On Friday 13th November 2020, Harry Styles appeared as the first solo male cover of Vogue, flaunting a Gucci gown and a tuxedo jacket, as well as his usual signature style of knits, tailored trousers and ruffled shirts. Following this, Styles has been praised for being revolutionary and a pioneer of gender-neutral clothing. Similarly, he’s been faced with criticism from the likes of Piers Morgan and Candace Owens claiming the sight of a man in a dress is ‘weird’ and ‘not manly’, which illustrates how society still views men expressing femininity as abnormal. But is Styles worthy of all this praise, or is it further feeding into the phenomenon of straight white men in dresses and blurring the same narrative for people of colour and queer people?
Styles has also been praised for attending red carpet events also dawning gender-neutral outfits that defy fashion norms expected in masculinity. Last year Styles attended the ‘Notes on Camp’ Met Gala wearing an organza blouse, a string of pearls and painted nails, a look that gained a lot of traction for breaking stereotypical masculine moulds for fashion. However, Billy Porter, an openly queer black actor and singer attended the 2019 Oscars in a velvet tuxedo gown, which is arguably pushing more boundaries than Styles’ attempt. It could be said that a typically masculine man in stereotypically feminine clothes pushes more boundaries than a queer man doing the same.
Yet, it seems as though white celebrities hold precedence over this trailblazing trend. Moreover, Pharrell Williams appeared on the November 2019 cover of GQ, styled in a dress below the title ‘The New Masculinity’. However, Williams’ cover didn’t receive as much media attention as Styles for a similar cover. For example, The Guardian heralded Styles as a gender-neutral icon, followed by similar reports in PinkNews, Billboard and countless posts on Instagram which further praised Styles. Furthermore, in the GQ article, Williams discusses his gender identity and relationship with masculinity, which could illustrate how the dress he flaunts on the cover feeds into this narrative of self-acceptance and his own personal growth. Likewise, the notion of toxic masculinity within the black community is fraught and many black men find it hard to express their femininity. This is further highlighted by the criticisms of Candace Owens towards Styles’ cover.
Following Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year, it begs the question of why Vogue didn’t choose to shoot a black artist for their historic first solo male cover. For example, the cover could have easily featured Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator or Lil Nas, all black artists who have been open about their sexuality and become celebratory figures for queer people of colour. It could be argued that seeing one of these artists on the face of Vogue would have been more ground-breaking as it celebrates queerness, people of colour and the destruction of gender roles.
Additionally, racism and colourism has long been an issue in high fashion, especially on the covers of Vogue. According to a study done by The Pudding, it found that only 3 out of 81 cover stars of Vogue were black between 2000 and 2005, though this information is now dated, and Vogue has slighted improved. Nevertheless, there is still a huge misrepresentation of black models — as many of the black models that were featured were light skinned and reminiscent of Eurocentric beauty standards, leaving dark skinned models completely misrepresented. This problem was so large that it inspired ‘The Vogue Challenge’ which went viral across social media platforms in May this year. The challenge celebrated black beauty on reimagined covers of Vogue and further represented the lack of black models in high fashion.
To conclude, although Harry Styles being featured as the first solo male cover of Vogue in a dress was revolutionary and historic, he should not be labelled as the pioneer of gender-neutral clothing and single handily destructing toxic masculinity. Additionally, though it is important to celebrate publicly straight men for embracing their femininity and for this to be presented in the public eye. However, it could also allude to the erasure of the queer and black individuals who have fought so hard for this to be accepted in a modern society. Arguably, in many ways, the choice to feature Harry Styles on the cover of Vogue styled in feminine clothing feeds into the idea of white men in dresses being revolutionary, as there is a lack of representation and coverage of people of colour doing the same. Therefore, we should celebrate Harry Styles for not conforming to gender norms, particularly for straight men, while simultaneously celebrating this, we must remember it is the systemic failing of high fashion magazines which have excluded the pioneers of gender-neutral clothing and fed their mainstream audience a false narrative.