For those who don't know, pop music is one of my biggest guilty pleasures. I enjoy it immensely. Judge me if you dare. And as the pop aficionado that I am, I've been fascinated by the importance of costume and fashion in the pop world when it comes to constructing an artist's aesthetic and charging it with meaning (consciously or unconsciously). Like, really obsessed.
As everything I'm obsessed with tends to end up dissected here in this blog, I thought it would be fun to step out of my usual box and go down this rabbit hole and play around for a bit. That is why today, for the first time ever, I'm going to be turning my analytical eye away from movies and direct it to the way pop stars use clothing to create and project their own personal ethos and worldview, as artists, to the world.
Keep in mind that this is new ground for me. Please don’t hate me, but I like to shake things up from time to time.
Also, this will need a lot of disclaimers, so let's get the really important one out of the way.
DISCLAIMER NUMBER 1 FROM YOURS TRULY
I think, this time around, it's essential to remind ourselves that in this arena of discourse we are not talking about fictional characters but actual real human people. Accordingly, let's all try to be respectful and keep the unnecessary judgmental comments away. I'm not going to comment on who they are as human beings because, unfortunately, I do not know them personally.
What I'll be doing is analyzing how they use clothes and design to let us know who they are as performers and to make their own statement about the world around them. Accordingly, I will not be looking at anything they've worn while in private and will take into consideration only performance clothes, photoshoots, album art, video clips, etc.
This is, above all, a way to look at the power of clothes when it comes to building an image and underlining a message.
With that said, in our first and sort of test-run venture into this new enterprise, I'll be looking at the always glamourous and very British Mr. Harry Styles.
A QUICK RECAP FOR THE UNIFORMED
Formerly one of the five members of British-Irish boyband One Direction, Harry Styles (born in Holmes Chapel, near Manchester, in 1994) is a pop/rock performer with two very successful solo albums under his belt.
In case you are curious, go listen to his music on Spotify.
IT'S A FINE LINE
Art, be it music, movies, photography, fashion..., is a great way to make statements. About what? Everything! About life, politics, love, sexuality, gender, economics...
But what about mere entertainment. Neutrality does exist! Well, not making a statement is in itself a statement of conformity with the status quo. So, no. There's really no such thing as being neutral.
But weren't we going to talk about pop? Yes, precisely. Statements made by mainstream artists are very relevant to look at because everyone gets to see them.
And what's that had to do with Style's fashion choices? Well, he's always been a bit of a fashion aficionado, there's no denying that. But he has taken that love for clothing to the next level since his foray into solo music. And he has deeply interwoven his own personal aesthetic with wider ideas, clearly making a statement.
A statement about what? Well, mainly, about gender. About how we perceive gender and how socially constructed it is. Basically, what his fashion choices are doing for him is asking an honest question: what is feminine and what's masculine? Where is the line? Is there a line?
DISCLAIMER NUMBER 2 FROM YOURS TRULY
I am very much aware that he isn't the only male artist currently challenging gender norms through fashion. There are also people like Ezra Miller, Orville Peck and particularly, there are a lot of black artists who do it and who receive considerably less praise, such as Lil Nas X or Billy Porter.
And that's even before we consider the fact that he is clearly inspired and builds on the legacy of legendary artists before him, such as David Bowie, Prince, or Elton John. All of whom were serial provocateurs and insisted on blurring that line also through their fashion choices.
So, he isn't the only one doing it and he isn't the first either. I know. And you should too. That's important to remember.
So why are you talking about him? Because currently, he is one of the international artists with a higher public profile doing this, which means his message reaches a lot of people. His efforts are also particularly effective because they carry a lot of shock value for the general public for who he is and particularly for where he comes from. He became famous as a member of a boyband where he was sold as the "womanizer", the "sex symbol", so it feels particularly brazen and bold when he decides to chuck all that out of the window and chooses to redefine his image beyond that (even if sticking to his already build image would have been a safer choice). It carries weight because it feels as if he's, in a sense, reclaiming himself.
That's what resonates with me. If that's not the case with you, I understand.
