Challenging the Norm: What Men Wear

With new beginnings and expectations for a better future, the rings signaling the start of 2021 bring to the forefront many milestones achieved this past year despite the devastating pandemic. “Vogue”, in particular, has had quite the December. The magazine has been the talk of the town since the former One Direction member, Harry Styles, came through as the first ever solo male on the fashion magazine’s front cover. Eyebrows were raised and heads turned when the 26 year old singer was clicked in a “frothy, lace-trimmed creation, paired here with a double-breasted tuxedo jacket “as crafted by Alessandro Michele. To put it crudely, Styles broke the internet for having posed in a dress; but it is more than just that.

Conventionally termed a ‘women garb’, the move called for, on one hand, applause for the gender bending choice of clothes and, on the other, criticism for the feminisation of men. Let’s break the debate down.  

Gender bending fashion, while not Styles’s creation, is certainly an expression of his personality. Known as being “fashion forward” during his boyband days, he wore a sheer, pussy-bow blouse and a women’s Marc Jacobs for the 2020 Brit Awards red carpet with his nails painted lavender and even stripped down to fishnets for a shoot in Beauty Papers magazine in March, 2020.  To put it in his words fashion is “fun”. His opinion on the differences between the traditional Men vs Women wear are further made clear in his interview for Vogue, where he is quoted saying,  “Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with. 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.”

The twitterati too were abuzz, with multiple tweets supporting Harry and calling for a change in the perception of masculinity. For actress and filmmaker, Olivia Wilde “…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. I think he is in many ways championing that, spearheading that. It’s pretty powerful and kind of extraordinary to see someone in his position redefining what it can mean to be a man with confidence.”

On the other end of the spectrum, however, conservatives also were running amok on social media, angry at the “sheer audacity” of “men in frocks”. Candance Owens, an American conservative author, commentator, and political activist, who had started the thread against Styles, faced the backlash of the LGBTQIA+ community, with her post stating, “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.” She was met with an equally presumptuous comment by the likes of conservative American political commentator, Ben Shapiro, who wrote on Twitter in response to the Vogue cover, “This is perfectly obvious. Anyone who pretends that it is not a referendum on masculinity for men to don floofy dresses is treating you as a full-on idiot.”

Amongst the hate and the love, a distinction can be made in the mentalities of either side of the argument. The significance of Styles’ photoshoot can perhaps only be downplayed by the ignorant. Of course, that is not to say he is the first. Icons like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury alongside the new age celebrities such as Jaden Smith, Jared Leto, Conchita Wurst and Billy Porter have been breaking boundaries and transcending the “socially acceptable.” After all, it is high time to embrace the fluidity that comes packed in any piece of fashion. 

Having said that, it must, be noted that while it is becoming the trend, albeit slowly, for cisgender white males to challenge the norms there is still a long way to go when it comes to the same rules being flouted by transgender people.  Alok Vaid-Menon, A gender-nonconforming artist having spoken out about the troublesome praise being heaped on Styles, penned on their viral Instagram post. “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. It’s a curious thing this: holding space for joy, while also insisting on a more expansive form of freedom. (…) Our aesthetics make it to mainstream, but not our bodies. We are still dismissed as ‘too much’ and ‘too queer’ because we aren’t palatable enough to whiteness and heteronormativity,”

While the Vogue December issue has been much of a sell-out success with outlets adding fans on waitlists at stores across the country, waiting to get their hands on the issue, one does find themselves agreeing somewhat to the Insider journalist, Rachel Askinasi as she writes “The way I see it is that Vogue chose to sit in the most comfortable nook of an uncomfortable conversation.”

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