The gender binary stands as a feeble opponent for Harry Styles and his casual flair. Recent news has discussed his public appearance in couture dresses and skirts, enraging many as the definition of ‘manhood’ is in question. It seems, for many, that masculinity is so fragile that it is threatened by specific cuts and swaths of fabric. Despite its desperate need for a change of clothes, many fear for the sanctity of manliness as Styles reminds us that men can wear dresses, too. The sake of true manhood depends on this reminder; otherwise, it provides a guise of superiority inspired by sexism and colonialism.
Styles’s recent shoot with Vogue placed him as the first solo male to grace the magazine’s cover, a surprising title to earn in the midst of famous predecessors like David Bowie and Prince, to name a couple. Since his emergence as Ziggy Stardust in the ‘70s, Bowie could not suffer the containment of gendered labels. He breached the boundaries set within fashion, reconstructing it with personal, technicolor flair. The same must be said of Prince, who would not compromise his style when he performed as a Black man in tight bikini bottoms before a disapproving Rolling Stones crowd in 1981. His flamboyant clothing and impenetrable swagger exist as an immortal staple of pop culture now. In no way is Styles in a dress revolutionary, but his actions make use of an idolized position to normalize free expression, or, at least, denormalize the dirty-fingernails-and-cargo-shorts image of the common man.
Bowie and Prince passed without taking questions or deference, and the world moved aside to catch a glimpse of their unique splendor. Unfortunately, that’s where our perceptions of celebrities faced misconstrued conclusions and left toxic masculinity within their respective times, more or less, to its own devices. While their styles of dress captivated the public eye, they seemed to earn a place as a minor exception. Granted, the two received harsh backlash in regards to their perceived association with the LGBTQIA+ community. Society had yet to promote the rights of many gender non-conforming individuals, leaving larger-than-life celebrities to serve as icons for the work put forth by the LGBTQIA+ community.
Since 2016, young artist Jaden Smith has adorned himself in the feminine and the masculine, intentionally digging his heels into the heart of toxic masculinity and providing a safe space for those he has defined as “the girl that wants to be a tomboy or the boy that wants to wear a skirt.” Despite the grating interference of criticism, Smith later launched a gender-neutral clothing line and increased potential for future generations to represent themselves without limitations cast by the gender binary.
A few years later, Styles commented on society’s progression, claiming that “many borders are falling — in fashion, but also in music, films and art.” And as these borders tumble, various forms of entertainment are freed from cookie cutter representations of an extinct society that still upholds the distinctions between masculinity and femininity.
Of course, for those like Candace Owens, these borders keep the U.S. safe and free from the promotion of Marxism and equal status. Owens pays an obvious tribute to the oppressive birth and continuance of our nation as she responds to Styles’ fashion choices on Twitter, condemning “the steady feminization of our men.” In the same series of tweets, Owens likens men in feminine clothing to a weakening country, claiming that “There is no society that can survive without strong men.” Here, Owens demonstrates a clear understanding of hegemonic masculinity, which not only supports males in dominant positions and females in subservient ones, but also instills a hierarchy amongst men themselves, effectively making manhood a monolithic lifestyle. This idea that a single, well-defined “manhood” guarantees power has infiltrated a plethora of cultures through imperialism and White supremacy.
Styles spoke on modern day society, stating, “I don’t think people are still looking for this gender differentiation. Even if the masculine and feminine exist, their limits are subject to a game.” A careful look at the history of colonization and the forceful institution of the gender binary might agree with Styles’s point, but the “game” involves more than a roll of a dice. Instead, we can look upon the meticulous decimation of respect for the hijra in India, gender non-conforming individuals who were once looked upon for blessings and revered as they upheld religious importance. The British occupation of India utilized this subversion of traditional gender roles to prove the country promoted scandalous ideals if not corrected by a European presence. Today, the hijra, once sacred, exist as outcasts.
In the U.S., the gender binary has protected the right to oppress. Over a hundred Indigenous tribes recognized those of “two spirits,” an umbrella term for gender non-conforming individuals, but the forceful attendance of residential schools mutated cultural acceptance to reflect the Western power structures. Essentially, these structures organized around the prominence of White, heterosexual males. This explains the hypersexualization of Black people in the USA. Black men often suffered beneath the comparison to animals on the basis of their genitalia, while Black women were judged for every curve of their bodies. Groups outside of the White population suffered from layered confines attempting to justify their oppression.
Clothes do not speak or act, yet the way we dress will place us within hierarchical systems if we allow it. Harry Styles wore a dress on the cover of Vogue, while many have done the same on the streets and died for it. I look at Styles in his skirts and petticoats and I remember these individuals, wishing they had lived to see the day that a dress was only a dress, nothing more.
Feature Image: Courtesy of Vogue Magazine / Twitter