Harry Styles has come a long way since his days in One Direction — in regard to both his singing and songwriting talents as well as his fashion game. Styles went from singing in a pop boy band to exploring multiple genres and musical techniques in his two solo albums, “Harry Styles” and “Fine Line,” earning him millions of dedicated and adoring fans. Styles’ fashion evolution is perhaps even more impressive, bringing him recognition as a figurehead in the movement toward gender-neutral fashion.
On Nov. 13, Styles made history as the first male solo cover star of Vogue. While that groundbreaking moment was newsworthy enough for the “Golden” singer, Styles’ outfit is the reason everyone and their mothers are talking about his Vogue cover. Styles was dressed in Gucci’s Alessandro Michele’s blue lace-trimmed dress with a black double-breasted tuxedo jacket and his signature chunky gold rings for Vogue’s December issue. The cover showcasing Styles, a man, in a dress has garnered both praise and backlash against the singer and magazine.
Styles’ large fanbase and Vogue’s popularity hold a powerful influence on pop culture and the media, which allows them to inspire others. Francesca Hooey, a senior majoring in biology, wrote in an email that Styles’ Vogue cover was a step in the right direction for supporting and encouraging people who want to dress outside of stereotypical gender norms.
“In today’s society, we are definitely transitioning to a more accepting culture, but it is still very difficult for people, more specifically men, to dress however they please without being criticized by others,” Hooey wrote. “Seeing celebrities breaking gender norms hopefully encourages others to express themselves without worrying about what other people will think of them.”
For young people who may feel alone and scared about expressing themselves how they truly want to, seeing a famous and loved celebrity such as Styles on the cover of Vogue can help them know there is a place in this world for them and a community which will be supporting them from the sidelines. Danielle Bradford, a junior double-majoring in history and politics, philosophy and law, wrote in an email that Styles’ popularity allowed for a positively influential Vogue cover.
“[Styles] had a major platform from being in One Direction, and then he decided to do what he wanted even if it meant breaking the typical norms,” Bradford wrote. “I think he was able to educate a lot of his fans from One Direction and has taken the first steps in normalizing it all.”
Despite the positivity, people on the internet also had a lot of criticism against the singer — one of whom has grabbed the attention of many, including Styles’ loyal fanbase. Candace Owens, a conservative author and political activist, spoke out to her large social media following about the normalization of men wearing clothing stereotypically associated with females.
“In the [West], the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence,” Owens tweeted. “It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.”
Owens’ tweet gained significant backlash from Styles’ fans, allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Owens responded with a video message where she claimed she is simply “normal,” implying that we should not be approving of the “abnormal.” The issue with her usage of the word “normal” connects to the transphobia of her entire critique of Styles’ cover.
In response to those who called her tweets transphobic and dangerous to the lives of nonbinary and genderqueer people, Owens claimed she is not transphobic because she is not afraid of Styles in a dress. Transphobia, however, does not have to mean a literal fear of men in dresses but, rather a person’s underlying discomfort with the existence of transgender people in general and their growing acceptance in society today.
Regardless, with all negativity there exists positivity as well. The backlash against Styles allowed for more discussion and education about what the gender binary is, and the lives of genderqueer people.
“The way Candace Owens and others have used this cover to try and discriminate against people has caused a lot of people to be having conversations about gender norms,” Bradford wrote.
The support for Harry Styles dressing in “feminine” clothing, painting his nails and wearing makeup does not mean all men are suddenly expected to cross gender binaries as well. The misunderstanding people like Owens have made is in thinking that our society now expects all men to dress femininely, or else be seen as not real men. In reality, what people are pushing for is the freedom of choice for individuals to dress how they like, and for those who do not fit the default in gender and clothing expression to be viewed in a way that is as valid as that of “masculine” straight men and “feminine” straight women.
Styles, however, does not seem too phased about the criticism, and instead even seems to take it in a humorous manner. On Dec. 2, Styles posted a picture of himself in a blue suit with white frilled cuffs including the caption, “Bring back manly men,” taunting Owens’ remark. Additionally, Styles seems more excited about his choices in clothing and androgynous fashion than worrying about what others think about him.
“What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away,” Styles said to Vogue. “When you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ when you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play.”
Another critique that has been targeted at Styles is the lack of recognition for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ people who have pioneered the androgynous fashion movement. The rise and acceptance of androgynous fashion are largely due to the work done by BIPOC and nonbinary people. Many have felt that while Styles is allowed to express himself through clothing as he pleases, he does not deserve the amount of praise he is getting as a white man benefitting from the hard work done by those before him. Catherine Goodheart, a junior majoring in English, is a fan of Styles but acknowledged the unfairness she noticed between white and BIPOC musicians who break gender norms.
“I’m not saying it’s [Styles’] fault that he’s getting all of this recognition because it’s not, but I do think there should be a greater recognition of these amazing artists, such as Jaden Smith and Young Thug, and their outfits,” Goodheart wrote. “These artists have had to defend themselves so many times for their clothing choices, and only now it is becoming slightly more acceptable.”
Styles’ Vogue issue and his clothing choices for red carpets, music videos and concerts still help educate people on and normalize androgynous fashion, but while he is praised by millions, Black transgender people continue to experience violence and a lack of support.
“I think it’s a good thing that [Styles] did this and used the privilege that he had as a white man to break these norms, but I also think that more recognition is due to Black LGBTQ+ people,” Bradford wrote. “However, I was actually talking to a friend the other day about how the same people who are praising [Styles] for wearing a dress, used to make fun of Jaden Smith for breaking gender norms.”
Others have felt weary about placing Styles on a pedestal for wearing a dress and being an LGBTQ+ icon, as he still is a white cisgender male. While this argument is popular among those critiquing Styles and the praise following him, students such as Bradford saw both sides of the debate.
“I do think he deserves to be praised, but people should not act as though he is the first man to ever wear a dress,” Hooey wrote. “They definitely deserve more recognition. It would have been better if [Styles] had used his platform to showcase those before him who have crossed gender-binary norms.”
Nevertheless, the December issue of Vogue is a remarkable and historic one for the magazine and for what it means to be a man. Millions of people have seen the photographs and have participated in discussions, which can lead to a brighter future for everyone to dress however they want.
“I think the cover was culturally significant because he is breaking gender roles that people are abused for breaking every day,” Goodheart wrote. “By people accepting and recognizing [Styles] doing this, it can help change people’s minds about gendered clothing and how to treat others (with kindness).”