Twenty years after its release, we go back in time to chart the film’s best looks and analyse its enduring relevance
Trainspotting is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous cult films ever made, with its alluring aesthetic, thematic grunge and twisted wit. Irvine Welsh’s novel, upon which Danny Boyle’s cinematic interpretation is based, was criticised by many for glamourising heroin use and drug culture, as was the film. But 20 years since its release, the visual and political legacy left behind by Trainspotting is much more than a look into the life of a bunch of hopeless junkies.
Welsh situated his story in the late 80s, when unemployment was at an all-time high. The burden of Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda fell disproportionately upon the shoulders of the working classes, and the whole film begins with Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) listing all that the younger generations have to aspire to: life, a job, a career, good health, a big television, a washing machine, before offering a nihilistic alternative: fuck all of this off.
Trainspotting rejects capitalist social conditioning in favour of a lifestyle encapsulated by the movie’s opening track, “Lust for Life” (1977), by Iggy Pop – poster boy of the dope generation. The film hones in on a clan of heroin junkies who reject expectations and responsibility, blowing the top off of Maggie’s “Heroin Screws You Up” campaign of the time. Set among working men’s clubs and council estates in Edinburgh – particularly poignant, as Scottish cities saw the highest level of heroin use – Trainspotting has become the shrine of a post-junk generation, with the buzzcut boys and the dialogue of the disenfranchised characters making its way on to posters Blu-Tacked to the bedroom walls of the ecstasy-led generation Z and beyond. Here we chart the film’s looks and see how its influence is still felt today.
Mark Renton and his clan of time-frozen junkie mates epitomise the aesthetic of pre-90s grunge, with a twist of camp. In his slashed, cropped and stained tees exposing his skinny, swollen midriff, and his torn-at-the-knee grey drainpipe denims, Renton wilfully wears the uniform of those shunning the nine-to-five life. A suede bomber, a filthy mustard muscle top, and a buzzed head of orange hair made way for endless cutaways of a beautifully wan looking McGregor. His mates – Sick Boy and Spud – in their cargo pants, or short shorts, and bright print tees perpetuate the ‘too cool’ aesthetic, and clothes seem freshly thrifted, or bought at the local Hitchens: it’s the classic no-fuss attitude of the gang that continues to be replicated today.
The street value of heroin was incredibly low during a time where mass unemployment was through the roof, making ‘skag’ an obvious drug of choice. Aesthetically, Trainspotting captures the bleakness of addiction through its brutalist exteriors, and filthy, smoke-filled interiors. The whole idea is that surroundings, clothes and material possessions were pushed aside in favour of spending all income on heroin. This was one of the first filmic portrayals of the lifestyle of heroin users at the time, and while addiction is undoubtedly a serious matter, the alluring attitudes of the youthful cast, and their effortlessly dishevelled style, were used as a tool to destigmatise injection drug users, and texturise the two-dimensional stereotype of the toothless, silent junkie.
Culturally, long-term heroin users have come to be called “the Trainspotting generation”. As we’re millennials – back into the throes of a Tory shitstorm government – maybe there’s solace to be taken from watching a group of friends stick two fingers up at absolutely everything, despite the aggressive heroin addiction, which we definitely wouldn’t recommend. The film has also maintained a strong sartorial legacy: who could forget the widespread moral panic surrounding the film’s popularisation of the ‘heroin chic’ archetype? More specifically, several designers still make aesthetic choices informed (consciously or subconsciously) by the film and its resulting impact: see Vetements, Gosha, Liam Hodges, and even Wang for Balenciaga menswear. Twenty years on, there’s an undeniable authenticity to Trainspotting that will continue to resonate with outsiders in generations to come.