This isn't intended to discredit, diminish or belittle the work all of these other artists I mentioned are doing. It's just as worth it. This is not something only one artist can do. Actually, the more the better. I don't want him to be the only one. I don't want anybody to be the only one doing this. I want as many men as possible challenging what it is to "dress like men".
IT STARTED WITH A GUCCI SUIT
After years of what one might consider pretty standard boy bander fashion choices, Styles, encouraged by his friend and stylist Harry Lambert, showed up at the 2015 AMAs wearing a white floral print suit with flared pants and visually clashing with the standard dark suits of his bandmates.
He had always been "the fashionista" in the group, pushing for extreme skinny jeans, headscarves, silk shirts... But up until that moment, nothing had felt too much for his audience. That suit did.
That Gucci floral suit became meme fodder almost immediately and was considered his "worst look to date" by many teen outlets.
Like it or hate it (I personally adore it), it felt and read like a clear statement. The floral print and the flared pants (typically feminine elements), juxtaposed on a suit (a typically masculine piece of clothing) seemed a revealing choice. A break from "safe fashion" and a promise of "bold, fun, crazy fashion". It was the end of something and the beginning of something else.
Two years later, when he took his first record on the road, he made Gucci printed suits his signature look but also added more brazen elements such as pussy-bow shirts, see-through materials, and bold colors.
He took that very idea that had made that first Gucci suit so criticized and made it his whole signature look. He took the ultimate masculine garment (the suit) and covered it and attached to it traditionally female signifiers. It was retro and generally elegant with the odd push towards extravagant, but it was different from anything the other white males in the industry were doing and it called attention to itself. It clearly was nudging towards something more and pointed at the direction his public image would take.
HARRY AND HARRIS
While his continued collaboration with Gucci has pretty much defined his style, the collaboration with Harris Reed feels even more revealing. The young genderfluid British-American Designer has created outfits for Styles on three occasions, and these collaborations have been particularly cherished and nurtured by the singer.
Reed, plucked right from Central Saint Martins while still a student by Harry Lambert, first collaborated with Styles during his 2017-2018 World Solo Tour by creating for the singer a few ensembles of lamé ruffled blouses and flares. All flowing fabrics, ruffles, and frills, the pieces were something to behold in movement.
Fluidity and movement have been, ever since, a staple of the singer's fashion. So Harris clearly struck a chord with Harry and managed to capture something that resonated with the singer. If you ever doubted he was looking to make a statement with his clothing, his willingness to collaborate with Harris quickly dissipates all doubts.
“I made it clear from the beginning that I am someone who needs meaning to be behind everything I do and that my designs are not just clothes, but an extension of who I am and what I stand for. (...) Harry knew it was never just about the clothes; it was about the message and the story they could inhabit and spark. It made me think about what we’re always told as children: boys have to wear this and girls should wear that. When someone that millions of people look up to wears something a bit out of the norm, it shows the youth that it’s ok to wear whatever you want, and it doesn’t have to say you are something or someone besides that you feel like the truest version of you!" Explained Harris Reed for this Vogue interview.
It was that shared belief in a fashion beyond gender expectations that powered a second collaboration between the singer and the young designer. That message seemed important enough for Styles to expressly request Harris design one of the centerpieces for the video clip for the first single of his second album, released in October 2019.
Alone, on a stage, with a bright light on him, Harry appears wearing Reed's design. This blue silk moire two-piece design is something else. The delicate fabric of the see-through undershirt, the cut, and the belt that accentuate and emphasize the waist... it's using traditionally female elements and ideas and reframing them to work on a male body.
"I'm not just designing a black T-shirt or a simple pair of trousers, I am making a statement" claims Reed, yet again.
A crystal clear statement that becomes even more obvious on their last collaboration this past December, which happened to be for Styles' stunning Vogue photoshoot.
We'll talk extensively about the Vogue photoshoot later, but let's just say that all of Harris Reed's ideas about fashion not having a gender are deeply ingrained in the essence of this look.
It's romantic, dramatic, exuberant, and very tongue-in-cheek. It's a repudiation of masculinity as the taste for "simplicity". It takes the greatest representation of gendered clothes (the suit for men and the big princess skirt for women) and mixes them together, exaggerates it, and makes, once more, quite the statement.
