How Fashion Trends can change our Cultural Identity

Heroin Chic- Art or Industry

January 30th, 2012 by Karen Elzinga

Heroin chic - Art or industry.

Artists have long been scrutinized for work not being universally acceptable. Art is a creative medium; it has no boundaries, and is available in a multitude of forums and mediums. People know exactly what appeals to them, and have strong beliefs on what they do not believe in or like.

 This blog post will delve into the areas of art that common society have had the most criticism and disdain for; heroin chic and nude photographs of children. It looks at the work of Calvin Klein, his advertising campaigns and the designer push for extremely waif and emancipated models in his portrayals. It will look at the introduction of the first waif model, and how "Twiggy" revolutionized the modelling industry. It will look into the attitudes and directional changes of designers, photographers and magazine editors, in terms of issues surrounding models weight and portrayed appearance, and how one photographer's death changed their opinions. Public voice is a powerful tool; this blog post will look at how it was able to stop numerous Calvin Klein campaigns, and a Bill Henson photography exhibition. It will also look into how public perception lead to Bill Henson being investigated by police for taking images of naked adolescents. 

Heroin chic a term used to describe models photographed and portrayed as waif like, with jaunting bones, hollow cheeks, a sickly appearance, dark circles under their eyes, and made to appear like they had drug addictions. (Heroin Chic, n.d). The look was big in the mid 1990's with fashion icon Calvin Klein at its heart (Spindler, 1997). The style of photography and advertising was believed to be inspired by photojournalists Larry Clark during the 1960's, and in the 1970's Nan Goldin, after they photographed the dark and destitute side of drug addiction. However their images were seen as deterrents and in no way glamorized addiction unlike the heroin chic campaigns of designers in the 1990's. These images stirred much controversy between the fashion industry and the consumer market, and in particular professionals within drug and rehabilitation facilities. 

Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, President of Phoenix house drug treatment centre, said that the fashion industry were in a position of influence, how they communicate their messages is paramount and what they were doing with heroin chic was cultivating curiosity, by relaying the message that drug use was not dangerous (Spindler, 1997) .

Fashion designer Calvin Klein's edgy and innovative campaigns in sighted community rage often, leaving him no stranger to controversy, in fact it was his unique ideas for advertising his clothes that made him so successful. Campaigns featuring a then 15 year old child actress named Brooke Shields, splashed across television screens with the phrase "Nothing comes between me and my Calvin's." Further campaigns in the mid 1990's saw such public back lash at teenagers being portrayed by Klein in a provocative sexualized manner, that after much debate, discussion and public complaint, Klein cancelled the ads.

 What people failed to realize was that this forum for public debate and opposition to his campaigns, was giving his brand the publicity it needed to be a major player in the fashion world. And although campaigns were cancelled, it did not hurt his brand giving Klein a green light to push the envelope of public opinion, and push taboo topics to the extreme in order obtain maximum exposure (Spindler, 1997).

In 1997 Klein explored the seedy under world of drugs and addiction in his campaigns, it later became known as the heroin chic era, with Calvin Klein labelled as a major influence in shaping the style. Despite having been treated for drug addiction himself and treated at the Hazelden center in May 1988, Klein opted to popularize the look of drug addicted models by using underweight models, with sunken cheeks, pale skin and dark under eye circles (Spindler, 1997).

 The combination of waif and emancipated pushed the boundaries more than ever before, with models appearing to snort cocaine and whom were portrayed with blue bruising up their arms with blank stares. To many this advertising glorified the use of heroin and made it appear cool and carefree. The advertising campaigns shocked many, even the president of the United States at the time. Bill Clinton publically condemned the look after New York photographer Davide Sorrenti who was very much a part of heroin chic, and whom was a favourite within fashion circles, died as a result of a drug over dose. The president was as quoted as saying "You do not need to glamorize addiction to sell cloths" and "American fashion has been an enormous source of creativity and beauty and art and, frankly, economic prosperity for the United States. But the glorification of heroin is not creative, it's destructive; it's not beautiful, it is ugly. And this is not about art; it's about life and death" (Lockwood, Ramey, 1997).

The success of Calvin Klein's high profile campaigns saw many commercial photographers altheir style to reflect the uniqueness of heroin chic. So popular was the culture with magazine editors and photographers that the style went main stream. Over a three year period almost every magazine in print had displayed images of it in their magazines (Spindler, 1997). It was only after President Clinton's public condemning that British press first reported about the controversial new campaign sweeping the United States (Lockwood, Ramey,1997).

 In October 1997, 13 fashion designers in England including Stella McCartney and John Galliano banded together in a show of unity. Together they signed a declaration condemning models being portrayed as drug addicts, stating that the industry needed to be more responsible in their advertisements, and how they were seen to be influencing the decisions and actions of young people. The unification of these designers formed a club called "Designers against Addiction" (Blackstock, 1997).

In history the essence of the heroin chic look, was around long before it was made world famous by the likes of Calvin Klein and his advertising campaign featuring model Kate Moss in 1997. It was an earlier model with the nick name Twiggy who was born in 1946, that had the world stirring with a new thin waif like appearance never before used in fashion modelling. Before Twiggy the style had been for a much rounder figure. At 16 years of age Twiggy was internationally acknowledged as the first of the super models (Twiggy, n.d).

After her arrival and unprecedented success to the international fashion scene, Twiggy was everywhere in fashion magazines, she had her own magazine directly targeting women on how to become just like her. The Twiggy diet was all the rage and how to get the Twiggy wardrobe. (RTI, 2004). With Twiggy's phenomenal success epitomizing the waif look in the 1960's; it was inevitable that other models would soon follow her lead to be thin. Some models so eager to emulate the new fashion took it to the extreme where anorexia or bulimia became a way of life in its self, with many models also needing treatment for various other related medical complications (World Wide Words, 1997).

