By Mo Wilson
Long before conservative pundits were crying crocodile tears over Harry Styles’s outfits, queer people have been calling bullshit. When Styles’s profile in Vogue went live, LGBTQ people on Twitter were quick to voice the same complaints they’ve been leveling at Styles whenever the press covers his increasing comfort with blouses and pearls. In this case, Styles appears on the magazine’s cover in a lacy Gucci dress custom-made by the brand’s designer Alessandro Michele. Elsewhere in the story he wears a pleated tartan skirt from the British-Bulgarian brand Chopova Lowena skirt, and delightfully little else.
The qualm with Styles is simple: As an ostensibly straight, cisgender white man, the “Watermelon Sugar” singer is celebrated for shucking gender norms with his attire. When trans women, transfeminine people, or gender non-conforming folks do the same thing on a day-to-day basis, they are often vilified or threatened with violence—even though, in many ways, queer and trans people pioneered the loosening of gender norms Styles exhibits. OK, fair. But we can acknowledge that Styles’s aesthetic isn’t groundbreaking while recognizing there are benefits to it going mainstream.
A large part of this equation is privilege. Styles is a wealthy, conventionally attractive celebrity with three top-10 hits from his most recent album. He can toy with gender roles without much worry. And this is a magazine cover, not the real world. Styles won’t get harassed while walking home or taking public transit. He won’t be passed over for a basic gay in a tank top while out at the bar. By contrast, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 46% of respondents reported being verbally harassed in the past year because of their gender identity. This grim reality arises from the rigid way people police masculinity and femininity and punish those who challenge societal norms.
Yet as a straight, cis man who is comfortable casually wearing a dress on the cover of a magazine, Styles is a symbol of how fashion is leaving behind the rules that cause problems for so many queer people. Though the industry has, to a degree, always championed individuality and self-expression, and while there is an emerging roster of non-gendered clothing lines and stores, the vast majority of brands still categorize their collections and presentations according to a gender binary.
“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,” Styles told Vogue. If everyone could play with our presentation without judgment, we’d all benefit. If it becomes less strange to see a man in a dress, then maybe a young trans woman might escape part of the judgment she’d otherwise face. Who better to reinforce this point than Harry Styles, who manages to capture hordes of attention with his middle-of-the-road music?
While there are fashion brands, family members, or conservative pundits on Twitter dictating what you can or can’t wear based on assigned gender categories, there have always been LGBTQ people to challenge, subvert, and obliterate that notion. The proliferation of drag aside, nonbinary activists like Travis Alabanza have correctly pointed out that gender fluidity and nonbinary identities are not new. No one is earnestly claiming that Styles invented gender fluidity. The truth is, he walks in the shadows of past rock stars like Prince and David Bowie, who in turn borrowed from trans musician pioneers like Jayne County.
It is sad to see that society at large pays more attention to the actions of a straight, cis white man than others who’ve been in the trenches for longer. It is also tiresome to see a straight, cis white man be hailed as a revolutionary by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele for doing something queer and trans people have been doing for decades. But there is progress worth celebrating here too. Styles’s laissez-faire attitude with clothing is reflected in today’s youth at large. According to the Christina Zervanos, PR rep of the gender-neutral clothing line The Phluid Project, “56% of Gen Z shop outside their assigned gender.”
If we need an object lesson on the net bad vs. net good of Styles’s Vogue photoshoot, consider conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens claiming that the cover is an “outright attack” on traditional masculinity. While they must know that these comments are hyperbolic (…right?), their panic betrays what many of us are learning: Gender roles and norms are changing, to the detriment of conservatives who would rather all men be pictures of outdated notions of masculinity, and would shun anyone who acts otherwise, trans or cis, gay or straight.
This isn’t to say that cis, straight men wearing dresses will end homophobia or transphobia. Styles, who has refused to answer the question of his sexuality, and presumably straight men like him are simply a piece of the whole progressive puzzle of a better world we’re building. This looks like straight men casually shucking the shackles of toxic masculinity. It also looks like historic marches for Black trans lives. It looks like getting trans women housing. It looks like pay equity. It looks like holding politicians accountable and decriminalizing sex work. It looks like abolishing the prison industrial complex.
Maybe, as we build a just world for people of all genders and identities, we can let straight men wear dresses, as a treat. Plus, as senior editor of Food & Wine magazine Kat Kinsman points out, maybe this will normalize pockets on dresses. And that’s a win for everyone.