Seattle-based body image artist, Therese Stowell, took the above image of the stunningly full-figured model Josie Bockelman in 2000 for a regional newspaper as means of addressing the damage done by Calvin Klein’s Heroin Chic campaign during the mid-1990s. Stowell attempted to get her photograph onto billboards and busses but was denied access because advertising regulators deemed the image offensive and ill-advised. The irony is that the initial Calvin Klein Heroin Chic campaign from five years earlier wasn’t conceived as improper to run.
It’s strange to recall just how nihilistic American popular culture was in the 1990s. America seemed miserable during the decade and was intent on letting the world know about it, perhaps even hoping it’d be co-opted by everyone else keen to get on board its downer state of mind. The music coming out of America during this time was deeply introspective and cynical. The movies coming out of America were shockingly violent and totally self-aware of what they were doing. American authors such as Elizabeth Wurtzel and Susanna Kaysen published memoirs like Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted respectively, detailing their adolescent battles with extreme depression, stories which weirdly enough became bestselling books the way populist YA fiction sells today. Why America was feeling this way is hard to decipher because as a nation it was perhaps in its last period of stable economic growth and geopolitical security. The nation was, unlike right now, relatively safe and secure. It seems the nonchalance of the period was making its people bored and uneasy, signalling an undercurrent of suspicion that things were not as they seem, and rallying them to creatively conjure artistic expressions urging the youth to remain grounded about life. Heroin Chic was a symptom of this unparalleled period in American history.
To put this in context, American fashion can be traced as having started the ‘90s with healthy, supermodel icons like Cindy Crawford, and ended the decade with similar catwalk personalities such as Gisele Bündchen extolling the notion of glamorous beauty. What came in between was a period in which gritty backdrops featuring emaciated models with dark circles around the eyes, dressed in imperfect apparel, echoing a look of slumming despair, became the style of choice. Gone was the tropical photo shoots consisting of beaches and bikinis, in was the urban destitution of rotting inner-city apartments and concrete wastelands. Male models were the antithesis of the preppy gym-bunnies that had come before; instead, skinny and androgynous guys like Vincent Gallo were taking centre stage. The look of these models straddled the lines between sickness and coolness, often featuring them engaging in the bad behaviour like promiscuity, smoking or drinking. Heroin Chic was, by its nature, evoking the spirit of punk rock, but it had been stylised and codified on an industrial scale. The concept may have been to capture an untamed reality, but the lengths photographers went in order to distort that reality was beyond anything real.
British supermodel Kate Moss was aptly the figurehead of the Heroin Chic campaign, her later battles with hard drugs being an eerie rhyme on why she seemed such an ideal choice for the movement in the first place. The daring strategies propping the Heroin Chic aesthetic was its mission to tarnish perfection, bringing about photo shoots in which pretty girls were made to look dishevelled, while hugely expensive designer gear was intentionally ripped and torn; the concept being that even lucrative fashion was―much like cinema, music and publishing of the time―totally self-aware and above it all.
One shouldn’t underestimate the anxieties that pre-millennial tension was having during the 1990s. We were exiting a century that had endured two World Wars, mass ethnic genocide, Empires in decline, nuclear brinkmanship, presidential assassinations, economic Depressions, and Communist takeovers. Equally, the 20th century was also a period of unmatched meritocratic social mobility, access to education for everyone paid for by the state, greater equality for all citizens, and entitlement to comprehensive health care for everyone (at least here in Europe). A lot had gone seriously wrong during the 20th century but much had also been achieved and we were closing the period in great shape. The worry seemed to concern where we were going from thereon. As human beings we are never satisfied and crave worry even when things happen to be relatively reasonable. Heroin Chic was a product of the times, an expression of guilt for the privileges and entitlements we were taking for granted.
Heroin Chic ended almost twenty-years ago and it’s safe to say American fashion is not keen on reviving it any time soon. The movement had prided itself on recruiting self-taught photographers, keen to realise fashion photography from new vantage points that eschewed studio glamour for true grit. Its coup de grâce came when Italian photographer Davide Sorrenti, a key player in capturing the Heroin Chic movement, died of complications attributed to excessive narcotics use. It was time to get real. Heroin Chic had become more than just a corporate advertising fad, its dangers being duly suspended in favour of a return to tried and tested fashion familiarity.
A more detailed and brilliantly written feature on Heroin Chic was published by fashion journalist Tina Lončar last year, though my aim has been to contextualise it in broader cultural terms in a bid to understand how and why the period seemed so different to what came before and after. It is also an attempt to try and better comprehend why mainstream American popular culture seems incapable of dealing with truthful ideas, Heroin Chic being a perfect illustration of how wrong it gets it when attempting to pursue ‘real’ agendas. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the mid-‘90s was when the Britpop movement took off in the UK in which there was an ardent desire for British youths to ridicule and distance themselves from their American cousins. UK kids grew increasingly suspicious of America’s definition of reality, instead developing its own cartoonish pastiche of British pride that was affectionately self-mocking, smart, eccentric, fun, and reverential at the same time.
American popular culture seems bland today. US fashion seems massively uninspiring and unoriginal right now. Advertising movements from the States appear more sanitised and less impactful nowadays than ever before. Yet to say that Heroin Chic was an honest American cultural attempt to hone in on reality is greatly disingenuous. It was a fake movement designed to hoodwink a generation into believing that designer fashion was aware of its own absurdity. Its legacy is remembered for less virtuous reasons, yet its creative starkness rattled the world. That is why it remains hard to forget, though, understandably, difficult to admire.