Take a moment to think about what's generally considered to be the "ideal" street style image. What is visible in the frame? Is there an interesting, often well-known face? A great haircut or statement dad hat? A much-hyped "It" item? Finally, is the objectively chic subject of the photograph smoking a cigarette?
Sometimes looking back on the golden age of street style photography feels like clicking through a decade of cigarette breaks. A thin waft of smoke emitting from a manicured hand lent an air of glamour to a candid, fleeting moment in time — presumably grounded in reality.
Comparing street style from ten years ago with that from today (including the daily outfit chronicles on Instagram), it's clear that things have changed. Beyond the significant shifts in style and subject of street photography, the habits displayed in today's imagery are much more focused on health and wellness: juice-drinking, yoga-mat-toting, plant-tending. In place of a cigarette, perhaps there's a Juul or some other vape producing dramatic plumes. What was once a pillar of the fashion identity has finally reached its denouement, with smoking rates on a steady decline and use of nicotine vaporizers and marijuana culture on the rise.
Something else that's steadily on the rise? Clothing emblazoned with old-school cigarette branding.
It's like that episode of "Sex and the City" where Berger shows Carrie that there are playing cards all over the city's streets. If you haven't noticed yet, you will now: a Newport hat here, an ironic Camel fanny pack or varsity jacket there, a red polygon recalling a trompe l'oeil Marlboro box top applied, a la James Dean, to the chest of a teenager's T-shirt. The brands turning to this trend range from the contemporary (Supreme, 032c, Brandy Melville) to the high-end (Gucci, Moschino, Off-White, The Soloist). You may also see vintage Marlboro Adventure Team merchandise up for grabs on sites like Grailed and eBay at prices ranging anywhere from $10 into the thousands. In fact, noted menswear enthusiast John Mayer shared a haul of Marlboro merch he'd recently copped via his Instagram Story.
This branding is suddenly everywhere — but if the age of the cigarette is over, then why is its image haunting streetwear? Below, four possible explanatory causes.
"It's not so much that smoking is cool; it's the iconography it represents," says Jian DeLeon of Highsnobiety, whose upcoming collaboration with streetwear label Noah also features cigarette imagery. The archetype is one of dissent: a smoke snuck from mother's handbag, a no smoking sign refuted. Even at a time when smoking was nearly universal, a cigarette in certain contexts could be subversive; especially now, in a growing culture of self-care, the cigarette rails against the norm. A smoker now is a rebel in a truer sense than ever before, and while the flavored, ultra-discreet vapors of the nicotine-rich Juul vape prevail among today's youth, perhaps an aesthetic tribute serves a similar purpose to indulging in the original format.
"As a former smoker who has since switched to a Juul, I can't help but feel like I traded my motorcycle for a hybrid car or a minivan," DeLeon says. "There's a certain corniness to self-care — although it's very important — that the act of smoking flies in the face of."
Indeed, the contrast between a life filled with sheet masks, superfoods and ClassPassing with the act of smoking is pretty hilarious. Could this be a sign of collective fatigue from such a sterile, healthy, heavily branded life? DeLeon seems to agree that even in a time when we have so many choices, there is much to rebel against. "We're so saturated with logos and brands for everything from apps to grocery stores that it's almost a middle finger to show affinity for a brand that's clearly harmful." It's as if to say: Take that, Sweetgreen, I'm wearing a Camel Blue fanny pack!
It's impossible to consider the aesthetic narrative of the cigarette without the Marlboro Man. Conceived by Leo Burnett in 1954, the Marlboro Man was a way to shift the public's opinion on filtered cigarettes. Though the dangers of smoking were becoming unavoidably obvious, they were perceived as feminine. The character was rugged, mysterious and tied closely to nature, shrouding the danger of the product in a sunset-colored fantasy so powerful that it not only swelled the cigarette market, but also served as a living culmination of Americana. The campaign crystallized what American culture had been building towards in image and practice, and that ideal included smoking; think of the horse-mounted vagabond with a lit Marlboro between his lips, or the starlet puffing from an ebony cigarette holder in a Hollywood film. These were images that defined not only American experience, but spread American experience and behaviors throughout the world.