Sadly it seems that Twiggy's legacy continues even into today's modern times, as not all fashion designers appear to agree with using healthy weight models. Karl Lagerfield was quoted as saying that "Opponents of thin models were simply mothers who sit on the couch eating bags of chips." Ralph Loren was found to have photo shopped models waists to appear thinner. Critics say fashion designers are placing unrealistic ideals onto society of what is typified as beautiful and normal. Top models have slammed the industry for its discrimination for refusing to book healthy weigh models, instead they are repeatedly told to slim down their already waif like appearances even more, to obtain catwalk jobs on leading run ways. This unhealthy practice fueled by the use of waif models in advertising campaigns such as heroin chic in the 1990's, increased the pressure placed on models to be anorexic in appearance. Super model Coco Rocha a UK size 6 and 5 sizes under the national average weight range was denied work on the basis she did not fit the standard weight range required by certain labels. The fashion industry supposedly took notice after the anorexic deaths of two model sisters, Eliana Luisel died at age 22 after a fatal heart attack in 2006 caused from anorexia complications, and six months later in 2007 her sister died from malnutrition. Not surprisingly critics called for a ban on size 0 models for London fashion week, however this did not last long as the anorexic looking bodies were and are still frequently used in run way shows (Models blog, 2010).

In 2007 designers became defensive after a giant billboard was erected during the Milan fashion week featuring a French woman weighing a slight 31kg with the slogan "No Anorexia". The plight of photographer Oliviero Toscani, was to highlight the link between fashion and anorexia, a link highly opposed by designers Giorgio Armani who stated "even people not into fashion still get anorexia" and Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana from the highly successful fashion label Dolce and Gabbana were quoted as saying "Anorexia is a psychiatric problem with nothing to do with fashion" (Cartner-Morley, 2007).

The emancipated look and blank stares of Heroin chic were not only related to fashion designers. Australian born photographer Bill Henson also capitalized on the look in his photographic campaigns, he utilized naked adolescents to achieve the vulnerabilities of the human form between child and adult. Henson, like Klein was no stranger to public outrage. As any artist knows publicity sells products, like Klein, Henson achieved monumental headlines in 2008 before his photography exhibition opened, when police confiscated 20 images from his collection abruptly closing it down, whilst they investigated their obvious nudity content and possible links to pornography and pedophilia. The art world and the common person became divided as radio shows and television media went into frenzy over what was classed as art, and what is child abuse. The charges were later dropped with police saying they had lack of evidence for a successful prosecution. Henson was over whelmed by the level of public support; however he did not receive any support from the current prime minister at the time, Kevin Rudd stating that the images were "absolutely revolting" (CBC News 2008).

Henson who is recognized as an internationally acclaimed Australian artist has a talent for drawing viewers into his works because they remain a mystery. Henson delivers blank stares with no vulnerabilities. The people in his images or the environment that the people are in maybe compromised in some way, but not the photos themselves. Henson does not allow for any personal access on any level, this due to the fact that the object of his work is not always subject based, there is much more to his work than merely the person portrayed in it or the space surrounding that person, its more about the message trying to be conveyed. In his work untitled 83/84, Henson portrayed adolescents as desperate, dirty and vulnerable in front of backgrounds of religious paintings and baroque interiors. His juxtaposition of 51 photographs proved very controversial at the time of release and even twenty years later still remained a topic of heated discussion. Henson refused to weigh in on the argument acknowledging that people would see the work from their own perspectives and based on their individual set of beliefs, emotions and life experiences (Art Gallery N.S.W. 2005).

In conclusion, models and adolescents that are portrayed with blank stares, appearing dirty and somewhat compromised leave little to the imagination. With no happy representation to speak of it is little wonder that the advertising campaigns and photography work of Calvin Klein and Bill Henson came under the scrutiny of public opinion. Communities divided as the art and fashion world defended the right to create art, whilst local and state leaders and child advocates defended the rights of children to be portrayed in a much more dignified manner. So who is right and who should uphold the opinion to tell society what is fair and just in a world where shock value seems to reflect success. Artists, be it, photographers, film makers, advertisers, visual artists, fashion designers, actor or musicians, these are all industries that seem to inspire a need to create scandal or shock value to gain notoriety and build a presence in today's market. Never before has there been such a desire to shock audiences. So is it good for a sense of community to degrade other people? To represent our most beautiful in society as low life drug addicts, and push them to near death in order to have magazine and television stations give air time to their brand. Is it just to have models so underweight that they are living skeletons, walking down catwalk run ways at the point of collapse? At what point do the common people in society have to stand up and encourage people in positions of power to do what is right for the majority, for those more vulnerable in society. Many believe the advent of heroin chic was society at its lowest point, when real life addiction was being portrayed as glamorous, when happy go lucky children are portrayed as dirty or having something to hide, and so the fine line of anything goes in the art world, is put under the microscope with society more willing than ever before to stand up and say enough is enough. This essay has looked at the issues that have affected society values and beliefs; it has delved into the advertising success of shock value campaigns of Calvin Klein, the fashion industries obsession with waif models, the effects of advertising on model's health, the condemnation of Bill Henson's naked adolescent photographs and the history of heroin chic and emancipated models. We are a brilliant species, but at what cost does personal gain equate to another man's suffering!

By Karen Elzinga (COPYRIGHTED)


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