Heroin Chic

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 10, 1996

They look like drug addicts. They are a major trend in the fashion industry: models who are emaciated, dirty and untidy. The look is called heroin chic.

You see the models strutting down the catwalk, or staring defiantly from billboards and magazine spreads. They wear clothes by the top names in fashion design, names like Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld.

The reason the models look like drug addicts is that, well, they are supposed to look like drug addicts. The models were selected because they are scrawny and pale. “They flaunt the ominous signs of drug addiction: vacant stares, dirty disheveled hair, unkempt clothes and a frame so gaunt, bone juts through flesh” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/96, F1]. Then they are coached to look and behave like heroin addicts, hence the name “heroin chic.” Their eyelids are half-closed and they stagger slightly as they walk.

Many of the models who sport the heroin look have tattoos. Others wear pierced jewelry in unusual places—through the nose, or on the chest or in the bellybutton. If you want to learn more about these subjects I can recommend a new periodical to you. It is called In the Flesh, and its purpose is to address the fine arts of body modification: piercing, tattooing, scarring and branding [Folio, March 1, 1996].

Some of the models are probably wearing cosmetics from Urban Decay. Have you heard of Urban Decay? Urban Decay eyeshadow comes in colors such as “Bruise” and “Corpse.” The nail polish comes in shades of “Mildew” and “Roach.” If you prefer diseases to wounds or insects you can buy a tube of “Plague” lipstick instead [TIME, Fall, 1996].

One New York fashion photographer explained the popularity of heroin chic like this: “Designers look for inspiration to what's happening on the streets, and there are a lot of druggies everywhere” [Peter Gould, in Inquirer, F1]. The photographer is right. I have plenty of neighbors who are into heroin chic. I see them walking on South Street or gathering at picnic tables in the park around the corner. They do not smile and they wear black from head to toe, unless they have green hair or multi-colored tattoos.

Heroin chic is an act of rebellion. Its appeal is its “againstness,” the way it stands over against conventional standards of color, dress, personality, grooming and health. Calvin Klein says that his models are not supposed to be pretty. He describes them as “antiglamorous,” which is just a fancy way of saying they are ugly. Heroin chic says, “If your colors are bright then I will wear black. If your smile is wide then I will scowl. If your body is strong then I will be sickly and wan. If your skin is smooth then I will pierce myself with angular metal. If you are beautiful then I will be ugly.”

Not suprisingly, heroin chic has generated controversy in the fashion industry. Critics charge that it glamorizes drug use. It is irresponsible, they say, to encourage young people to look, dress, act and even smell like junkies, especially since heroin is fast becoming the drug of the nineties.

My purpose is not to criticize heroin chic, although you can probably guess that my tastes are rather different. Instead, I am interested in what heroin chic says about the human condition. Clothes cover the body, but they also have a way of uncovering the soul. What heroin chic uncovers is the ugliness of humanity. It tells us that the human soul is vacant, dark, gloomy and unhappy.

That means that heroin chic tells the truth; not the whole truth, but the truth about what life is like apart from God. Fallen humanity is ugly. Sin blackens and wastes the human spirit. Our souls are punctured by the transgressions of our neighbors. Heroin chic is one way of honestly facing up to the realities of life without God. If there is no God, then cover me in black and hand me a nose ring.

But heroin chic is only half of the truth. The other half begins with something we do not talk about often enough: the beauty of God. Psalm 27 says that the believer's greatest desire is to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (v. 4). We learn from this verse that God is beauteous. Along with all of his other attributes—along with his goodness, truth, holiness, justice and love—God is beautiful.

God is not only beautiful himself but he also loves beauty. He has made everything beautiful in its time (Eccl. 3:11). You can see it in the way he has made the world, and especially in the way he has made men and women. Human bodies are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). Among other things, that means our bodies share in the beauty of God. They are invested with a permanent beauty, a beauty that outlasts even our fall into sin.

We are beautiful now and we will become even more beautiful in days to come. The prophet Zechariah imagines what we will look like on the day when the Lord comes again:

The LORD their God will save them on that day

… .

They will sparkle in his land

like jewels in a crown.

How attractive and beautiful they will be! (Zech. 9:16-17).

If God made us to be beautiful, then we are not to make ourselves ugly. Our bodies are certainly not to be disfigured or mutilated. On the other hand, neither do they need to be glamorized or adorned unnecessarily. They are beautiful as they are.

So what should Christians wear? Christians can wear (almost) anything. And they can wear it any color they please, because Jesus Christ is Lord of the spectrum. But whatever they wear, Christians wear it with modesty and dignity, to the glory of God. And they wear their clothes with some sense of beauty, because they serve a beautiful God.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org