For the second time now, a dress has broken the internet.
Specifically, a dress worn by Harry Styles for Vogue. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Twitter, few people actually read the recent Styles profile, in which the singer—the first solo male Vogue cover star in over 100 years—talked about literature, music, philosophy, and friendship. Instead, the conversation focused on aesthetics: in the artwork that accompanied the piece, Styles as decked in an array of Gucci womenswear. Again, this should come as no surprise; Styles took part in a genderless fragrance campaign for Gucci last year, and has always experimented with his personal fashion.
But while a great many fans applauded how he looked, others seemed to take personal offence.
Conservative pundits in particular zeroed in on the way Vogue’s Camilla Nickerson had styled the musician, and interpreted the high fashion photo-shoot as being some kind of liberal attack on “manly men” and traditional gender roles, the latest volley in the culture wars. Which begs the question: if their vision of society can be brought crumbling down by something as simple as a man wearing a dress, what does that say about them?
Of course, this speaks to an issue much bigger than Harry Styles. In the aftermath of the US presidential election, many far-right commentators are angry and determined to keep espousing their out-dated views on gender and sexuality, even if it’s clear that the internet (and the electoral college) doesn’t necessarily want to hear them. It wouldn’t be the first time conservative talking heads have politicized pop culture and its depictions of gender roles; the WAP discourse is still fresh in our minds.
But why does Harry Styles wearing a dress even matter? It’s been more than 30 years since David Bowie did the exact same thing, so he’s hardly breaking the mould. And shouldn’t have society evolved since then? If anything, the largely positive response to the photo shoot offers hope to anybody who has been thinking of becoming more fluid in their own gender expression. And it should provide some food for thought to the rest of us.
If one of your male colleagues showed up to work wearing a skirt, how would you react? It might be surprising at first, but really, is it that big a deal? After all, there are very few instances where somebody’s choice in clothes would have an impact on their ability to do their job.
Fashion is an important means of self-expression, but this is about more than just clothes. LGBTQ+ people regularly face criticism and abuse, even in 2020, with trans people’s right to exist in public life constantly brought up as a talking point or question of debate in our media.
If a more open-minded, come-as-you-are attitude were embraced by more workplaces, then perhaps more trans and nonbinary individuals would feel able to be their truest selves at the office. It might sound silly, but Styles’ Vogue cover may play a role in this, by helping to normalise the idea that a man can wear a dress. Because you sure don’t see people losing their minds every time a woman wears a suit.
In the Vogue profile, Styles summed up his own approach to fashion, saying: “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something.”
If it’s not that deep to the person wearing the outfit, then perhaps it shouldn’t become such a topic of outrage for anyone else. And besides: he looks great.