Like the colour black and the size zero, the cigarette is a fetish object in fashion. Slim, white and stark, it seems as though it has been made to dangle from the lips of sullen models, a simple way of adding intrigue and dash to otherwise bland poses. It’s a trick I’ve used myself, popping out of bars any time the conversation hit a rut or I felt too self-conscious to slip into the easy register of the crowd. Outside, hunched beneath a street lamp, cigarette jutting from my lips, I would gain context and confidence. A cigarette, to me, seemed to bestow one with nonchalant purpose. When I was with others, camaraderie was immediately established and our patter would flow quick and light. When I was alone, it instigated a noir-ish mood, painting myself as the only person with a fully realised inner life.
This sentiment has been reflected in its entirety by fashion. That iniquitous prop, the cigarette, has been deployed in many a spread, shot by some of the biggest names in the business. The pictures are formulaic: either black and white with smoke wafting dreamily upwards or heavily treated, with poignant light flares, the femme fatale always in some state of collapse. In 2011, at the Louis Vuitton fall/winter show, Kate Moss sauntered down the runway, puffing theatrically. In some cuts, she looked impossibly cool, a deep drag sinking her cheeks. In others, she looked breathless and laboured.
In 2018, Gaultier delivered an ode to smoking in his haute couture show titled “Smoking, no Smoking”. Models traipsed down the runway, cigarettes wedged between slim fingers. Thin, beautiful and louche, the image of the off-duty model smoking seemed at once inviting and impenetrable. Fast forward to present day and the viral photograph of Bella Hadid and a troupe of other it-girls smoking in a glossy huddle at the Met Gala bathroom gave off a similar air.
Public opinion has since (rightly) vaulted the cigarette into the margins. Global anti-tobacco laws have booted smokers into out-of-door pariahship and sweeping bans on advertising means any product that attaches even a hint of glamour to smoking is now illegal. Images, however, have a long life. Pictures of early aughts Alexa Chung and Kate Moss lighting up still regularly make the rounds on social media, distributed by popular nostalgia accounts like @indiesleaze. More dangerously still, they live on in the imagination, influencing the way pictures are shot and consumed today. The indie fashion photoshoots that litter Pinterest still regularly feature wall-eyed girls with an unwashed air, casually gripping cigarettes in a familiar black and white cast.
As someone with an interest in these things, I can say with some certainty that the sexiest part of smoking is its semiotics. To clutch that lethal stick so carelessly in one’s hand is to announce to the world that you are a stylist and a nihilist, exempt from the usual laws of cause and effect. It’s an easy metaphor for grungy rebellion, the kind of swinging, aesthetic capitulation to pleasure that characterises so much of our nostalgia for earlier eras. To be a smoker is thus to be simultaneously revered and despised, which might explain some of its appeal to an industry bent on provoking envy, shock and occasionally, horror. Of course, there are other reasons for fashion’s fixation. Bound up in the thin stick are hallowed notions of thinness and Frenchness. Considered in the abstract, the cigarette is packed with narrative.
In reality, it stinks. It emanates a special, sharp, acrid stench that clings to your fingers and hair. The romance on the screen translates into wheezing, coughing and gooey phlegm lodged in the back of your throat. There is also the vague indignity of an addiction that will have one scrambling for a cigarette mid-day. Absent from all the beautiful pictures are the dreadful, boring details of an addiction. What this weary writer is trying to say is—stay away.