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In February, sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid, along with mutual friend Kendall Jenner, posed for a sultry black-and-white Love magazine shoot scantily clad in lingerie. This fact alone doesn’t make for much of a headline, since the Supermodel Trinity has graced the cover of just about every major magazine over the past couple years, but the accessories featured in the shoot were rather problematic. Both Bella and Kendall are casually holding cigarettes in the photographs.
What’s even more surprising than two of the world’s most prominent fashion icons posing with cigarettes in 2017 is that no one really seemed to care. Only Stylecaster and Elite Daily called out the images for glamorizing smoking, but even these two articles were topped by headlines that emphasized the lingerie aspect, only limply acknowledging the cigarettes in the body copy. In an internet culture that erupts in outrage over women playing video games and peas being used in a guacamole recipe, the lack of Twitter rage over this is rather surprising, and very telling.
It’s true: Fashion and cigarettes go way back. But while the rest of the world has backed off the dangerous habit over the last 50 years, fashion can’t quite seem to quit. To answer why, let’s go back to the beginning of their relationship.
Before it was “cool” to smoke cigarettes, it wasn’t at all — which means it was only a matter of time before it became extremely cool. In 1852, Lola Montez, an Irish-born dancer and actress, posed with a cigarette at a time when it wasn’t even acknowledged publicly that women might experiment with smoking. Montez, dressed and styled like a lady save for the stark white cigarette, intended the photo to be provocative. By the turn of the century, it was still thought that only women with loose morals smoked.
After World War I, American cigarette manufacturers couldn’t order Turkish tobacco, so they switched to milder domestic brands, which effectively made cigarettes more “female-friendly.” At the same time, flappers, who desired economic and sexual freedom, were beginning to challenge the concept of what American women could be. Smoking fit nicely into the optics of that narrative: They were out with men who were smoking, and it was still rebellious at the time to smoke themselves. Chesterfield’s “Blow some my way” ad campaign in 1927 perfectly tapped into both the cultural appeal of smoking and flapper politics.
A year later, in 1928, Edward Bernays, the so-called father of modern public relations, was hired by the American Tobacco Company to develop a campaign to get more women to smoke. Bernays recognized that women were still “riding high on the suffragette movement,” reports the New York Times, so he corralled a group of 10 genteel women to light up cigarettes during the 1929 Easter Day Parade. The media ate it up, with headlines like “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom’” peppering newspapers following the stunt. Cigarettes became known as “torches of freedom,” and within a year, it was acceptable to smoke outside, according to the Times.
The first major cigarette ad campaign targeting women debuted shortly thereafter. Lucky Strike’s “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” positions smoking as a way to control one’s appetite, and consequently as a weight-loss solution. Wanting to keep its green packaging, Lucky Strike began a campaign to make green the new black, inviting fashion editors to green-washed luncheons and charity benefits where professors lectured on the use of the color in art and its psychological benefits.
In 1940, Emily Post, the queen of 20th-century etiquette, wrote in Good Housekeeping that "If [a hostess] will not let her guest smoke in whatever part of the house they happen to be in, she will not have many guests — either men or women." At that time, during World War II, women were taking on more masculine roles, and with Post’s permission, female smoking really exploded.
Smoking culture bled into Hollywood as the era’s most famous actresses began smoking on screen. Femme fatale Lana Turner, who sadly died of throat cancer at 74, smoked through the wildly popular The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946. Breakfast at Tiffany’s debuted in 1961, becoming famous for the iconic image of Audrey Hepburn delicately biting her long cigarette holder.
From smoking’s heyday in the mid ’60s, when 42.4 percent of adults were considered smokers, cigarette use has steadily declined through today. Now, only 16.4 percent of adults report being regular smokers. Even now, with fewer people smoking than ever before, more women die from lung cancer than breast cancer. Additionally, the ’90s saw an uptick in smoking among high school students, which continued to climb until the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. The agreement forced tobacco companies to pay about $10 billion annually, forbade direct advertising to youth, and drastically restricted the kinds of advertisements and places where tobacco companies could advertise.
Prior to that settlement, advertising in magazines peaked in the ’80s, with tobacco companies spending a total of $90.2 million across 1,189.9 pages in 36 magazines between 1980 and 1993. Meanwhile, magazines, which were consumed mostly by women and youth, ran features about health, but rarely published stories about the dangers of smoking — all while profiting from ad revenue from these companies.
In 1993, W magazine’s shopping issue ran several “gratuitous images” of smoking, which prompted a New York Times story by Georgia Dullea condemning the use of cigarettes in editorials:
These days, cigarettes are about as chic as hypodermic needles. They are seen as dark, dangerous, even deadly — the perfect prop for a noir moment in fashion photography. This is the age of tattoed (sic) models in leather roaring off on Harley-Davidsons, of models grouped in strange and erotic scenes and, in the background, a suggestion of violence or impending violence. The message is one of stylized rebellion, challenging authority, defying convention, taking a risk. Go ahead. Just do it. Dare to wear this perfume, these jeans, those underpants. If gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence make noise on the magazine page, why not gratuitous smoking? Or so the theory would seem to go. Smoking has been taboo for so long in fashion photography — to say nothing of fashionable company — that the cigarette itself has become a supercharged image.
