Harry Styles is making headlines yet again. The reason? The launch of his new beauty line, Pleasing. It includes colored nail polish, a lip-and-eye serum, and a moisturizing primer, dubbed the Pearlescent Illuminating Serum. The products seem nice enough. Yet in reality, the brand’s appeal relies on it being gender-neutral. This aligns with Harry Styles’ fashion choices, famous for their subversive nature.
Indeed, much like his other magazine covers, Dazed’s November issue features Styles carelessly rocking garments traditionally meant for women. As a matter of fact, the singer’s whole image seems to revolve around breaking gender stereotypes through sartorial choices. Pleasing is part of that project, Styles himself stating that it looks to “dispel the myth of a binary existence”.
That all sounds very nice. A mainstream artist using his voice to highlight the artificial nature of the gender labels that clothes carry with them. Upon further reflection, however, the whole thing is not as simple as it seems.
The Value Behind Styles’ Challenge of Gender Norms
An Illusion of Novelty
Every time an image of Harry Styles wearing a dress springs up, the public seems to go nuts. He’s suddenly revolutionary; a glimpse into a future rid of gender norms. And that’s understandable. In other words, how often do you see a cisgender white man doing that? Well, you’d be surprised.
In the year 1970, David Bowie wore a dress for the cover of The Man Who Sold the World.
This was 51 years ago. Literally. So, a man wearing a dress? Not so innovative after all. Androgyny and genderless fashion did exist before Harry Styles, and they will continue to exist after him.
Nonetheless, things have not changed much in five decades. At least that’s what the public’s response to Styles’ 2019 Vogue cover suggests. Taking her thoughts to Twitter, Candace Owens infamously urged some unspecified entity—perhaps the heavens—to “bring back manly men”. All because the artist wore a blue dress for the shoot.
A Crisis of Masculinity
Perhaps such a reaction does not represent the general public, but it certainly stands for some of it. Here is some enlightening piece of history for you.
The emplacement of industrial capitalism, which began in the 19th century, led to gendered divisions of labor. Men were to go to work, women were to attend to the household.
And so it began, a construction of a strength, aggression-based masculinity, established vis-à-vis femininity. The emasculating nature of laboral hierarchies and automation only strengthened men’s need to perform masculinity—and completely reject femininity. Urbanization further intensified this process.
More recently, the rise of feminism and queer rights has led to paranoid claims of masculinity being under attack. Such unreasonable abstractions have themselves catalyzed the emergence of extremists such as Godse and Trump, “traditional” masculinity’s keepers.
That is to say, we are currently undergoing a crisis of masculinity. In an attempt to live up to impossibly high standards of toughness, men are bringing down the world with them. Men are not losing their masculinity but are rather shaping it to society’s detriment.
Harry Styles’ Fashion: A Model For A Liberated Man
Still, we are undeniably making some progress. And Harry Styles’ fashion is part of that. Yes, he might not be the first to appear before the world in his effeminate glory. But he’s spurring conversations about what men can and cannot be.
More specifically, he might be producing some flexibility for heterosexual men’s expression of masculinity. Styles’ answers to questions regarding his sexuality have been nothing short of cryptic. Yet his very public relationships with the likes of Taylor Swift make him at least straight-presenting. Hence, the singer represents an alternative model of masculinity to heterosexual men—as it is partly met with positive responses. It’s a significantly healthier model than the hegemonic one. It allows individuals to do as they please without having to worry about preserving their manliness.
But, as usual, things are a little more complicated than that.
What About The Non-White Queers?
The Privilege of Being Harry
Harry Styles’ fashion is not the first to differ from what is traditionally associated with masculinity. Nevertheless, it’s okay to celebrate those who go against the grain in hopes of making the Earth a better place. Painting him as the posterchild of genderless fashion is thus not precisely problematic because credit should be given to others.
Instead, it’s problematic because it prompts erasure. An economically and socially privileged, cisgender, straight-presenting, white man becomes the face of gender-neutral fashion. Fine. But what happens to those who don’t have the luck of retaining such privileges?
To Recognize Is A Step In the Right Direction
Following the publication of Styles’ 2019 Vogue cover, gender-non-conforming writer and artist Alok Vaid-Menon shared an enriching statement on Instagram. The activist pointed out that “trans femmes of color started this and […] are still dismissed as ‘too much’ or ‘too queer’.”
Hence, the issue is the asymmetric responses to different groups doing the same thing. People celebrate Harry Styles’ fashion because it is inherently subversive. But they disapprove of the effeminacy of non-cis, non-white, non-heteronormative people—those who have been working against anti-crossdressing legislation for decades.
In that, putting Styles on a pedestal and failing to recognize the generous contributions of queer people is downright unfair. That’s important to acknowledge and important to talk about. It does not undo the years of oppression non-white queers have faced globally. Yet recognizing their contribution to a better world is a step in the right direction.
We must recognize that society accepts difference only when disguised in a cloak of normalcy. This happens not only when it comes to gender issues, but also permeates discussions surrounding size-inclusivity and other topics.
Ultimately, there is no use in blaming Harry Styles’ fashion for it all. It is not the singer’s fault that he is on the cover of Vogue and Dazed. No need to victimize him. We should instead unpack the fashion industry’s fear of difference and anchorage in the gender binary. We should highlight it until it is so bright that those in power have no choice but to erase it.
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