by Katie Brownlee
“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”
“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,” says Olivia WildePlaytime With Harry Styles
BY HAMISH BOWLES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TYLER MITCHELL
STYLED BY CAMILLA NICKERSON
November 13, 2020
The backlash that has evolved since Vogue released their December issue, featuring the acclaimed singer Harry Styles wearing a gorgeous blue ruffled, periwinkle Edwardian- Esque gown really begs the question: are we really as evolved a society as we claim to be or are we still swamped in a post-war world that heavily focuses on gender norms, roles and stereotypes?
Post War Britain hammered the ideals for women and men alike. The reason being? To ensure men obtain employment and women devalue themselves back into a domestic setting as housewives, or if there is a slight chance of gaining employment, lowly office roles as assistants and typists – this being so that there is large room for a masculine presence and representation in the industry. Industry, which for the most part of the war years was commanded by women. You’ve seen the old advertisements and the rhetoric before; even now ‘That’s why MUMS go to Iceland’. Why just ‘mums’?
Long gone are the days of androgyny amongst artists of the 70s; David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Annie Lennox come to mind. Their style seemed a unique form to express emotion in music and a complete rebuke to mid-20th-century views of gender. 40, nearly 50 years on we still face the same obstacles of conservative thought. The tension on social media that I’ve seen telling Styles to ‘man up’, ‘grow some balls’ and so on so forth reinforces the cisgender stereotypes expected of men – toxic masculinity is a state of mind is it not so? It seems the only issue those had from Styles featuring on the cover was his lack of displaying his masculine attributes. Styles boldly made the choice to feature on the cover wearing that dress. For the reason of fashion and expressing his own style – which has proved too ‘modern’ and ‘obscure’ for conservative minds.
The image of Styles donning the gorgeous dress does depict a representation of the modernity of gender-fluidity and non-binary dressing. Looking at the image myself, I feel inclined to dote on Styles and his bravery – yet, what is it about a cisgender man wearing a dress that makes this a brave act? Is it brave because he has put himself in the firing line for right-wing champs? Conservative voices have flooded the media in rejection of Styles’ cover such as Candace Owens tweeting ‘bring back manly men’, illustrating the scope of toxic masculinity in our society.
Why there is such outrage at this seemingly fashionable move from Styles, we can only guess at. However, there is an urgent need for us to rebuke old fashioned post-war ideals of masculinity, femininity and gender in our society. There is no doubt that this is a generational disagreement. His cover has been attacked by the same concept installed by Post War children of ‘snowflakes’ that prods our generation whenever we move against outdated, traditional acts of our prescribed gender. As a straight, cisgender white woman about to enter my second decade, I have nothing opposing me other than my prescribed gender role. I ascribe to my gender by presenting myself as feminine and obtaining feminine features, which is entirely acceptable in the eyes of modern society. Styles’ act is a representation of empowerment not only amongst the LGBTQ+ community but also an act of empowerment amongst cisgender men such as himself to make bold choices without fear of being patronised or extinguished from older tropes of the generations before us that leads the voice of toxic masculinity. Born in 2001, I still remember the phrases ‘boys will be boys’ ‘boys don’t cry’ ‘you cry like a girl’ floating around my family members mouths at tea time. This attitude, I’ve come to realise in my late teens is severely damaging.
In an age of such development and social flux in the rejection of centuries of social norms, it seems that the outrage caused by a man wearing a dress for a magazine does not depict the ideals of post-war society, but embodies the Victorian stereotype of gender. We are still Victorian.
Whereas the recognised icons, Bowie, Mercury and Lennox had their share of comments on their outfit choices, the language of their music and their appearance, still TODAY, Styles is a subject of those comments. Why? Because our society is still in the mindset of endorsing what has been developed as traditional and condemning what is not. If we are more concerned with the methods of which Styles chooses to express his personal identity and style, and less concerned about the messages of love and resilience in his music then toxic masculinity wins.
Young men and women alike embrace the rap language of Post Malone instructing them on how he will ‘put that bitch pussy in a motherfucking body bag’ ( lyrics Over Now) rather than Styles’ message of ‘treat people with kindness’ ( lyrics TPWK). Toxic masculinity exists in the same scope of sexual assault and sexual violence – begging men to ascribe to these roles of macho, hyper-masculine qualities will lead to further inequality. I wonder if Post Malone is the ‘manly man’ Candace Owens and Rob Shapiro alike beg for our society rather than Styles and his Gucci dress.