This sentiment from over 20 years ago seems to be applicable to Love magazine’s editorial with Jenner and Hadid from just last month. Another striking similarity? The lack of uproar: “Mr. McCarthy acknowledged that ‘a few’ W readers were outraged enough to complain,” Dullea writes. “How many? ‘Maybe 10,’ he replied. ‘I got just as many letters saying they didn't like the dresses.’”
The link between fashion’s obsession with thinness and its acceptance of smoking cannot be understated. The look of a cigarette — long, thin, white — dovetails with fashion’s other desired aesthetics pretty nicely. Even the marketing messages around cigarettes outside of the fashion context — “ultra thin,” “ultra light” — reinforce the notion that smoking encourages thinness, and models, especially 20 to 30 years ago, bought into that just as much as any consumer.
In the same ’93 New York Times piece, the then-director of media relations for the American Cancer Society attempts to explain fashion’s continued relationship to smoking. “‘Another thing is the models,’" she says. “‘They smoke incessantly.’” Veteran model Carré Otis admitted as much in an article for Australia’s Herald Sun a few years ago:
But in reality, my big diet staple was four to six cups of black coffee per day, avoiding even a splash of skim milk since I was terrified of extra calories. And to stave off hunger, I went through a few packs of cigarettes daily. Cigarettes with coffee gave me an energy boost. And all energy boosts were welcome because my body was perpetually fatigued from little to no sleep, over-exercised muscles, starvation and the relentless stream of criticisms inside my own head.
Throughout the ’90s and the aughts, similar headlines peppered publications. “A Trick Is an Image Created With Smoke and Mirrors” in the LA Times in 1994. “Cigarettes Going out of Fashion” in the Scotsman in 1998, followed by “Smoking as a Fashion Statement” from the Wall Street Journal in 2003. So the cycle we’re seeing now is nothing new: The media calls for the banishment of cigarettes in fashion magazines and advertisements, and designers and photographers keep resurrecting them.
In 2011, the Guardian published “Why is smoking back in fashion” following the controversial Louis Vuitton show during Paris Fashion Week in which Kate Moss, whose own nicotine habit is well-documented, puffed on a cigarette while strutting down the runway. (Interestingly, this piece also references an edition of Love magazine filled with cigarettes.) The then-fashion features director of Vogue, Harriet Quick, is quoted as saying: “Oh, it's just fashion. Fashion loves to do this, to provoke. It's not really saying anything. But, yes, there's something about smoking which works wonderfully well on the screen or the photo. It fills the screen, gives impact."
Sure, there’s no doubting the “fuck all” attitude and nostalgic feel that smoking conveys in an image, which is only bolstered by its dangers. But just because it’s an effective device doesn’t mean that photographers and videographers should get a hall pass to utilize it on a whim.
There’s a difference between cigarettes in film and cigarettes in fashion editorials. Cigarettes can be useful in films as signifiers of a time or a place, or as a “cue that a character doesn’t have his or her shit together,” as Refinery29 notes. With fashion images, on the other hand, there’s no story; there’s no context. There’s just an aspirational photograph of an attractive woman smoking a cigarette. And even though a stronger case can be made for their use in film than in fashion, there’s still a significant correlation between youth smoking and prevalence of cigarettes on the silver screen, according to the CDC.
Cigarettes are a lazy instrument for evoking the nonchalance that fashion loves — the same one responsible for its endless obsession with French “c’est la vie” and distressed clothing. The cigarette’s history of symbiosis with women’s independence connects its appearance in any given image to those ideals, but as we all know now, there’s nothing liberating about nicotine addiction. Plus, while cigarettes may retain their air of rebellion, their connection to the women’s movement has been lost in translation over the decades, so it’s doubtful that their use in fashion photography even evokes that symbolism.
Despite the fact that we’re living in an age when ultra-health-conscious lifestyles are held up as the pinnacle of success — farm-to-table restaurants, organic and gluten-free everything — putting a cigarette in the hand of model feels about as daring as having them lean against a motorcycle. It’s stale, and it’s lost the punch it once packed. Particularly in the case of Love’s photoshoot with Jenner and Hadid, the addition of the cigarettes doesn’t add anything provocative to the images. (Racked has reached out to the photographer, Alasdair McLellan, who captured the images to see why he decided to include them, and we’ll update if we hear back.) Photographers and art directors should let the modeling and styling speak for themselves, rather than relying on a poisonous prop.