Trainspotting quotes before major themes of her argument. This serves to further emphasize Harold’s argument that the logical fails when applied to heroin chic, as emphasized by-

As heartfelt and insightful as these sentiments against heroin chic are, the arguments above are grounded in a logocentric tradition governed by rationality and stable moral truths- a tradition that, in many ways, heroin chic problematizes.18

The language used within the beginning of this statement undermines the values and rational of the critics arguments. Furthermore, Harold attains that a logocentric argument is not only unable to be applied to a phenomena such as heroin chic, but that the fashion trend itself serves to highlight and demonstrate flaws within society on a variety of levels. Heroin chic, Harold attains, highlights the constructed beauty ideals of the fashion industry, which challenges the ‘absolutes’ within society by throwing them into suspicion; subverts moral logic and the rational argument; demonstrates that the ‘abject’ is not a choosing moral subject; challenges perceptions of the nature and co-existence of life and death and ultimately breaks down social constructs.

A significant issue present within Harold’s argument is the use of terminology that adheres to the problems of absolute truth that she is addressing, describing the current nature of western society as ‘...the current political and environmental arrogance of a culture that has constructed a self-identity that is somehow unique from the rest of the natural, mortal world?’19 The view that Harold is propounding here is also based upon a tradition of reasoning, one which western society is depicted as self-interested and conceited and has its roots in the alternative and anti-establishment cultures that she discusses as the precursor to heroin chic. Furthermore, throughout the article Harold comments extensively upon the ability of heroin chic to oppose societal norms of beauty, health and youth and does so in a positive way, continually implying that this aspect of heroin chic is a beneficial one; reinforcing a negative view of western society and its ideals- ‘... (heroin chic) calls attention to the arbitrariness of cultural ideals and the futility of subjecting our bodies to discipline and reason in the pursuit of conformity.’20 While this is not necessarily untrue or unfounded, Harold discusses it in such a way that once again propounds it as an absolute and well known truth, in a similar fashion to the aforementioned media articles. The inclusion of opinionated and unreferenced comments adds an unconvincing element to her argument, detracting from its validity.

Through her article Harold offers not only an explanation of heroin chic but a view of mainstream culture as being filled with narrow minded, constructed images of health and beauty and a traditional foundation of logic, reasoning and morality which is unsuited for applications in all areas, particularly those of the body. She appears to contend that the acceptance of views of moral norms which have been constructed by society are simply that- constructs, and a popular movement such as heroin chic undermines and opposes these views ‘...heroin chic, in effect, destabilizes and sanctioned norms and calls attention to their arbitrary nature’21. Far from simply a fashion movement and manifestation of counter-culture in the mainstream, Harold discusses heroin chic as an agent of the ‘abject body’, attributing a great amount of significance to its abilities to undermine and expose flaws within the structure of logic, reasoning and morals that are utilized by western society. While heroin chic could be viewed like this, it is unclear whether Harold is arguing that heroin chic undertook this task deliberately, or whether she is utilizing it as model to highlight such concerns.   

Hickman and Harold both offer alternate and different explanations for the movement heroin chic, both in its origins as well as its meaning, there are a number of instances, however, where similar influences and concepts can be found among their arguments. Both authors discuss heroin chic as a manifestation of an already existing tradition within society and popular culture; Hickman identifies this as a visual culture while Harold discusses the tradition of ‘strung out’ bodies throughout contemporary American popular culture. Their differences lie in their subject matter and through their exploration of this tradition, with Hickman’s being a more developed and in depth analysis, Harold rather uses the existence of tradition as an aspect of her premise, but delves far more into the implications and features of heroin chic upon society. Through this identification of tradition and precedent for heroin chic, they avoid the need to concentrate upon condemning it from a moralistic viewpoint, and surpass much of the commentary provided by popular media. Similarly, neither Hickman nor Harold of them condemns the movement for glorification of drugs and corruption of the youth by viewing heroin chic as arising from already existing traditions within society. Interestingly both arguments ultimately appear to conclude that the appeal/ aversion to the images of heroin chic are founded upon an emotional and personal basis for the viewer, transcending the concept that reactions are an indication of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ morals. Rather, they identify reactions as an externalization of internal reflection. While this concept is threaded throughout Harold’s argument, it only noticeably surfaces within Hickman’s toward the end-

