Harry Styles: Defying Gender Roles, One Magazine at a Time

Written by: Chloe

Edited by: Megh

Graphics by: Allison

Gender fluidity is most definitely not a new idea in Hollywood– iconic figures like Prince, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury have sported non-gender-conforming sartorial choices in the past. However, last week, worldwide heartthrob Harry Styles made headlines as the first male cover artist on the cover of Vogue since the magazine’s first issue 128 years ago. Better yet, he rocks the front cover wearing a voluminous periwinkle saloon dress from Gucci’s AW20 Collection. 

Harry Styles first caught the collective attention of the music industry as part of pop boy band One Direction. One Direction seemingly took the world by storm, capturing the hearts of adoring fans all over the world. When they unfortunately split in 2015, Harry Styles began his solo music career, which was perhaps what paved the way for both his development as an artist and his evolving sense of self-expression. He has since subtly experimented with subverting male stereotypes through mediums like clothing on the red carpet, though nothing particularly as groundbreaking as this. 

Harry Styles’ Vogue cover was revolutionary in more than one sense. It brings to the fore the much-needed conversation about what masculinity truly means in 2020. Long established structures of gender roles, power, and privilege come into question when considering this. Essentially, in the traditional sense, masculinity was largely defined by machismo behaviours and chauvinism, with society often acting upon the idea that being a certain gender means embodying the traits commonly associated with the gender. For men, this was being strong, tough, and capable. Regardless of how strict its definition might’ve been at the time, our society continues to progress towards acceptance and inclusiveness. As such, notions of traditional masculinity begin to fade, allowing new forms of gender-expression to come into existence. Clothing seems to be one of the means used to spark this change. Gender has always dominated the way we dress; men are not to wear anything considered remotely ‘feminine’, including dresses, skirts, or high-heels so as to not ruin their manly image. The very image of Harry Styles going against everything conventionally “masculine” by wearing a long gown is representative of the growing exploration of fluidity in fashion– it tears down the firm, inflexible barriers that have existed for so long.   

Of course, this cover has been met with some criticism from celebrities. Candice Owens is a prominent conservative who had no qualms voicing her opinion.“There is no society that can survive without strong men,” Owens tweeted. “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.”  These kinds of comments depict exactly how debated and divisive nonbinary gender expression has become in our world today. Other forms of criticism say that it is simply not representative of gender fluidity. “No [because] why do people call Harry Styles a “genderfluid” and “non-binary” icon when he is a cis man?” Twitter user @f4iryhero tweets. “A man wearing a dress is not a “non-binary look”,  you just love feeding into harmful stereotypes.” According to many, there is a relevant double standard here that further constitutes the hypocritical nature of internet users— Jaden Smith is a popular icon who has been openly non-binary for years, and yet has been met with heavy judgement and constant mockery from the same internet that praises Styles’ bravery for gender fluid dressing. 

Despite the criticism, however plentiful, many have still been moved by Styles’ engagement in progressive developments and note that this is exactly what the world needs right now. Junior Yiyang says “When I have kids, I want them to know that they can express themselves however they feel. Harry Styles’ cover will hopefully set the stage for a society that is less scared of judgment from others. This is definitely a step in the right direction.” 

Whether you share the same sentiments or not, it can certainly be agreed that the cover is a significant historical milestone in tearing down the barriers of toxic masculinity and strict adherence to gender roles that will reduce the stigma of fluidity, leaving behind the blueprints for a better, more accepting future. After all, men are just as strong in dresses as they are in suits.