“I don’t just make clothes. If you want pretty clothes, you need to go to someone else,” Reed says poignantly in another interview for Vogue “I fight for the beauty of fluidity. I fight for a more opulent and accepting world. That is really important to me.”
THE TURNING POINT
Looking back, it's easy to spot the moment Styles gained enough confidence to fully explore those ideas he so clearly shares with Reed truly out in the public eye.
For the whole of his first album publicity circuit, he kept his propensity for flamboyance quite toned down. His suits were colorful and patterned, but still quite elegant and masculine. This posed quite the contrast with his outfits for his tour, where he knew everyone attending were fans, thus less prone to judgment.
This changed in May 2019, when he co-hosted the annual Met Gala with Gucci's Alessandro Michele, Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, and Anna Wintour. That night he arrived at the Gala accompanied by Michele (who also happened to be the designer for Styles' outfit) sporting a black organza blouse with a lace jabot and extremely high-waisted pants accessorized with his usual set of rings, painted nails, and a single pearl-drop earing.
This modernized version of a dandified Elizabethan courtier was shocking to many people who hadn't been following his solo career closely and delves into many of the ideas he would later explore with Reed: it's a pointedly obvious mixture of masculine and feminine that speaks for itself.
“[It was about] taking traditionally feminine elements like the frills, heeled boots, sheer fabric, and the pearl earring, but then rephrasing them as masculine pieces set against the high-waisted tailored trousers and his tattoos. Camp, but still Harry”, explained Harry Lambert in an interview.
But, as Lambert pointed out, the night's theme was Camp, and many people assumed his outfit was more of a result of that (even if it was a tad too elegant to be truly Camp) than any personal desire to turn his public image towards that path. They would soon be proved wrong with the release of his second album seven months later.
IT'S A FINE LINE
The aesthetics for that second album were, from the very beginning (considering the cover art as the very beginning, as one should) louder and bolder than the general aesthetics for his first album. The silhouette was more artificial, the colors more saturated and the whole feel more experimental. Women's gloves and hats, high-waisted pants with Micky Mouse buttons, pastel colors... the overall feel was very retro, but also feminine.
And, though not really a part of the fashion, it is worth pointing out that the cover art for the album, when boiled down to the color palette used, basically consists of the trans flag colors (pink, blue, and white).
A lot of people have called it "overanalyzing it" or "simply accidental", but it feels pretty intentional. Also, if this is just a coincidence, they should fire the entire design team that did this. First and foremost, no concept artist will use the colors of any flag in such a prominent way without meaning to do so. Secondly, if for any reason they did, there is a whole team of managers that would kindly point it out, because it is in their job description to keep their clients from accidentally supporting a cause they don't mean to.
Also, it's not like Harry himself is unfamiliar with what the trans flag looks like or what colors integrate it.
Just to be clear: am I saying he is trans? No. I can't know and I won't speculate either. For me, the reading comes as a general statement of the artificiality of the social understatement of gender and a promise to embrace freedom in gender performance. Something that he started clearly doing through his fashion choices, even if timidly, a long time ago.
That idea of playing with gender norms relating to clothes and thus blurring the lines (because it's a fine line, just like the album says) between the feminine and masculine in personal presentation is best captured in this image that was released of a deleted scene from the music video of his first single for the album: Light's Up.
Here you see multiple "Harrys" all dressed in a spectrum of clothes that all represent him despite the difference in styles: you have the glittery jumpsuit, the sexy suit, the boxer outfit, the ballerina, an oversized sheer lace dress... It's all him, from the more traditionally masculine looks to the absolutely feminine ones. It's his interpretation of gender and its multiple facets all captured into an image. A clear statement if there ever was one: my gender doesn't limit me or restrict me to a set of clothes.
In his own words in an interview for The Face: “What’s feminine and what’s masculine, what men are wearing and what women are wearing – it’s like there are no lines anymore.”
The fashion choices for the whole publicity campaign for the album and its subsequent photoshoots, performances, and interviews would make it obvious that this stance on fashion (and gender by extension) was not to be abandoned anytime soon but a conscious and thorough decision of leaning into that image of gender-bending fluidity.
