Harry Styles is Dominating the Gender-Neutral Fashion World- But He’s Not the First One

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One of music’s most iconic faces, Harry Styles, graced the cover of American ​Vogue​ and made history this December, becoming the first male ever to have a solo cover - all while in a dress. The iconic cover and fashion spread, shot by Tyler Mitchell, featured many stereotypically feminine garments from Gucci, JW Anderson, Chopova Lowena, and Bode. Styles has been no stranger to wearing dresses and more feminine styles, including a pussy bow blouse and tulle for the Met Gala, and frills and dresses for ​The Guardian​. However, this shoot with ​Vogue​ blew up the internet with mixed reactions.

Since the start of his boyband days, Styles experimented with different looks. However, it wasn’t until he met stylist and friend, Harry Lambert, that he grew more comfortable with varying styles.

In the interview accompanying the shoot he said, “...Now I’ll put on something that feels really flamboyant, and I don’t feel crazy wearing it. I think if you get something that you feel amazing in, it’s like a superhero outfit. Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with. What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away.”

He talked about how when he was younger he looked up to Prince, David Bowie, Elvis, Freddie Mercury and Elton John, all who have experimented with more “feminine” clothing throughout their music careers.

He continued, “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. I’ll go in shops sometimes, and I just find myself looking at the women’s clothes thinking they’re amazing. It’s like anything—anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself. 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.”

Many conservative public figures viewed this shoot with a bad taste in their mouth. Candace Owens, a proud conservative author, commentator, and political activist, saw this shoot as an attack on masculinity.

She tweeted, “There is no society that can survive without strong men....bring back manly men.” This quote had instantly become an internet meme and even challenged Styles to comment, to which he posted a photo to his Instagram dressed in ruffles with the caption “Bring back manly men.”

There has been a history of men in many different countries who viewed typical “feminine” clothing as manly and a notion of wealth. Looking back in European history, men had a long history wearing heels. According to ​Teen Vogue​, the higher the heel the higher your status. Persian migrants brought the shoe trend to Europe, where male aristocrats wore them to appear taller and more formidable. It showed manual labor was not possible in those heels and therefore a visual status of wealth. All over the world, dresses are worn by both men and women, including togas, dragon robes, and shuka cloths.

Unfortunately, comments like this from conservative parties promote gender stereotypes and instill fear in others, especially trans and nonbianry people.

Gen Z, who has found to be one of the most accepting generations, came to his defense. According to ​WWD​, Gen Z quotes wanting a ​world without borders, boundaries and binaries, and shoots like this in mainstream media is only the beginning.

Olivia Wilde, one of Styles’ admirers defended, “​I hope that this brand of confidence as a male that Harry has—truly devoid of any traces of toxic masculinity—is indicative of his generation and therefore the future of the world. I think he is in many ways championing that, spearheading that. It’s pretty powerful and kind of extraordinary to see someone in his position redefining what it can mean to be a man with confidence.”

Covers like this help normalize the idea of gender neutral clothing by showing that all clothing is gender neutral. However, some people in the LGBTQ+ community feel that it glorifies and fetishizes queer culture.

Fran Tirado, ​Out​ deputy editor, told ​Teen Vogue,​ “Queer and trans people, who have really only been ushered into the mainstream in last 50 years, have now become a demo that brands can check boxes on.” He quotes this as being an “ugly consequence of being publicly recognized” and unfortunately boils queer culture to just be consumerable.

MI Leggett, the designer behind genderless clothing brand Official Rebrand, commented to Teen Vogue​ as well saying this erases many aspects of queer history.

“The brands generally don’t depict the tragically low life-expectancy of Black trans women being 35. They don’t depict higher rates of homelessness, depression or suicide. They mostly depict cis or cis-passing queers who look happy, clean, and affluent. These are not truly inclusive or intersectional representations.”

Many people also find criticism that Styles is doing “the bare minimum” and getting praise for the clothing he wears, especially as a famous, attractive, and straight passing individual. However, many people forget that Styles has commented on his change in style in regards to him coming to terms with his sexual identity.

In an interview with ​The Guardian​, he said “...Am I sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting? No. In terms of how I wanna dress, and what the album sleeve’s gonna be, I tend to make decisions in terms of collaborators I want to work with. I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool. And more than that, I dunno, I just think sexuality’s something that’s fun. Honestly? I can’t say I’ve given it any more thought than that.”

Others find Styles under scrutiny for the fact that Bowie, Prince, Elton John, Little Richard, Kurt Cobain, and more have done this before and had not received the same treatment. Nirvana’s influence on fashion and style is no secret- including when Kurt Cobain wore a dress on the cover of ​The Face​ magazine. David Bowie has been quoted as being the first mainstream music star to bring gender-bending fashion to the center stage.

Although this concept has been around for centuries, Styles is not the first-- or last-- man to embrace feminine wear. Even though it’s a step in the right direction towards normalizing gender-neutral dressing and encouraging embracing one’s gender expression, there is still a long way to go in terms of normalizing this concept so it won’t be such a controversial debate.