As we stare with fascination, revulsion or romantic longing at pictures of narcotic addicts trapped in their downward spiral, we ultimately confront our own obsessions and the need to feed them with an endless supply of satisfactory visual stimuli.22

In this way Hickman reinforces Harold’s view to a certain extent; that heroin chic transcends and nullifies commonly held views of morality and reason within society, and an aspect of heroin chic is the representation and opinion concerning the body and thus is rather a projection of dual states of life and death, and morality and immorality. The conclusion of Hickman’s article is significant as, for the most part, his argument does not overly address the emotional and moral consequences of the movement.

There are multiple ways to address the reasons behind the occurrence and meaning of heroin chic within the fashion industry, from simple manifestation of existing drug use within the industry itself or a broader and more complex manifestation of a tradition that has existed long before the movement itself. Many of the media reports discussed tended towards the exclamatory and the idea that glamorising heroin would lead to an epidemic among youth, generally only delving into the history and possible reasons for the emergence of heroin chic to reinforce negative connotations with the drug. Timothy Hickman and Christine Harold each present a different explanation in relation to heroin chic; Hickman concentrating upon the existence and manifestation of a visual culture of narcotics addiction that has existed since the early twentieth century; and Harold developing and expanding upon the counter-culture and anti-establishment views of the alternative and grunge cultures and using heroin chic as a framework that undermines a logocentric tradition within western culture. Although these views assess heroin chic differently, they illustrate similar models for heroin chic; namely the existence of a tradition of narcotic use and visualization in western culture, as well as the significance of the counter-culture upon the transition of features of heroin chic being appropriated by mainstream fashion and the emotional and subjective nature of the movement. It has been demonstrated that much of the media coverage of the heroin chic movement was insufficient for explaining its existence, and its place in a historical and social context. Hickman and Harold both attempt to fill this void, offering explanations that are entrenched within an identifiable historical tradition, and draw upon extensive evidence to construct and validate their arguments. Hickman’s article presents a variety of reasons for explaining heroin chic but, due to his main reliance upon the premise of visual culture, only covers certain areas fleetingly, where further exploration could have occurred. Harold’s argument presents an engaging case for the nature of heroin chic, but is detracted from due to her use of personal opinions which ultimately serve to propound the same issues identified within media articles. The discussed articles each provide a convincing and engaging explanation for heroin chic, although by no means a conclusive one, due to their analysis and use of contemporary and relevant sources to validate their arguments and the focus of their discussions. The elements of crossover in their analysis of heroin chic highlight areas of discussion and potential for the correlation of two different ideas. The areas of divergence demonstrate different approaches and models of analysis in regards to heroin chic, highlighting the fact that there are a multitude of approaches that can be taken when discussing the issue, with relevant evidence to support them. Ultimately, it can be argued that Hickman’s and Harold’s articles are extremely effective when viewed together, alongside contemporary media coverage, covering many facets of the discussion surrounding heroin chic.


Davison, John. ‘Heroin UK- How heroin-chic culture came to the high street’, The Independent, 11 May 1999.

Davy, Denise. ‘Heroin Chic Deserves Cold Turkey’. Hamilton Spector, 14 July, 1997.

Denham, Brian. ‘Folk Devils, News Icons and the Construction of Moral Panics’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 9, No. 6, 2008, pg 945-961.

Editorial. ‘Heroin- A Model Way To Die’, Sunday Star-Times, 1997.

Editorial. ‘Heroin Chic’, The New York Times, 29 May 1997.

Editorial. ‘Heroin Chic has Fallen from Fashion’, Bulletin, 5 June 1997.

