An unlikely savior to the tumult and turmoil of 2020 has arrived, in the form of a meditating, soft-spoken, polite Brit who wears ball gowns and skirts and makeup. The first non-woman on the cover of Vogue, Harry Styles redefines what it means to be a man. Decked out in lace and silk, Gucci and Comme des Garçons, Styles graces the cover of Vogue with an unspoken elegance that transcends any notion of gender. On a separate cover, he cheekily eats a banana while eyeing the camera, awash in pastel blue and pink. Mr. Styles has a way of captivating the reader with a spellbinding stare that sucks you in like a painting. A visual analysis reveals that the man on the page is, in fact, just as complex as a work of art. Is he a reflection of his time? An avant-garde artiste? Or simply a man who finds solace in the beauty of fashion?
Styles’ interview with Vogue suggests it’s the latter: “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never really thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something.” Styles’ dissolution of gender seems unintentional, effortless; he says plainly, “I think if you get something that you feel amazing in, it’s like a superhero outfit.” Much of the artist’s charm comes from the fact that he appreciates clothes for what they are: fabric, shape, style and color combined into a spectacular display of individuality. Mr. Styles calls it experimentation, and experiment he does. In his Vogue piece, he can be seen wearing a shiny JW Anderson belt and a Wales Bonner-knitted sweater paired with torn up socks, leather shoes, and a kilted skirt. It’s revolutionary. But it’s only one look. Take this look with the others: couture dresses, trench coats, glitzy rings and blazers and you have a man who is fully, unapologetically Harry.
Styles never really approaches the construction of gender, instead casting it aside and hailing its downfall, “When you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play.” To Styles, fashion is a festival in flamboyance. Inspired by his stylist Harry Lambert, Styles approaches fashion as a game too fun not to be played. “[Lambert] doesn’t take it too seriously, which means I don’t take it too seriously.” In this way, Styles makes gender, something so normatively associated with fashion, non-serious as well. The social construction, often supplemented by how one talks, walks, or dresses, can be more easily cast aside when those context cues no longer exist in their traditional form. Harry Styles thus invents his own type of manliness, one that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. His gender, his “manliness,” so to speak, is influenced by his life experience, his stylist, and other fashion pioneers who came before him. The result of this gender dissolution comes new definitions of cultural normativity. A person in a pink dress is manly. So is a person wearing gold rings, painted nails and makeup. The first step in dismantling the highly oppressive categories our society puts us in is rejecting them outright.
It makes sense that the first mainstream example of an individual so openly flouting gendered fashion norms is Harry Styles, whose whiteness and heterosexuality appeal more broadly to the average American. First and foremost, the fact that Harry Styles has become the first non-woman to appear on the cover of Vogue is a fact worth celebrating, because the world might be one step closer to a society void of a strict gender binary. But the celebration of Styles’ gender-bending cover stands in strict contrast to the rejection and oppression of trans femmes of color who have been dissolving the gender binary in fashion for decades. Gender non-conforming writer and performer Alok Vaid-Menon sums up the conundrum perfectly, “We can both acknowledge this unprecedented moment while also remembering that it could only happen because of the resistance of trans femmes of color, who for decades were imprisoned by cross-dressing legislation.” Vaid-Menon goes on to mention America’s propensity towards whiteness and heteronormativity, a propensity that fuels a celebration of individuals like Harry Styles but rejects trans femmes of color as “too much,” or “too queer” to make it to the mainstream.
Who’s to blame? Well, we are, but only because we exist in a society rooted in a history of transphobia, misogyny and racism. A world beyond the gender binary exists only if we are willing to extend political representation and freedom to everyone, especially those who have been denied it in the past. Harry Styles’ cover is a grand achievement. He is wearing clothes that he wants to wear, without consideration of public opinion, and in the process encourages readers and viewers to do the same.
In a development only to be expected in 2020, the repudiation of Styles’ Vogue cover unfortunately gained as much traction as its celebration. One of the most outspoken deniers of the cover, Candace Owens, responded to it by declaring “Bring Back Manly Men,” to which Styles responded with the now-famous image of himself in a gorgeous lace-sleeved pastel blue suit, biting a banana. Owens’ response was comical. In a wildly confusing rant, she mentioned the dichotomy of “East” and “West,” saying the West is falling because “Marxism is being taught to our children.” Such a position was decried by the same woman who believes a woman’s essential duty is to serve her husband. Owens’ existence is akin to that of 17th century Puritan patriarchalism. Clearly, her delusion stems from a polarized politick, misconceptions of social progress, and a possible sliver of self-hatred.
Where do we go from here? The work has just begun. Harry Styles is the poster-child for a generation beginning to understand the downfalls of a strict gender binary. One of the most important lessons we can take from Harry Styles is his suggestion to remove the barriers society sets up for us, “It’s like anything—anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself.” With the dissolution of gender comes the breakdown of institutions designed to limit individuality. At the end of the day, the most powerful tool we can use to shutdown these oppressive institutions is our own genuine self-expression.
Quotes courtesy of Vogue,Playtime With Harry Styles, December 2020.
For further reading, see Eugenia Cheng’s new work,X + Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender.