The outrage at Harry Styles wearing a dress says as much about misogyny as masculinity

Right-wing America got its Y-fronts in a twist this week when Harry Styles wore a dress on the front cover of Vogue. This isn’t just a klaxon for the queer community but for cisgender women too.


“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.”

When Harry Styles talked about his sartorial preferences with the Guardian Weekend in 2019, the accompanying photoshoot saw him wearing a Comme de Garçons maxi dress over a ruffled shirt. So far, so Styles and Europe batted not an eyelash. Not so in America last week, where conservative mouthpieces were outraged by the sight of him in a Gucci frock on the cover of US Vogue. Pass the smelling salts, man!



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Let’s be clear. Harry Styles isn’t the first male superstar to wear women’s clothes. From Elizabethan actors and pantomime dames to David Bowie and Mick Jagger in the 1970s, to Kurt Cobain donning a fetching blue tea dress on the September 1993 cover of The Face magazine, to more recent gender-benders Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry, Styles isn’t exactly blazing a trail here. Even Jesus swanned around in a kaftan and beads.

But that conservatives are still getting their Y-fronts in a twist about playful cross-dressing is deeply disturbing and speaks only of their individual insecurities. The human race will categorically not be destroyed by men wearing dresses any more than Scots have been emasculated by the kilt or North African and Middle Eastern guys by the Arabic thawb.

Fashion is not the exclusive reserve of women and never has been. In Persia, it was men who wore high heels, which were later popularised by the 17th-century aristocracy in Europe. Throw in powdered pompadour wigs and garish makeup and the sartorial difference between men and women couldn’t be more narrow. And throughout history, it wasn’t just the Girl with the Pearl Earring, but gentlemen too. 

 

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Moreover, look at any Top of the Pops footage from the 1970s and 1980s, and men’s fashion was startlingly flamboyant compared to today. Think Freddie Mercury, Boy George, Elton John, Marilyn, Pete Burns, various glam- and poodle-rockers and, across the Atlantic, Prince and various r‘n’b acts giving it socks in lamé unitards. In contrast, can you imagine Lewis Capaldi in a crinoline? Bieber in a bustier? Jay-Z in a jumpsuit? Times have changed and not for the better.

‘Athena Man’ in the 1980s may have introduced a “softer” presentation of masculinity – or, in common parlance, a dad being interested in his own kid – while in the 1990s, Cobain was as comfortable with guyliner as crowdsurfing. But the ‘New Man’ ideology was a false start. Metrosexuals and ubersexuals have been and gone but apparently no amount of manscaping can compete with the peak shock of a bloke donning a gusset-free piece of clothing commonly worn by the sisterhood. 

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Honestly, if your masculinity is so under threat by Mr Styles in dress, you might want to grow some actual balls. A "cock in a frock" (to borrow a phrase from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) will not destroy us. But toxic masculinity might, if it’s not called out and put into some damned perspective. Does Ben Shapiro and his ilk not know there’s a global health crisis going on? Oh, wait. Maybe they think coronavirus is a hoax…

 

Kurt Cobain understood the subversive power of cross-dressing, donning frocks and skirts for photoshoots and gigs in the 1990s. “There’s nothing more comfortable than a cosy flower pattern,” he once told Melody Maker magazine

But while journalists are reporting on this perceived "threat" to the world order by Styles in a ballgown, no one has mentioned how insulting this is to cisgender women. Because if Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens truly believe that the “feminisation” of men negates their innate “strength” – as much a construct as masculinity itself – then it puts women back in their fairer-sex box and throws away the key. It’s saying that to identify as a woman is the most demeaning thing that could ever happen to a man, or indeed, to a human. Because women are lesser. 

Ian McEwan made the point perfectly in his 1978 novel The Cement Garden that later became a 1993 film starring Charlotte Gainsbourg (and that Madonna sampled in her 2000 single What It Feels Like for a Girl).

“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading”

This observation also echoed by Iggy Pop, a man whose bedposts are so notched and is so comfortable in his heterosexuality that he’s constantly getting his sculpted torso out. A few years ago, Pop was photographed in Mikael Jansson’s art book wearing a cocktail frock and holding a handbag. Beside the portrait he proudly proclaims: “I’m not ashamed to dress ‘like a woman’ because I don’t think it’s shameful to be a woman.”

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Iggy Pop photographed by Mikael Jansson for the New York Times' T magazine, 2011

That anyone is still genuinely upset about clothes swapping, 21 years after the tabloids went into a frenzy over David Beckham’s sarong, isn’t something us liberals can afford to scoff at. It needs to be taken seriously. As we’ve seen in US politics, human rights become insidiously eroded when leaders enable hate in their fanbase.

For every RuPaul’s Drag Race giving a platform for the LGBT community or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to remind women to never get complacent, is a demographic actively lobbying to reduce your human rights, police what you wear, what you do. It may be a shouty minority of scaredy-cat binary-thinkers but their ripple effect should not be underestimated. It’s how America came to elect a reality show host as its commander in chief.  

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, goes the adage, and Vogue going viral meant stock sold out on the same day of release (I know this because I tried and failed to order it online, ahem). But it’s a sad week for us all when a man in a dress is sharing the same column inches as a global health crisis and a corrupt president who believes in a fraudulent voting system while advocating fraudulent voting systems.

Today is International Men’s Day, an oxymoron for some. But the truth is that men account for 80 per cent of all suicides globally, with the 45 to 54-year-old age group at highest risk. It’s not a huge leap to consider that feeling unable to express oneself might be key to this; the complex and often conflicting expectations of ‘being a man’.

Women have had many, many centuries to fight oppression, and cultural evolution is historically long and slow – much more so than institutional change. Men, on the other hand, have had mere decades to grapple with the revolutionary idea that maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to be the breadwinner after all, that they can share childcare and domestic duties, cry in public and sure, feck it, throw on a ballgown when the need arises.

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Styles – or any other man – has nothing to be ashamed of by expressing themselves through clothes, unlike right-wing party-poopers who have everything to be ashamed of by dispensing unsolicited hate on social media. One person’s harmless fun, ie fashion, is another’s weaponisation. 

Even in contexts when clothes are intended as transgressive, what we wear should always be secondary to how we behave. And behaving like an angry, white privileged alpha male is never a good look. Harry Styles is a handsome, bright and kind talent who men want to be and women – men, animal, vegetable and mineral – want to be with.

Can Ben Shapiro say the same? I know which mode of masculinity I prefer.

Featured image: Harry Styles photographed Tyler Mitchell via Vogue Instagram


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