Life of the Party, Death of the Girl

March 28, 2023

Photo by Sarah Poliuc

Imagine it's 1994. Kate Moss enters through the backstage door in an oversized fur coat with a cigarette draped on her lips, followed by her then-boyfriend Johnny Depp. She makes her way across the pulsating dance floor, greeting a crowd of renowned rockstars and her supermodel entourage. It may be 2 a.m., but for this crew, a night of sex, drug, and rock ‘n’ roll has only just begun.

I’ve always had a penchant for party girls. They’re the embodiment of messiness and hedonism, an ode to imperfection. When I first saw Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” as a starry-eyed 15-year-old, its quintessential party girl, Penny Lane, encompassed everything I aspired to be. Enamored by her revolving door of famous rockstars, wild social scenes, and laissez-faire attitude, I clung to a pipe dream of being the ultimate muse. For Penny, life was a perpetual party, an intoxicating blend of indulgence and eternal youth, infused with a hazy aesthetic of unkempt glamor. I defended her demons as fuel for a life of spontaneity and excitement. Yet I failed to recognize her role in rock’s visual mythmaking. The press and the fashion world romanticized the party-girl lifestyle just as well. Hidden somewhere within the glossy excess lay the cautionary tales of their hard partying. Even the party girl herself was enchanted by the illusion of it all, twirling about in her own private ecstasy.

With the return of '90s aesthetics and all their grungy glory, “heroin chic” and its latest relative, the “messy party-girl” are all the rage. Suddenly the perfectly imperfect is cool: overexposed and out-of-focus photos, smudged-glitter eyeshadows, close-ups on opalescent drinks, and vintage clothing. It’s the aesthetic of being seven proseccos deep, dancing in a dim-lit, smoke-infused basement with dripping black eyeliner. Many of us are reveling in the delight of entering our Calvin Klein-ad fantasies, outfitted in low-rise jeans, silky slip dresses, and anything black mesh. Though they defined an aesthetically-pleasing decade, we must also fear its dangers. The 90s equated cool and fashionable with doing drugs in club bathrooms without caring about consequences, because the generation's thin idols like Gia Carangi and Kate Moss were setting the trend.

The ever-evolving fashion industry is society’s mirror, often reflecting the human need for expression, messiness, and nonconformity. With heroin chic making a comeback, are we at risk of losing ourselves in the vapid glitter of the party, succumbing to worshiping thinness and drugs? In the 90s, cultural icons and models were put on a pedestal, leading audiences to believe emulating their cultural transgressors through fashion and drug usage would magically transform them too into glamorous outlaws. Though heroin chic conveyed rebellion, it became, in its essence, a warning sign for the dangers of unchecked hedonism. To young women on the edge of adulthood, disillusioned by the docile behavior their parents expected, freedom itself was a drug. In this world of unrestricted pleasure, women searched in every corner for the validation that the media promised. Yet, snorting drugs off of dingy bathroom stalls in sparkly dresses merely left them as hollow shells of their former selves. For those looking to define their existence through social media visuals, the resurgence of heroin chic will be just as detrimental.

Photo by Sarah Poliuc

Does the media guide culture, or merely leech off of it? So far, the social media era has seen an increased interest in adopting aesthetics rather than participating in one’s own reality. Cigarettes and substance abuse are aestheticized by today’s youth, commodified as trendy fashion statements by a new generation of angsty nicotine enthusiasts playing with lighters. On my way out of a party a few weeks ago, I spotted a few intoxicated party-goers — who I wouldn’t have guessed to be smokers — lighting a cigarette. Turns out, they weren’t. They inhaled the cigarette a couple of times, posed with it for a disposable camera, then threw it on the ground. I pondered the purpose behind their carefully curated façade. Was a cigarette simply the perfect prop to embody being effortlessly cool, a stylized rebellion against authority? These days, cigarettes are synonymous with the dark and dangerous, attracting the blissfully blind to what’s lurking beneath the visual. Like the grainy images of Kate Moss taking a post-party drag, the messy party-girl aesthetic reflects a generation longing for a unfiltered past, when every mascara-smudged memory was preserved on a 32GB memory card and not polished up for social media profiles.

Perhaps it’s the slow emergence from the pandemic that has us all wanting to party into the early hours, to be debaucherous and downright messy. Yet with the influence of social media, the 90s aesthetic of drunken abandon has simply morphed into a superficial façade. We are so focused on rigidly curating our lives that we have stopped actually living them, succumbing to a merely superficial aesthetic. Ironically, the once-revered pursuit of individuality has become a pitfall of conformity. In our relentless quest to emulate the latest trends, we become carbon copies of a media-perpetrated fantasy, rendering our individuality a mere illusion. Perhaps, like many before them, the cigarette-toting partiers have fallen trap to a glitter-fied mirage, practically begging to be consumed as media themselves.

The messy party-girl aesthetic isn’t inherently bad, but its digital-age resurgence is a far cry from its cultural genesis. Could this new era be the antidote to the feelings-of-inadequacy-inducing images that dominated the previous decade of heroin chic? Lately I’ve been wondering if we’re living in mass psychosis with trends, desperately piecing together online identities in hopes of self-definition, bargaining our own individuality as payment. In my pursuit of capturing a wild night out through the veil of grainy, digicam photography, I often grapple with the paradoxical nature of an authentic existence: am I myself perpetrating an illusion of fun through a filtered reality of strobe lights and booze or am I simply enjoying the moment?

Fantasies of a bygone era, when the youth lived without a care in the world, live on today in the crafted-to-appear-carefree visual ethos of the Internet, a glittering holy land for all things grungy, glossy, and lived in. Girls online build a shrine to the free-spirited deposition of youth, dubbing dingy nightclubs as the perfect playgrounds for willful ignorance and temporary escapism. This very spirit encompasses my current journey into adulthood, spent dancing in sweaty frat basements and returning to a bedroom laden with scattered clothes. Pizza in hand, I reflect on the night’s drunken-messy moments to sultry Lorde songs. I am not glamorizing recklessness; rather, I’m forging my own path towards happiness and fulfillment in my formative years. That, to me, is the ultimate mixed drink, a delicate balance of adversity and ecstasy.

I savor each and every drop. ■

Model: Ava Barrett
HMUA: River Perrill
Stylist: Adeline Hale

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