Revisiting The 90’s – The ‘Heroin Chic’ Era

by Mark Bailey

DC magazine offers a broad look at different photography trends in popular culture. Before the birth of the internet, the tabloids were filled to bursting with fashion worn by unhinged and glamourous music, football and film stars. There was a definite buzz, and a growing fascination for the rich and famous. Every trend was sneered at while imitation grew, and the term, ‘paparazzi’ was used interchangeably with celebrity. The photography at the time began to change in style. The late eighties and early nineties saw the championing of fit, strong, vivacious and healthy looking ‘supermodels’, with Cindy Crawford et al donning never appearing without a glowing golden tan, bright eyes and shiny, tousled hair. As a backlash to this unobtainable degree of perfection, a new, bleak and gaunt look started to spell change for the fashion world, undoubtedly influencing young, hot mess celebrities.

The Birth

From 1993, emaciated, pale and unwell images of ‘waif’ like models began to appear, with many photographers quickly jumping on the trend while it lasted. Over the past thirty years, no trend or fashion movement has caused quite as much media backlash as Heroin Chic. There was a morbid fascination that captured the concerned hearts of parents reading newspapers while models appeared on interviews regularly to reassure the public that they were in fact alive and well and not strung out – at least not at all the time, blaming the fashion houses and make up for their dark under-eye circles and androgyny. The trend nevertheless drew attention to the exploitation; harsh, shallow practices and the rife amount of drug abuse across the entire fashion industry. No stranger to the world of drugs, it was in the Heroin Chic era South London born supermodel Kate Moss summed up the mindset and the importance of not just being slim – skinny was the absolute standard to ensure work kept coming in. She said – “Nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels”. Models’ addictions to drugs, alcohol were exacerbated by the culture of long days shooting with very little in the way of eating. The shocking images of young models bean to appear alongside perfume, underwear and jeans advertising, and for many this was a step too far in the already broadly misunderstood, contrived world of fashion.

Daniel Gerard of says, “The movement was linked to the changing perception of heroin in popular culture due to the decrease in price of the drug in return for an apparently huge improvement in purity.”

Public knowledge of drugs was beginning to improve due to the widely publicised AIDS epidemic, which educated many on the importance of not sharing needles to prevent catching the disease. Snorting heroin began to appeal to a new demographic; middle class, often wealthy young people began to glamourise its use, despite films such as Trainspotting and The Basketball Diaries often serving as a stark reminder of the realities further down the line.

Bubble Burst

While the media happily poured scorn upon the models’ emaciated campaigns, any real appreciation of the Heroin Chic photographers’ skills were overlooked by endless outcry. The shock factor had outweighed any artistic merit and the public began to dismiss the trend for its underlying controversies. Public figures such as Bill Clinton damned the movement, blaming the fashion industry for irresponsibly celebrating associated drug culture.

“Heroin Chic became mainstream and commercially present in 1993, with the aforementioned Kate Moss appearing on the 1993 Calvin Klein campaign, with the help of director and actor, Vincent Gallo.” confirms a spokesman for, a UK based  addiction charity.

The trend began to fade away after the public damnation of heroin related death. The famous young fashion photographer, David Sorrenti, died of a heroin overdose in 1997. The boyfriend of model Jaime King, he and Jaime were addicts, and the public exposure of this became all too real – the models’ unwell and distant appearances were clearly not just down to the use of cleverly applied make up.

By 1999, the sexy supermodel was back, an athletic, sinewy yet feminine Gisele Bunchden was heralded as the next big thing in fashion, appearing in Vogue issues around the globe.

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