Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

Is Harry Styles' Vogue Cover Revolutionary?

We adore Harry Styles, plain and simple. Between his musical talent, his status as a fashion icon, and his charming personality, the man can do no wrong. In the latest December edition of Vogue, Styles drew global attention, not so much because he was the first man to ever appear on the cover solo, but because he did so wearing Gucci AW2020’s periwinkle saloon dress. 

Those that follow Styles know it best: the man increasingly takes fashion risks in his ever-evolving sense of style. His days in One Direction featured classic boy band attire: skinny jeans and low v-neck shirts. Now as a solo artist, he has consciously transitioned into a style of his own. Between painted nails, makeup, dresses, pearl necklaces, high-waisted flare pants, sheer blouses, and floral printed suits, Styles does not make his fashion choices within the limits drawn by normative masculinity. As he puts it, “Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with.”

The Vogue photoshoot, lensed by notable Black photographer Tyler Mitchell, embodied this creative curiosity. The singer was styled in an array of dresses, kilts, crinolines, trench coats, cable-knit sweaters, and colorful overcoats, with whimsical backdrops evoking a free and open mood. He posed stoically, making the overall shoot more complex, as flat emotional energy was juxtaposed against playful, eye-grabbing pieces. 

In the accompanying interview with Vogue writer Hamish Bowles, Styles paid recognition to his fashion choices, saying:

What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away. 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.

However, not everyone has accepted the shift away from binary notions of gender expression demonstrated in the photoshoot. Outspoken conservative author Candace Owens shared some of her thoughts on his fashion choices, tweeting:

There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.

Unsurprisingly, this tweet initiated some debate on social media, and multiple celebrities and fans proceeded to show out in support of Styles. 

Olivia Wilde, actress and director of the upcoming film Don’t Worry Darling starring Styles, responded on Twitter in defense of the cover and Styles’ fashion choices. She said to Vogue, “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.” As one of the most prominent male musical artists of this time, his  dismissal of the norms surrounding masculinity is inspiring to many in expressing themselves without notions of gender norms—whatever that may look like. 

However, Styles cannot take all of the limelight as countless Black male artists—particularly those within the LGBTQ community—have also challenged gender norms without the same recognition. No one is saying that Styles is the first man to ever break the molds of gender norms, but within the space of social media, he is often put on a pedestal for his unconventional style. He is certainly deserving, but it must be questioned why Black artists aren’t receiving the same attention or appreciation that Styles is as a white, heterosexual male artist. Artists like Lil Nas X, Steve Lacy, Frank Ocean, Keiynan Lonsdale, Asap Rocky, and Jaden Smith, and even older artists like Prince and Lenny Kravitz, have taken similar strides. Actor Billy Porter has notoriously shown up to red carpets in extravagant and powerful dresses. These individuals are deserving of just as much mainstream praise as Styles is for their influential style choices.

Some LGBTQ+ folks expressed mixed feelings on the Vogue cover. Writer Alok Vaid-Menon wrote on their Instagram:

Am I happy to see Harry be celebrated for openly flouting gendered fashion norms? Yes. Do trans femmes of color receive praise for doing the same thing every day? No. Do I think this is a sign of progress of society's evolution away from binary gender? Yes. Do I think that white men should be upheld as the face of gender-neutral fashion? No.

Expressions of non-binary fashion, specifically put forth by those of color, aren’t seen as digestible for the common public, which could explain why Styles received such disproportionate attention. 

Styles’ cover is revolutionary to some extent, but we have to use a critical lens to understand why his expressions of gender fluidity have been deemed more acceptable than others'. This critique shouldn’t necessarily be focused on Styles himself, but rather upon Vogue and beauty industries at large who uphold these constructs of gender norms. Why hasn’t Vogue featured as many transgender people of color as they have white, cisgender models? Why are people so willing to back up Styles’ digressions from gender norms but not similar expressions from actual members of the LGBTQ+ community? 

Psych major, painter who doesn't know how to paint, and lover of all things Harry Styles