exploring pop culture’s unlikely new obsession with sobriety

In 2016, HBO shows are depicting romance blossoming in AA meetings, T-shirts are declaring that ‘sober is sexy,' and the fashion world seems to be getting clean. Is this just a phase or a healthy step forward?

by Emilio Bassail and Emily Barasch
21 April 2016, 2:55pm

hbo's 'girls'

"Hangovers suck." "Heroin Killed the Radio Star." "Highly Meditated." "The only coke I do is diet." And the simple, but effective: "Don't die." These are some logos on T-shirts by the brand Sober is Sexy. Hyped by Russell Brand, Demi Lovato, and Rumer Willis, Sober is Sexy started in 2010 and currently has close to 30K followers on Instagram and almost 230,000 likes on Facebook. Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Sia, Robert Downey, Jr., Donatella Versace, Tom Ford, and many other celebrities have also publicly discussed getting clean in recent years. (Ford's relaxation technique in 2016? He takes five baths a day.)

Buzzy one-worded TV shows Girls, Love, and Flaked all deal with the recovery of beautiful people in hip, bicoastal (white) communities. The tragically fated "27 Club" has offered fodder for recent documentaries Montage of Heck, about Kurt Cobain, and the Oscar-winning Amy, which both consider the effects of substance abuse. It comes as no surprise that Sober is Sexy offers a T-shirt featuring a cartoon of Winehouse imposed on a British flag printed with her date of death.

The fashion world seems to be putting the bottle down. The movement around mindfulness, the proliferation of juice stores (even in Paris!), and the following of staunch dietary restrictions have become cult-like obsessions from fashion media offices to French ateliers. Today, the cigarette smoking and day drinking that appear on the Instagram feeds of certain so-called "bad girl" models feels almost antiquated.

Think of Marc Jacobs. He was the pallid-skinned instigator and poster boy of heroin chic in the mid-90s. Today, almost a decade into recovery, he is tan, buff, and a seemingly unstoppable workhorse. He even has an Instagram account devoted to his dog, Neville. There is, perhaps, nothing less heroin chic than making your pet into a social media star.

Less glamorous, John Galliano recently emerged from the scandal caused by an anti-Semitic rant (and the subsequent unraveling of his career) with an admission about his struggle with alcoholism. The Maison Margiela designer went to rehab, and later formally apologized at a London synagogue in 2015. "I am an alcoholic. I am an addict," he said. "This is in no way an excuse. We alcoholics and we addicts are not responsible for our disease. However, I do take complete responsibility for my recovery and making amends."

The mainstream fashion media, however, takes a lighter stance. Recently, two glossy women's magazines ran features declaring that sober is now sexy: Elle UK and British Vogue. Why now? What does it mean for a lifestyle change that is challenging, meaningful, and often profound for many to become a trending topic — much less one framed in sexual desirability?

In many senses, drinking is the last vice standing. Cigarettes are passé in many circles, since former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 2002. There have also been recent discussions about making major public places in London like Trafalgar Square smoke-free. (Want to visit a dry establishment in England's pub-filled capital? Check out Redemption, a purposefully booze-free restaurant with locations in Shoreditch and Notting Hill.) We read about the merits of gluten-free and vegan diets, avoiding tanning at all costs, and endlessly drinking water. Legends of cryotheraphy (three minutes in a minus-264 degrees Fahrenheit chamber, anyone?) and psychic colonics are spoken in hushed tones amongst fashion people. So maybe it follows: We get sober to prolong life. Don't die, the T-shirt says.

If we believe in the power of representation on TV, alcohol-abstaining people are getting better-looking and younger than your clichéd old men sitting in a church basement discussing recovery. On the TV show Girls, the illicit relationship between Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Adam (Adam Driver) blossoms in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. As perhaps the two edgiest characters on a show already about zeitgeist-y young Brooklynites, the couple's courtship in the context of their shared experience in sobriety takes on new meaning.

The new Netflix show Love follows Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) as she poses as sober, and then makes awful drunken decisions one moment later. She also wakes and bakes, and takes Sasparilla, an Ecstasy-like drug, with a stranger with whom she rides the Los Angeles Metro into the night. Toward the end of the ride, in the harsh train fluorescence, the two trade stories about attempts at getting clean, pledging to start fresh tomorrow.

Another Netflix original comedy, created by Will Arnett, Flaked, tracks Chip (Arnett) — an AA regular celebrating multiple years of sobriety who swigs from a bottle that's marked "kombucha" but filled with something a little harder. You're only as sick as your secrets, the show seems to suggest — but the characters look far from ill, they are radiant from the sun in Venice Beach, one of LA's coolest neighborhoods.

Just because fashion and popular culture have taken a liking to sobriety doesn't make the issues surrounding it any less serious. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs cost the United States $417 billion a year. What's more: Approximately 17 percent of men and 8 percent of women will be dependent on alcohol in their lifetime, says the National Institution on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that almost a quarter of U.S. high school students have dabbled in binge drinking in the past 30 days, increasing the odds of problems in school, with the law, or within family. Maybe for our society, more Puritan than we care to admit with its premium on productivity and control, giving sobriety a cool cache isn't such a bad thing.


Text Emily Barasch
Still from HBO's Girls

Tom Ford
marc jacobs
John Galliano
sober is sexy