The Drugs Don't Work: A Dissection of the 90s Heroin Chic Look

by - February 26, 2017

Some people call me a junker
Say I'm loaded out of my mind
But I just feel happy
I feel good all the time
Hugh Laurie - Junkers Blues

Somebody mixed my medicine...

"Heroin Chic: Can A Nonaddict Pull Off The Look?", is the title of a blogpost where you get a how to-guide to achieve the "edgiest of edgy" look of a drug (ab)user, without actually sniffing a line yourself.[1] Yes, YOU can be heroin chic too!

Quite confusing right? In our upbringing we learn that drugs are bad (a 'war on drugs' and the 'abuse of drugs' are both connotations that have a negative sound to them). However the idolisation of drugs and drugs users is still very alive in today's society. And therewith also the connotations of drugs being something cool (or maybe even you're cool because you use drugs). This image of being 'cool', 'rebellious' and kicking against the shins of conservatives is not something new. It's even funny to think that the use of drugs used to be quite a 'day-to-day' thing to do. But not anymore. Or at least, the majority of us have given up on a snuff of coke for something, well, a bit more healthier.[2]*

It's not the Eighties!
In contrast to the 1980s Super models, who were "beautiful in an alien sort of way" (and important to add: perfect in every aspect), came the heroin chic model in the spotlight. Lighting a cigarette, hair all over the place and -quite clearly- imperfect in every way (or better said: perfectly imperfect in every way -I mean Kate Moss can be seen as the model of models, who still reigns the scale of 'modelness'). It was the absolute opposite of what we were known with. Therefore it was something exciting and refreshing. It fed a 'crave' to highlight the imperfections of life and society.[3] Or did it?

You say what?
Heroin chic is a derivative of the socalled Waif look (waif originally being a homeless, neglected or abondoned person, especially a child who appears thin or poorly nourished). 'Heroin chic' was actually used as an insult to the 'gamine fleshless young -very young- girls' who were next in line to take a spin on the catwalk. As stated earlier, these girls were something (extremely) different from the '80s Super -healthy- models (but don't be fooled, these Super models also brought some controversy with them).[4]**

As stated in a 1993 article of The New York Times:
"The latest models are also in keep with today's more liberal tone, a rejection of conspicious wealth and an embracing of the organic, the gritty, the ethic."[5] A stand against glamour, one could say. The "deglamorization of fashion" became an important part of the Waif look.

Mirror, mirror on the wall
The catwalk and therewith fashion is more often than not a reflection of society. A more cynical outlook on life came to the front. With subcultures like Grunge and Riot Grrrl that questioned the workings of their surroundings. A new kind of reality or the shaping of a new kind of reality became to emerge. It very much helped in that way that drugs became cheaper and better. And naturally the fact that purer heroin could be smoked rather than injected (and therewith doing away with post-Aids fears of needle use).[6] These developments were very important in the way society -and mainly youngsters- were more 'free' (or actually capable) to experiment with these sort of stimulants.

However it must be said that at the time people weren't too happy with this new cynical way of approach to life. This attitude therewith naturally to be crowned with the "Choose life" speech given by Ewan McGregor in the cult film Trainspotting, ending with "But why would I want to do a thing like that?". It was depicted in the media as a worrisome business. By 'deglamorizing fashion' they -said the media- 'glamorized drugs'. Hence heroin chic.

Tragedy, more like... tra-chic-die!
The philosophy of heroin chic was based on "the idea that authentic beauty stems from the fact that something that is considered valuable is treated with nonchalance, disrespect, and even a little abuse (...) The tragic, self-destructive characters who couldn't care less about themselves or others became the heroes in a weird mixture of infatuation and disgust."[7] And this philosophy is still something that hasn't completely died away, yet.

Heroin chic is conflicted within itself. The opposite meanings of heroin and chic, and therewith most probably the bad vs good connotations these derive, take a different -and again conflicting- point of view. How can you be chic when on heroin? You're not there with 'the right mind', do you even have 'a mind' at that point? And what is right anyway? Can you be chic without putting your mind to it? Do you even care -according to the heroin chic philosophy- about the chic part? Or is it chic because of your status within society: being a model, being a representative of a certain (high)fashion brand, living the life of the rich and famous, something that people look up to, but at the same time not caring about this position and therefore you're being 'chic' about it, because not caring is chic?

You could say that the 'drug reality' is something that includes escapism of the 'reality reality'. Heroin chic was a way to end 'fake reality' of the 1980s Super models and presenting a more 'reality reality', with emotions, feelings (but also not feelings because not caring, remember!) and rawness. However drugs are mostly seen as something chemical (as "artificially fabricated products") and therefore unnatural and not part of the 'reality reality' heroin chic tries to represent.[8]

However the terminology still works. We all can imagine how heroin chic looks like and what it means because it pin points certain aspects together. Creating a look, and maybe even more important: an attitude to go with the look, that together undoubtedly means heroin chic. The contradiction within those two words, and the meanings they create, may even be the whole reason why we can detach certain aspects and attach it again to this 'new' combination. Making or giving it meaning. Heroin chic forms a resistance against hegemony. It offers an alternative to mainstream or dominant culture where for instance drugs are solidly being seen as something bad and opens the discussion to shift or change this idea of good and bad in the first place. Hereby not saying that this is necessarily a good shift or change, but it certainly challenges or give a different vision to empower or give room to defining dominant culture and (sub)culture that doesn't fit into that role.

