In the December issue of Vogue, Harry Styles was the first male to be featured solo on the cover. His presence alone was a statement, but he made his debut even more memorable by wearing a fluffy blue dress with a black blazer on top. Fans of the artist encouraged his androgenous flair that seemed to exclaim ‘clothing doesn’t have a gender.’ “Harry Styles Dress” and “Harry Styles” continued to trend on Twitter as his admirers celebrated his bold fashion choice. A dissenting group, however, took to the media to condemn him for demasculinizing men. What neither side seems to realize is that, when it comes to fashion, the articles of clothing are truly just fabric. Once you take away the gender connotations that have been, seemingly arbitrarily, applied to clothing, they are simply just pieces of patterned cloth stitched together. The backlash for Styles’ fashion choice is not directed at the dress, but at the femininity society has decided it symbolizes. The fact that some men and women think that masculinity is threatened by Styles’ personal decision to wear a dress shows that we have not come as far as we may have thought in terms of gender equality.
Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, two dissenting voices and popular conservative political commentators, spent Nov. 16, a few days after the release of the magazine, tag-teaming with one another in their Twitter rants of outrage towards Harry Styles’ dress. Owens worried that “there is no society that cannot survive without strong men” and demanded that we “bring back the manly man.” Shapiro said the act “undermined masculinity which is bad.” The irony, especially in Owens’ case, deserves further examination.
One Twitter user pointed out the fact that she has worn pantsuits, a fashionable item of clothing that was deemed masculine for a long time. Why did Owens felt that it was appropriate to wear a pantsuit, but inappropriate for a man to wear a dress? Why is it dangerous territory for men getting in touch with their feminine side, but a symbol of strength to wear a suit? The fact that a man dressing like a woman is damaging to society says more about how some people still view women as lower than men in society. Owens is insinuating that the dress weakens Styles by bringing him to the level of a woman. This should not be an insult, but a compliment. To argue otherwise minimizes female strength.
It is unfortunate to see that women must continue to appear masculine in order to be seen as powerful and that men are not to dress like women at the danger of appearing weak. This is not a new phenomenon. In ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut, a female Pharaoh, ordered physical depictions of her to look masculine, complete with a beard and large muscles. Over the centuries, women engaged in a long battle to wear pants. Women wearing pants is celebrated because it symbolizes the liberation of women from being confined to working in their homes.
Now Owens, an outspoken black female conservative, is wearing a pantsuit. This is celebrated, as her clothing defies stereotypes while she is immersed in politics, a primarily male-dominated arena. What should not be celebrated, however, is her projection of self-deprecation towards her own sex. A woman in a pantsuit who feels strong enough to tell a man in a dress that he is weak is not progressive.
The reaction towards Styles’ cover is a reminder that our nation is not ready to let go of traditional gender roles. Owens and Shapiro’s comments may appear insignificant, but this feeling of anger towards the dissipation of gender norms has manifested itself into violence towards the LGBTQ+ community. In 2020, the majority of fatal attacks on the transgender community have been on men who have transitioned into women and are then murdered by men. It appears that society is, as Owens suspected, not ready to give up the “manly man.” What many do not recognize is that the slow acceptance of intermixing fashion between genders erases a minor norm that has nothing to do with the biological sex of an individual. Rather, it is strictly associated with the labels and norms we, as a society, have assigned to articles of clothing. Additionally, we have the power to make dresses as powerful as a camo suit and a gun. We also have the power to take gender constructs out of clothing and observe it as a simple choice of self-expression. As we increase equality of the sexes, this will happen much more often. To conservatives, this is terrifying, but for those who have felt confined in the constructs society has built for them, this is liberating.
Wearing this dress was exactly that for Styles: a liberating fashion choice. He said that it was more about creativity and that he was inspired by other artists that took risks, like Prince and David Bowie. Hollywood is known for being a step ahead on progressivism. When questioned on his choice, he said, “I’m not just 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.” And that is what I hope fashion can one day be: a reflection of a society in which both sexes resemble strength.
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