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Harry Styles: Dresses, Deviation and Debate

By Sophie Fennelly

(Harry Styles, photographed by Tyler Mitchell, Vogue, December 2020)

On the 13th November it was announced that Harry Styles would be the first man to feature on a cover of US Vogue. Whilst this pleased many, some were outraged by his choice of clothing for the cover: a dress. The anger at this choice was amplified by a tweet published by Candace Owens stating: ‘There is no society that can survive without strong men. […] Bring back manly men’. Owens’s response went viral, and although there were so many who came out against Owens, many appear to agree with her argument, and her tweet has now received over 65k retweets. But this criticism was not construed without uproar: many took to twitter to defend Styles and commend him for his individuality. Even Logan Paul came out in Styles’s defence when his podcast co-host George Janko called Styles ‘unmanly’ saying ‘Is manly being comfortable in your skin? Being comfortable with who you are, regardless of what you’re wearing?’.

Contrary to what Owens and her supporters wish to believe, male artists breaking gender norms in their choice of clothing is nothing new. Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Elton John to name a few are all artists who subverted gender expectations by wearing skirts or dresses. This is not to say they did not receive criticism at this time: just like with Styles, many saw their wearing of androgynous clothing as ‘unnatural’ or ‘unmanly’. However, the history of men wearing this sort of clothing goes back a long way, and in fact, many of the items of clothing that we now associate with women were invented originally to be worn by men, such as the high heel.

Naturally, this landmark is a fantastic achievement. Styles is not only the first man on the cover but used his appearance in order to push to boundaries of gender norms within the fashion industry, something that he has been experimenting with ever since his debut solo album. However, whilst no one would begrudge him the title of the first male to be on the cover, some have questioned whether it was Styles’s right, as a cis white man, to be the first person on the cover of US Vogue to subvert gender norms in their clothing. It seems that, for many, Styles has taken the place of a minority group and that it he is now seen as a representation of gender-fluidity within the music industry when Styles has, at no point, discussed identifying as any gender other than a man, although he does identify his sexuality as unlabelled. Some feel that when someone who is trans* (a person that is not a cisgender man or woman) gets to be on the cover, that their achievement and what it symbolises will be downplayed because this has already been capitalised on by a cis man.

This is definitely an important question to consider, but the answer is not black and white. It seems obvious that if the picture on the cover of US Vogue, arguably the most influential fashion magazine in the western world, is wearing something that subverts cultural norms, that they will receive some level of criticism. And if that person is part of a minority group, then there is likely to be even more criticism, with much of it becoming a personal attack motivated by prejudice. In light of this, perhaps it is beneficial that Vogue chose a very popular cis white man to break this binary in order to try and normalise gender non-conformity within their publication and therefore to reduce the backlash against future trans* people who may feature on the cover.

While the conversations that this edition of Vogue has sparked bring up deeper issues that we need to deal with as a society, this is definitely a step in the right direction in dismantling synthetic gender binaries that confine our society.