Heroin chic

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Kate Moss in a 1990s Calvin Klein ad

Heroin chic is a style popularized in early-1990s fashion and characterized by pale skin, dark circles underneath the eyes, emaciated features, androgyny and stringy hair—all traits associated with abuse of heroin or other drugs. American supermodel Gia Carangi is remembered for being the originator of the trend.[1] Heroin chic was partly a reaction against the healthy and vibrant look of leading 1980s models such as Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, and Claudia Schiffer. A 1996 article in the Los Angeles Times stated that the fashion industry had "a nihilistic vision of beauty" that was reflective of drug addiction.[2]


At the time during which heroin chic emerged, the popular image of heroin was changing for several reasons. The price of heroin had decreased, and its purity had increased dramatically.[3] In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic had made injecting heroin with unclean needles increasingly risky.[3] Available heroin had become more pure, and snorting became a more common mode of heroin use.[3] These changes decreased the stigma surrounding the drug, allowing heroin to find a new market among the middle-class and the wealthy, in contrast to its previous base of the poor and marginalized.[3] Gia Carangi, who some call the "first supermodel"[4] is remembered for being the origin of the heroin chic trend.[1] Heroin infiltrated pop culture through attention brought to addictions in the early 1990s. In film, the heroin chic trend in fashion coincided with a string of films throughout the 1990s—such as The Basketball Diaries, Trainspotting, Kids, Permanent Midnight, and Pulp Fiction—that examined heroin use and drug culture.[5]


In the early 1990s, the rise of the grunge alternative rock music and subculture in Seattle brought media attention to the use of heroin by prominent grunge artists. In the 1990s, the media focused on the use of heroin by musicians in the Seattle grunge scene, with a 1992 New York Times article listing the city's "three principal drugs" as "espresso, beer and heroin"[6] and a 1996 article calling Seattle's grunge scene the "...subculture that has most strongly embraced heroin".[7] Tim Jonze from The Guardian states that "...heroin had blighted the [grunge] scene ever since its inception in the mid-80s" and he argues that the "...involvement of heroin mirrors the self-hating, nihilistic aspect to the music"; in addition to the heroin deaths, Jonze points out that Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, as well as Courtney Love, Mark Lanegan and Evan Dando "...all had their run-ins with the drug, but lived to tell the tale."[8] A 2014 book stated that whereas in the 1980s, people used the "stimulant" cocaine to socialize and "...celebrate good times", in the 1990s grunge scene, the "depressant" heroin was used to "retreat" into a "cocoon" and be "...sheltered from a harsh and unforgiving world which offered...few prospects for...change or hope."[9]

Leading grunge band Alice in Chains had a song "God Smack", which included the line "stick your arm for some real fun", a reference to injecting heroin.[7] Seattle grunge musicians known to use heroin included Kurt Cobain, who was using the drug very frequently around the time of his death; "Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone overdosed on heroin in 1990"; "Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch who died of an overdose of the same opiate in 1992, along with Layne Staley of Alice in Chains who publicly detailed his battles with heroin...".[10] Mike Starr of Alice in Chains[9] and Jonathan Melvoin from The Smashing Pumpkins also died from heroin. After Cobain's death, his "...widow, singer Courtney Love, characterized Seattle as a drug mecca, where heroin is easier to get than in San Francisco or Los Angeles."[10]

Rise and fall[edit]

This waifish, emaciated look was the basis of the 1993 advertising campaign of Calvin Klein for his perfume Obsession featuring Kate Moss. Film director and actor Vincent Gallo contributed to the development of the image through his Calvin Klein fashion shoots.[11][12]

The trend eventually faded, in part due to the heroin-related death of prominent fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti in 1997.[13][14] Journalist Amy Spindler described Sorrenti's death as "like a small bomb going off", extinguishing public denial of heroin use in the fashion world. The term heroin chic itself was coined at Sorrenti's wake by editor Ingrid Sischy, who commented: "This is heroin, this isn't chic. This has got to stop, this heroin chic." After his death, Sorrenti's mother, Francesca Sorrenti, led a public campaign against the use of heroin in fashion, after which the promotion of heroin chic subsided.[14] In 1999, Vogue dubbed Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen "The Return of the Sexy Model" and the end of the heroin chic era.[15]

Criticism and analysis[edit]

Heroin chic fashion drew much criticism and scorn, especially from anti-drug groups.[16] Fashion designers, models such as Kate Moss and Jaime King, and movies such as Trainspotting were blamed for glamorizing heroin use. Then-U.S. president Bill Clinton condemned the look, calling it "destructive" and a "glorification of heroin".[14] Other commentators denied that fashion images made drug use itself more attractive. Jacob Sullum wrote in Reason magazine that "There is no reason to expect that people attracted to the look promoted by Calvin Klein and other advertisers... will also be attracted to heroin, any more than suburban teen-agers who wear baggy pants and backward caps will end up shooting people from moving cars."[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Nash, Alanna (1997-09-07). "The Model Who Invented Heroin Chic". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  2. ^ Givhan, Robin (August 8, 1996). "Why Dole Frowns On Fashion". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 1, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d Durrant, Russil & Jo Thakker. Substance Use & Abuse: Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Sage Publications (2003), p87. ISBN 0-7619-2342-X.
  4. ^ Vallely, Paul (2005-09-10). "Gia: The tragic tale of the world's first supermodel". Archived from the original on 2008-01-01.
  5. ^ The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Women under the Influence. Johns Hopkins University Press (2006), p98. ISBN 0-8018-8228-1.
  6. ^ Marin, Rick (November 15, 1992). "Grunge: A Success Story". The New York Times. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  7. ^ a b Dasein, Deena (December 1996). "'Rock 'n' Horse: Rock's Heroin Connection". Perfect Sound Forever. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  8. ^ Jonze, Tim (10 March 2011). "Mike Starr and the deadliest musical genre Another grunge star has died young. Tim Jonze asks: is it the most lethal genre?". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  9. ^ a b Marion, Nancy E and Oliver, Willard M. Drugs in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture. and the Law. ABC-CLIO, 2014 . p. 888.
  10. ^ a b "'Seattle Scene' And Heroin Use: How Bad Is It?". The Seattle Times. April 20, 1994. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  11. ^ Calvin Klein special on the Biography channel
  12. ^ Paul Devlin (July 14, 2011). ""Obsession" from Calvin Klein". devlinpix.com. Retrieved 2018-12-31. Video on YouTube.
  13. ^ a b Sullum, Jacob. "Victims of Everything." Reason Magazine (May 23, 1997)
  14. ^ a b c Helmore, Edward (24 May 2019). "'Heroin chic' and the tangled legacy of photographer Davide Sorrenti". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  15. ^ Gisele Bündchen. "Celebrity Central: Gisele Bundchen biography". People.com. Archived from the original on 2011-01-07. Retrieved 2011-03-07.
  16. ^ "Heroin chic". World Wide Words.