Editorial. ‘The Weird world of Heroin Chic’. The Provincial Journal, 3 June 1997.

Editorial. ‘Viewpoint ’Heroin Chic’ vs. Joe Camel: What’s Hippest to our Young People?’, Advertising Age, 30 June 1997.

Giroux, Henry. Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture’s War on Children. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Harold, Christine L. ‘Tracking Heroin Chic: The Abject Body Reconfigures the Rational

Argument’, Argumentation and Advocacy, Volume 36, Issue 2, 1 October 1999.

Helmore, Edward and Pryer, Nick. ‘Clinton Rages at Fashion Industry over Sick Taste for Heroin Chic’, The Evening Standard, 22 May 1997.

Hickman, Timothy. ‘The Visual Culture of Narcotic Addiction.’, Third Text 16, no. 2, summer 2002, pp 119-136

Hitchon, Jacqueline. ‘Heroin Chic Distorts Reality’, The Captial Times, 18 August 1997.

Martin, Susan. ‘In Fashion, the Rise of the Strung-Out Look Heroin Chic’, Buffalo News, 29 July 1996.

Pearson, Craig. “Addict puts own spin on 'heroin chic'”, Windsor Star. 10 September 1996.

Sowers, Leslie. ‘Heroin Chic vs. Heroin reality.’ Houston Chronicle, 31 July, 1991

Summer, Christine. ‘Tracking the Junkie Chic Look’, Psychology Today, September/ October 1999.

Wolfinsohn, Debora J. ‘An overdose of heroin chic.’ Austin American Statesman, 1 January 1998.

1.) Harold, Christine L. ‘Tracking Heroin Chic: The Abject Body Reconfigures the Rational Argument’, Argumentation and Advocacy, Volume 36, Issue 2, 1 October 1999.

2.) Hickman, Timothy. ‘The Visual Culture of Narcotic Addiction.’ Third Text 16, no. 2, summer 2002, pp 119-136

3.) Pearson, Craig. “Addict puts own spin on 'heroin chic'”, Windsor Star. 10 September 1996.

4.) Editorial, ‘Heroin- A Model Way To Die’, Sunday Star-Times, 1997.

5.) Summer, Christine. ‘Tracking the Junkie Chic Look’, Psychology Today, September/ October 1999.

6.) Wolfinsohn, Debora J. ‘An overdose of heroin chic.’ Austin American Statesman, 1 January 1998.

7.) Denham, Brian. ‘Folk Devils, News Icons and the Construction of Moral Panics’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 9, No. 6, 2008, pg 945-961.

8.) Ibid, pg 946.                 

9.) Ibid, pg 953

10.) Davison, John. ‘Heroin UK- How heroin-chic culture came to the high street’, The Independent, 11 May 1999.

11.) Sowers, Leslie. ‘Heroin Chic vs. Heroin reality.’ Houston Chronicle, 31 July, 1991

12.) Hickman, Timothy. ‘The Visual Culture of Narcotic Addiction.’ Third Text 16, no. 2, summer 2002, pg 120

13.) Ibid, pg 122

14.) Davy, Denise. ‘Heroin Chic Deserves Cold Turkey’. Hamilton Spector, 14 July, 1997.

15.) Hickman, Timothy. ‘The Visual Culture of Narcotic Addiction.’ Third Text 16, no. 2, summer 2002, pg 136.

16.) Harold, Christine L. ‘Tracking Heroin Chic: The Abject Body Reconfigures the Rational Argument’, Argumentation and Advocacy, Volume 36, Issue 2, 1 October 1999, pg 66

17.) Ibid, pg 69

18.) Ibid, pg 67

19.) Ibid, pg 67

20.) Ibid, pg 69

21.) Ibid, pg 67

22.) Hickman, Timothy. ‘The Visual Culture of Narcotic Addiction.’ Third Text 16, no. 2, summer 2002, pp 136

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