Updated: Feb 28
"But, in the end, the cigarette truly is just a metaphor; one that enforces the xenophobic fantasy that beauty and power is something long, thin, and white."
As most of us do, I was scrolling absent-mindedly through Instagram the other day. In the midst of party photos, artists, and the medley of niche things we all follow, something caught my eye. A friend had just posted a new photoshoot she had modeled for, and the photos were stunning - beautifully composed and stylistically mixing contemporary portrait photography with an aesthetic reminiscent of French New Wave photography. I swiped through the gallery, but, near the end, I found myself a little surprised to see cigarettes implemented out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something about photographing smoke and haze that is mesmerizing, but why from a cigarette? That question took me down a rabbit-hole: why do cigarettes and fashion seem to go together, even in an age where smoking is less and less acceptable?
To better understand fashion and smoking in a modern context, we need to look back to its origin. Around 1825, photography and advertisements started to rise in popularity. In an attempt to make certain ads more provocative and risqué, photographers started to push images of women smoking cigarettes. The idea of a woman smoking was not a popular one, but it gave the image of femininity a bit more of an edge that a lot of men found fascinating. Advertising to women, including “female-friendly” cigarettes, continued into the 1920s.
In 1928, Edward Bernays (AKA the “Father of Modern PR) was hired by tobacco companies to start directly advertising cigarettes to women. To do this, Bernays hired a slew of models to smoke at the 1929 Easter Day Parade and the headlines ate it up. This was seen as a “gesture of freedom” and, by association, cigarettes were symbolized as “torches of freedom.” After WWII and the rise and fall of “the modern-woman” movement, cigarette advertisements now turned to sex appeal. Film, photography, and ads started to associate smoking with some of the beauty icons of the era such as Audrey Hepburn, Lana Turner, and Marilyn Monroe. Advertising companies started to push cigarettes as a way to lose weight, essentially promising women a way to look like the aforementioned women that society idolized. This established a precedent for smoking that lasted until the early 2000s - it was powerful, sophisticated, and sexy all at the same time— until the truth of what smoking does to the body was revealed to the general public.
On November 8th, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published their statistics on the decline of smoking in the United States. Since 1965, the rate of daily smokers dropped 67%, resulting in only 14% of adults smoking at a daily rate. This echoed in adolescent smoking rates which dropped from 13% to 10% in just one year. The growing awareness of smoking and its effects have resulted in a combined generational effort to stop the distribution and use of cigarettes. So why is fashion still embracing it?
Some depictions truly are more metaphorical and meaningful. In a photoshoot I did in early 2019, we crafted a fake cigarette with flowers instead of smoke in an attempt to convey a sense of “fresh air” and life, rather than the smoke of the industrial era. The world is moving in a new direction, but fashion seems to be stuck in the past.
Representation is still a huge issue in fashion. In 2016, the Guardian found that 78% of fashion publications still embraced white models, while only 22% embraced the combined representation of black, Asian, and Latinx models. Thankfully, an updated survey from 2019 found a rise in varied casting, now showing 36% of casting choosing people of color. However, that still represents the combined representation I just mentioned and still leaves 54% of casting favoring white models. Body type representation is no better, as fashion still seems to only want to push extremes. In an interview with the New York Post, plus-size model Khrstyana Kazakova was thrilled to land a contract with a top-tier agency after coming in third on America’s Next Top Model. However, she was told she “wasn’t big enough” for shoots and they encouraged her to gain weight. She complied and gained 10 pounds in 2 months, but that still wasn’t enough:
“They want you to have an hourglass shape,” she says. “Before firing me, [they] implied that I looked bloated.”
Though society is looking to embrace natural body types of all kinds, fashion is still pushing for extreme and constructed bodies. Even today, it’s a game of provocation and pushing the edge, but that has negative side-effects when it’s done without purpose. For instance, not only is body-dysmorphia on the rise in the U.S., but another study by the CDC found that within a year of the previous publication, smoking has risen drastically. Why is that? The New York Times found that the media still promotes smoking as something cool, and, with the help of Juul - a company frequently scrutinized for deliberately working with tobacco companies to advertise to young people – the epidemic grew again. At first, it was just a “safe” way to get nicotine and have those cool smoke clouds, but as the extreme consequences of Juuling have quickly become apparent, the rate of young people going back to tobacco products, including cigarettes, increased by 38.3%. Let that sink in.
So, all this is to say that cigarettes are returning with no help from the fashion industry and the media. Smoking is a lazy tool used to convey independence, edginess, nostalgic sex appeal, and a “fuck all” attitude. The insistence to be provocative just leads to normal bodies and good health not being extreme, or attractive, enough. Fashion is still stuck in the past, no matter how new clothes and trends may be. But, in the end, the cigarette truly is just a metaphor; one that enforces the xenophobic fantasy that beauty and power is something long, thin, and white.
Jacob Zeranko is a playwright and actor from Baltimore, MD, and an alumnus of Towson
University. Outside of Haloscope, his plays can be found on New Play Exchange and you can find him on all social media @jacobzeranko.