Revisiting the 90s moral panic over heroin chic

It was the decade’s most controversial trend – but has fashion shaken off its associations?

Over the last thirty years, there is one trend unparalleled both for its influence and its controversy – the questionably-dubbed ‘heroin chic’. Made infamous in the 1990s by Calvin Klein campaigns and Corinne Day shoots, as well as ‘waif’ models like Kate Moss, Jodie Kidd and Jaime King, the grunge-inspired, generation-defining look caused outrage. According to the media, its images of languid, angular models glamourised drug use – and even people in high places began paying attention. “Fashion photos in the last few years have made heroin addiction seem glamorous and sexy and cool,” condemned US President Bill Clinton.

While the press were quick to denounce the style, it had real justification – it was a rebellion of aesthetics, intentionally turning its back on the glossy excess of 80s hedonism to draw inspiration from something more real, inspired by grit of documentary photographers such as Nan Goldin. It also had a sense of humour. “We were poking fun at fashion," Corinne Day remarked in 1997 of a 1993 Vogue shoot featuring a teenage Moss in baggy tights – that promptly sparked an outraged frenzy over claims of child sexualisation and exploitation. The tabloids, unsurprisingly, just didn’t get the joke.

“We were poking fun at fashion” – Corinne Day, 1997

That’s not to say the creative industries weren’t experiencing issues with abuse – part of the paranoia over heroin chic was spurned on by the widely-publicised deaths of River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain in 1993 and 1994 respectively; by 1995, even Playboy were doing investigative reportage on the phenomenon. As The New York Times pointed out, the drug’s rising popularity was partly down to falling prices and higher quality product, as well as the fact that purer heroin could be smoked rather than injected (thus doing away with post-Aids fears of needle use). People even blamed the 90s fashion craze of dragon motifs on “chasing the dragon” – a slang term for taking the drug.

But as this clip explores, it was the death of 20-year-old fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti in 1997 that really made an impact on the industry. Sorrenti (son of Francesca and brother of Mario) was a New York wunderkind, himself known for his images featuring stupefied models. His death arguably marked the end of heroin chic – magazines took notice, and resolved to return to a healthier aesthetic to see out the rest of the decade.

Almost twenty years later, how far have we really moved on? The associations of drug abuse aren’t gone yet – Edie Campbell’s campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s Black Opium fragrance was investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority early this year after receiving 11 complaints over the claim that it glamourised drugs, reportedly depicting the model as an addict searching for her fix (the perfume). And although heroin chic was the trend that defined the 90s, fashion’s fascination with thinness has surpassed the millennium – it remains to be seen whether the industry will get over its slender model habit any time soon.