New Yoooooork
To get back to the blogpost I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the writer states that to look heroin chic "you're supposed to look like you spent the weekend binging on heroin and sleeping wherever you end up."[9]

And: "Some aren't a fan, but I AM, and it's totally not fair because it's the only look I can't pull off. First off, I'm nowhere near drug-addiction skinny. (...) When I moved to New York I told myself I was going to start dressing like one of those really cool New York girls (not hipsters, guys) that roam around the East Village looking like she could be one of Johnny Depp's ex-girlfriends."[10]

Heroin chic in this sense is a combination of living in New York, hanging around the East Village, being a cool 'New York' girl (but mind you: not hipster), being drug-addicted skinny and looking like one of Johnny Depps'ex-girlfriends. Oh, and naturally excessively doing drugs all weekend long (making you drug-addicted skinny in the first place, which is sort of the main point you could take from this blogpost to 'pull off the look': be a drug addict with drug addict symptoms in New York, obviously).

Would you like to snort with me?
Through heroin chic drug abuse has been commodified as a lifestyle and therewith 'normalized' -to some extent naturally- within our culture. Or to be a bit more precise: Western European and North American culture. It's even created the myth that a model always exclusively someone who's very thin. Or rather: the connotation an average person gets with the word 'model' is 'someone who's very thin' and thus creating the myth of models always being thin, drug abusing and not healthy girls.

Although it could be said that thin was in fashion before, but one could counter argue that that was a different kind of thin. Not a drugs-related kind of thin, basically. Naturally not to say that they didn't do drugs before heroin chic became 'a thing'. Because I'd like to state that they most probably did. But it wasn't highlighted or 'glamorized' as much as within the heroin chic (IT'S IN THE NAME) period. And now, in the period after that, we're still aware of the highly drug abuse within the fashion/modelling industry. We all find it naturally problematic (or are taught to find it problematic), but it isn't something that's been 'bragged about' or publicly shown as a craving or ideology within the fashion/modelling industry world. We try to hide it, ignore it or stand above it. Or are we?

Side note: hereby not saying that every skinny girl or model are constantly on drugs or that being skinny is something bad. The same goes for being fat or anything in between, the way you look can never -in the core- be bad or good. But the way we perceive someone who's skinny, and especially skinny models, has changed thanks to the heroin chic period. The images created during this time are now still seen as the denotation of models, while they're actually thus connotations. This creates the myth that models ought to be skinny and that models that aren't skinny should be labelled as 'plus-size models' because they differ from convention.***

We can ALL be hero(in)'s!
Is it quite telling that there's a Trainspotting 2 on the way to our cinemas? Is it telling that the Opium perfume of YSL gets to be campaigned as much again (in quite a suggestive way- the name itself doesn't hide much anyway)? Is it telling that -give or take- 30 years after the heroin chic period the skinny white girl is still exclusively favoured by most designers?

So can a nonaddict pull off the heroin chic look? Yes, according to the blogpost. Just don't wash your hair for weeks, look pale and put enough black eyeshadow (messily) on your lids, then you've got the look... And that without any drugs involved!


*While doing research I came across [this] website where they sell sniff boxes "to assist in providing aromatherapy solutions for today's busy lifestyles." So no drugs (well in the classical sense of drugs), but still something to powder our noses with... 
** However keep in mind that looking like a poor drug addict has never been in style. The hedonism of for instance Kate Moss and Courtney Love (and therewith the image of Heroin Chic) relies in part on wealth and privilege (getting high and messy in very expensive shoes). Also we're talking not of simply 'being skinny', but a specific aesthetic of being skinny, which notably isn't (just) achieved by taking (lots and lots of) drugs.
***It's become a norm. That's the core of the problem. As a model you're supposed to be skinny, otherwise you're not a model or thus a 'special' model that needs a specific indication of this diversion of the norm (aka 'plus-size model').

[1] XOVain, "Heroin Chic: Can A Nonaddict Pull Off The Look?" (1 July 2013),, 27 February 2016.
[2] Wikipedia, "Snuff (tobacco)", 27 February 2016.
[3] T. Loncar, "Heroin Chic From the Mid 90's" (7 October 2013),, 27 February 2016.
[4] N. Angier, "Fashion's Waif Look Makes Strong Women Weep" (11 april 1993),, 27 February 2016.
[5] Ibidem.
[6] E.H. Allwood, "Revisiting the 90s moral panic over heroin chic" (January 2016),, 27 February 2016.
[7] T. Loncar, "Heroin Chic From the Mid 90's" (7 October 2013),, 27 February 2016.
[8] E. Goode, "A Sociological perspective on Drugs and Drugs use",, 27 February 2016. 
[9] XOVain, "Heroin Chic: Can A Nonaddict Pull Off The Look?" (1 July 2013),, 27 February 2016.
[10] Ibidem.
And inspired by D. Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) and J. Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (2015).

