The December issue of Vogue US saw Harry Styles grace its cover, making him the first solo male to front the magazine in Vogue’s 128-year history. Whilst it may not be surprising that Styles was chosen for the cover of Vogue magazine considering the success that 2020 has had in store for him, the shoot instantly became a defining moment in fashion history. The cover photo shows Styles wearing a classic double-breasted black Gucci jacket over a custom-made baby blue, lace Gucci dress (designed by Gucci’s Creative Director and Styles’ close friend, Alessandro Michele). Naturally, an image of a man wearing a dress on the cover of the world’s most notorious fashion magazine drew headlines and ruffled a few feathers. The most famous quote that this image bore was Candace Owens’ tweet “bring back manly men.” This controversial quote lead to an onslaught of praise in support of Styles, as well as some right-wing commentators supporting Owens. Whilst it is evident that 2020 has proven that masculinity is no more than a concept formed by societal norms, it is also worth considering if Styles deserves the praise that he has been given.
Styles is no stranger to pushing the gender binary of fashion. He is regularly pictured with painted nails, or a string of pearls around his neck, and, prior to his Vogue cover, he was pictured for Beauty Papers Magazine in tights and make-up. The Marc Jacobs three-piece yellow suit that he wore to the 2019 Brit Awards was even originally produced as womenswear. What can we take away from this? Well, it is pretty evident that Styles really does not care about the gender boundaries that the fashion industry has put forward. However, Hamish Bowles quotes Styles as saying that to him that the dresses and clothing featured in the Vogue shoot are seen as “dressing up”. Whilst it is undoubtedly excellent for Styles that he has the privilege of enjoying the performativity of fashion and couture and that he uses this privilege to showcase young and minority designers, unfortunately the reality of dressing in a ‘feminine’ way is not as simple for many transgender, non-binary and BIPOC individuals. There have been many cases in which trans individuals have been killed for simply leaving the house in clothing that they want to wear, simply being themselves. The murder of India Clark in 2015 saw her beaten to death and then misgendered by local media as they referred to her as, “a man in a dress.”
It is difficult to read Candace Owens’ comments as purely a case of toxic masculinity, when the endless murders of transgender, gender non-conforming and BIPOC individuals that are featured in the news prove that associating gender with dress or clothing is not only harmful but is incredibly dangerous as it can be a matter of life and death. Styles refers to iconic androgynous men as his style icons, such as David Bowie, Elton John, Prince, Freddie Mercury, and Styles’ doppelganger, Mick Jagger (of course, here I refer to Mick Jagger in the 70s, not in his 70s). These men regularly wore make-up and skin-tight clothing, and they were perceived as having well as having characteristically ‘feminine’ or androgynous physical features. Whilst these elements were associated with the stars’ stage presence rather than their day-to-day lives, these men definitely helped bring gender-fluid dressing for men into wider society. However, the 21st century has seen a rise in designers creating gender-fluid clothing. Even though they style their designs on male or female models, they emphasise that their clothing is available to people of all genders. Whilst we give credit to Styles for his adventurous fashion choices, the man behind it all is his stylist, Harry Lambert. Without Lambert’s gender-fluid approach towards fashion, many smaller and unknown designers would not receive the recognition they deserve. One of these designers is Harris Reed, who is a regular collaborator with Lambert and Styles. Designing the amazing tulle/cage skirt seen in Styles’ Vogue shoot, Reed champions gender-fluid dressing and emphasises that fashion knows no boundaries, whether it be gender, sexuality, or race. Another young British designer that is featured in Styles’ Vogue shoot is Grace Wales Bonner (better known as Wales Bonner). As a BIPOC designer, Bonner regularly refers to her British-Jamaican heritage in her work, as is seen in the kilt and sweater vest combo that Styles is pictured wearing in his Vogue shoot.
The image of Styles wearing a dress and a blazer on the cover of Vogue magazine will undoubtedly go down in history, as he wears two garments that are retrospectively so representative of masculinity and femininity. Other men, such as Jaden Smith and Billy Porter, have infamously worn skirts and dresses, attempting to normalise gender-fluid dressing within society. However, it is evident that we, as a society, must continue to champion gender-fluid dressing in order to change the fashion industry’s glorification of gender boundaries and white cisgender creators, as well as wider society’s ideas of linear masculinity and femininity.
– Megan Finch
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