Culture has a way of permeating the globe — not unlike secondhand smoke in a confined space. One can trace a similar process of cultural diaspora in the streetwear market itself. Take, for example, the "Ivy" style made famous in Tokyo: An English collegiate style adapted by American students, then reinterpreted by an inspired Japanese public. "Plenty of these kids idolized that style and saw it as rebellious to the school uniforms they usually had to wear," DeLeon recalls. "And plenty of them took to stuffing their school uniforms in brown paper bags so they could wear their Ivy gear instead." Naturally, the innovations of the Japanese paradigm proved inspiring to American audiences on their way back around, and so on.
"It's just kind of funny, exporting American culture to other places. In some cases it can be an amazing thing, and in other cases it could be the worst possible thing in the world," Noah founder Brendon Babenzien explains on a recent episode of fashion podcast "Dropcast." "Like, maybe American cigarettes are not such a great thing, or some of the American food that gets exported over the world is kind of a disaster for other cultures." A phone case with the Marlboro logo on it does not necessarily contain the entire story of Americana, but it does point to its global influence. If we can look back on Americana with nostalgia, what does it mean to look back on cigarettes in their heyday?
A Darkness Within
A favorite theory among those discussing the cigarette iconography points toward a culturally collective death wish. The pilot episode of "Mad Men" famously treaded the topic with the trepidation of an era supported on a cloud of smoke. Reading from a report of overwhelming pessimism, a taciturn female German researcher is promptly shut down by the masculine potency of Don Draper, who envisions instead a cheery message of validation: "Everyone else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes are toasted." This frank denial of an obviously sound hypothesis reveals its irony throughout the course of the narrative, as characters' health declines and the very death wish described by the good Frau Doctor closes an icy fist around the era (cue hacking cough).
They say that everything old is new again, and if the media sphere tells us anything, this certainly seems to apply to the darkness living within today's youth. The nihilism of the millennial is well-trodden territory at this point, from examinations of the Tide Pod craze to the overwhelming rates of depression and anxiety in people under the age of 30. The times we live in are uncertain, after all; environmental disaster, a hostile presidency and still-unchecked oppression of marginalized people would make anyone blue.
Besides, death has always been cool. The macabre themes of the likes of Alexander McQueen aside, what could be more detached, unaffected and dangerous than death itself? Perhaps in wearing the imagery of a lethal product, it is easier to have a laugh at death's expense.
Irony and the Future
At its core, the defining element of why cigarette merch works in fashion today is unrestrained, highly potent irony. This is not the twee irony of the late, grating hipster movement, but something more subtle, more considered and more countercultural. From its original Patagonia-inspired branding under the Marlboro Adventure Team umbrella, cigarette branding has always been ironic — intentionally or otherwise — but never more so as it is today.
It is about smoking as much as it is about non-smoking; it is about health as much as it is about death. It is fashion and it is anti-fashion. And as the iconic imagery of each specific smoke brand fades, it's about posterity as well, preserving that imagery for future ironies in a post-cigarette world. Like in the case of the typewriter, a time will come when cigarettes are simply untenable. Many Juul users say that since they started vaping, they no longer crave the old way — whereas vaping a Juul takes seconds and releases a refreshing scent, cigarettes leave a lingering foul odor behind them, take minutes to smoke, create pollution and non-degradable waste and posit significant danger to both smokers and those around them. It can't last, and neither can the image of smoking as it stands.
"Now that countries like Australia have switched to unified plain cigarette packaging — a movement that has picked up in Norway, Malaysia, and Ireland, among others — there's a bit of irony in how cigarette brands have become style statements," DeLeon says.
Thinking of the world without branding from the likes of Marlboro, American Spirit, Newport or even Virginia Slim, one can't really lament the potential eradication of something that has harmed so many. Yet underneath it all, there is a slight pang for something lost; a vice both divisive and unifying, disgusting and alluring, smoldering eternally and yet out in a wisp of smoke. Who knows? Maybe a windbreaker can soothe the burn.