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  1. Oh my gosh, this is so interesting. I do not have time to read all of it right now, but I'm coming back to this. You are so right! subconsciously, I knew that heroin-chic was a thing, but I didn't realize it until you pointed it out. To look like a waif, and to look slightly homeless is indeed glamorized. I even like the grunge look a bit myself sometimes, wow.

    1. Hahaha! I hope the second part doesn't disappoint... And I also like the grunge look a bit myself, so it isn't really meant as me pointing the finger in a judgemental way, just in a 'hey that's weird' way. Ya know? ;)

  2. This was a very interesting article. I love the Supermodels of the 80s they were just so iconic and amazing. Nothing like today, since most models are daughters of famous folks and honestly, are not all that iconic. The true models, make a statement that sticks with you and is memorable. This was a fun post and I love your photo inspiration here. I have to admit though, I was also a fan of the Heroine Chic style. It is just the decade I think that brought new styles that are forever iconic in different ways. :) Love the punk era as well.

    1. Thank you! It was indeed the 1980s that first brought us the idea of WHAT a model is (and developed it into super models that are still iconic to this day). There's a reason the Heroin Chic look has lasted for so long, as there's a certain appeal to it that goes beyond binging on drugs or being very skinny and living in New York. And although that lifestyle is certainly attached to it, it's also 'just' fashion (which naturally isn't neccessariy an innocent player in the field, but still, we're talking clothes, not cocaine). The punk era was brilliant by itself for many (different) reasons. And, as you note, created some spectacular iconic looks 'we' still use as a strong reference point nowadays.


  3. Well, this surely is an informative and interest article to read. I never thought of Heroin Chic as a real deal but I guess it does exists. I don't know what it is about this little homeless, little edgy look that it is so appealing to people. Great read!

    -Leta |

    1. Thank you! I think the appeal is that it isn't perfect but still highlights a certain privilege that's far from actually being homeless and closer to the idea of (Western) success. But still the amost timeless appeal of Heroin Chic is questionable and unidentifiable. I think there has to be more behind it then just wanting to follow in the footsteps of Kate Moss or Johnny Depps girlfriends. I mean, we're still happily buying jeans with holes in them to get 'the look'...


  4. I love it when i stumble across posts like this, such an analytical way of describing heroin chic. Its definitely contradictive, and its strange seeing new singers/models mimic the reknowned look of courtney love for example. Taylor momsen replicates this heroin chic look and i've always admired her style, but reading your post really points out how this came to be, and its effect on perception of models etc within the industry. Great read 😄

    1. Thank you! The way we dress always fascinates me. Especially, as you said, when they keep being 'recycled' and mentioned/referenced by more modern famous faces. It's good to know where things come from and why things are the way they are. ;)


  5. Maybe the resurgence of the heroin chic look is a backlash to all the "healthy"/slim-thick looks we've been served lately. They're equally unattainable, but at least the slim-thick look has me eating healthy and going to the gym

    1. You could be onto something! It's basically a same cycle back in the day with the 80s 'healthy' supermodels and now with the 'extreme' health focus within social media that are -as you said- also unattainable (but much much healthier). mmm... mmmm... *walks around and twirls fake moustache while softly muttering 'interesting, very interesting'* ;)


  6. It's actually hilarious and baffling that something like heroin, normally associated with grimey drug dens, poor health, life-destroying - I mean people spend so much money on it that they lose they jobs, family, friends, homes - and ugly, ironically, giving you terrible skin, hair and teeth, that THIS is something polar opposite in fashion. It's made beautiful, luxurious, glamorous. You're right, it's a fascinating side to fashion trends, one which is very odd. Funny, that health is a trend. Like you mention, the 80s' trend was healthy then the 90s' Kate Moss Heroin addiction unhealthy look and now swerving back to healthy... it just fluctuates til people get bored. I hope this heroin chic doesn't come back in full-swing though. I did think the models on the Gucci runway these past two seasons looked especially giant and skeletal, I was worried they would crumble into dust after walking all that way on the catwalk!

    Loved this post - so interesting! And great referencing


    1. Haha! I know exactly what you mean! Now with the trend of more diversity on the catwalk they try to compensate walking skeletons with 'fuller' bodies, but these are still a rarity.

      I've read somewhere some time ago that a lot of designers prefer skinny models because they've almost got the same look as a coat hanger. Which, I mean, is just baffling. If you design for coat hangers than I'm afraid you're in the wrong business! Not to discriminate against coat hangers, but, I mean, clothes are ultimately, mostly, meant to be worn by human beings. Naturally there are human beings that are really thin, but to reduce them to the idea of coat hangers and then single them out as the only shape in the world is just, well, worrisome!