Harry Styles: the dress, the backlash, and revised masculinity

By Alina Issakhanian

Vogue made history by featuring Harry Styles as its first-ever solo male cover star in last month’s issue. Styles wore a gown, sparking conversations about gender and masculinity. Although Styles is one of countless male artists and individuals to have explored the world of traditionally female clothing, especially recently, many are treating this cover and Styles’ fashion choices as an attack on masculinity. 

This criticism has even reached the world of politics with prominent conservatives Ben Shapiro and Candance Owens passionately voicing their disapproval while those like democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez praise the cover. Owens, an author, commentator, and political activist, took to Twitter to denounce Styles, coining the phrase “Bring back manly men,” continuing with “There is no society that can survive without strong men.”

As the backlash continued, Styles reclaimed Owens’ comment, posting a photo of himself on Instagram in a pleated blue suit eating a banana with the caption: “Bring back manly men.”

Shapiro, political commentator and media host, agreed with Owens’ attacks, sharing her adding her own tweet: “Left: ‘Hey, look how important and magical it is that Harry Styles is wearing a dress! He’s subversively undermining masculinity!’ Right: ‘Yes, men wearing dresses does undermine masculinity, and that’s bad.’ Left: ‘HOW DARE YOU SAY MEN WEARING DRESSES UNDERMINES MASCULINITY?!’”

Shapiro used this photoshoot as a way to blame “the Left” for treating masculinity as a threat to society and something that had to be urgently addressed. These commentators seem to believe that Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue would radicalize the public and completely demolish the idea of gender. 

This is not the first time Styles has played with fashion and expressed himself however he wishes.

“I’m not sprinkling in sexual ambiguity to be interesting. 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,” Styles said in an interview with the Guardian, defending his style choices.

Many celebrities, fans, and even politicians, like the previously mentioned Ocasio-Cortez, quickly came to Style’s defense. 

“It looks wonderful… Some people are mad at it because some folks are very sensitive to examining and exploring gender roles in society… Perhaps for some people it provokes some anger or insecurity around masculinity/femininity/etc. If it does, then maybe that’s part of the point. Sit with that reaction and think about it, examine it, explore it, engage it, and grow with it,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on her Instagram Story.

People were quick to notice, however, that Styles isn’t the first to wear a dress or accessorize with pearls. Many before him have expressed themselves through traditionally feminine fashion. Figures like Billy Porter, Prince, David Bowie, and many others have worn bright, colorful, elegant, traditionally feminine clothing and makeup in every decade. 

Evidently, Styles’ outfit choices are less of an attack on men and the fabric of society, and rather a person wearing whatever they want on a cover of Vogue, as they should be allowed to do. 

“It’s masculinity, reworked and reinvented, but by no means destroyed… Harry Styles is doing what he wants, shocking the old guard, and getting a few hearts racing in the process… For whatever reason, Shapiro and company might not aspire to the kind of masculinity. But they should. As should we all,” Jonathan Evans, style director of the Esquire, said. 

Harry Styles’ dress is not a threat to masculinity; it is simply an expression of who he is, as all clothing and fashion should be. Being forced into one side of the spectrum of fashion, simply because of gender, further dulls and digresses society. 

If it helps, think about it this way: why is it now socially acceptable for women to wear suits, traditionally made for menswear, but not for men to wear dresses? Believing that men should “look like men” and “act like men” proves that sexism is still relevant and harmful to men as well. 

Without any challenges to this kind of toxic mentality, it will continue to split society, pulling us further away from reaching unity and support for one another.