A repeated symbol of that intent of ignoring gendered fashion has come in the form of his now-iconic pearl necklace, with he has worn repeatedly through most of late 2019 and 2020.
That single strand of pearls is a symbol of adult womanhood if there ever was one. A man wearing it is appropriating a gender signifier and giving it a new meaning. Sure, he wears it because he likes it, but it works as a loud signal of his own personal understatement of himself and how he wants to be seen.
This brings me to the idea of visibility, which to me, is the clear difference between his first and second album regarding personal aesthetics. You don't need to make that much of an effort to see it.
Simply look at the cover art for his homonymous first album: naked, hunched on himself with his back to the camera and his face hidden. Now, look at the cover art for Fine Line: a photo of himself where you can see all of him, flamboyantly posing and playfully looking straight at the camera.
Similarly, he went from only dressing flamboyantly on tour or fan events, to inundate the internet with exuberant photoshoots with loud fashion choices and a clear message: look at me, this is me, all of me.
This idea, "all of me", is beautifully explored in the photo shoot he did for the magazine Beauty Papers.
Here, the use of fishnets, a typically female and highly sexualized item, juxtaposed with a straight t-shirt and underwear, arguably a rather masculine look, captures this duality within him.
COVER BOY, YOU BETTER WORK IT
Having established himself in the public consciousness as someone who doesn't restrict himself to gender norms when it comes to fashion in the extraordinarily brief period of a year, his crowning moment came when Vogue decided to place him as 2020's December cover.
This was relevant because he was the first man to have a Vogue cover all to himself. All the previous men who had graced the cover of the prestigious fashion magazine had done it as the arm candy of their very famous supermodel partners, never alone.
This is due mainly to the fact that, socially, fashion is perceived as a female interest, and to be associated with it, as a man, has had rather unfortunate and bigoted connotations.
So his presence on the cover was a milestone in itself, which paired with his chosen ensemble, became a firestorm of both positive and negative attention, but solidified his ethos and aesthetics as a performer.
The photoshoot was accompanied by a rather thorough interview where Styles himself clearly outlined his view on gender norms regarding clothing: “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. It’s like anything—anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself.”
That playfulness is also an essential part of his personal brand as a performer, and it is commendable that he is so willing to apply it to an area where most men are too terrified to even try.
Also important to note is that though the Vogue cover might have been a shock to many, wearing dresses, for Styles, is nothing new.
Several images have circulated amongst fan blogs and fan accounts where he dons such feminine garments before. The main difference lies in the outlets these were published on and their limited reach to the mainstream public.
From left to right, the first one is from a Polaroid Book celebrating his first tour and mainly aimed at fan consumption, the second one is from the shooting of the Light's Up music video and was posted on social media (so you would only see it if you already followed him), the third one was from a photoshoot for Weekend Magazine but was not the cover, which meant that it was mainly seen only by fans, and the last one was taken for his appearance on Saturday Night Live, which meant that most people took it as a joke from the get-go.
Basically, he wasn't doing anything different for the Vogue cover, he simply was placing his statement on gender and fashion front and center on a media big enough for everyone to see.
So really, his style has not as much evolved as blossomed. His is the story of a performer gaining confidence in his own understanding of his own self-image and revealing it to the public.
The rest of the Vogue photoshoot is just as gender-bending as the cover, populated with numerous skirts and high-fashion ensembles courtesy of Gucci's Alessandro Michele. But the main controversy and discussion focused around the blue dress of the cover photo.
The thing is that he is not the first musician to wear a dress. Both Mike Jagger and Kurt Cobain, to name a few, had done it before. Yet conservative pundits lit up the internet over Styles' Vogue Cover fashion choice in vitriolic reactions.
Society, for quite a long time, has followed a set of socially created rules that dictate what men and women do and look like and the deviations from those rules are either inherently funny, a moral perversion, or, more often than not, both.
It goes both ways, but it is more problematic for men, because historically if a man wears something that is "meant" for women, he is less than and worthy of ridicule. He has been effectively emasculated. We have misogyny and sexism to blame for that one.
That translates into a lot of performers doing it for shock value or "sticking a middle finger to the establishment", Which is how many people tend to read Jaggers and Kobain's use of the dress. And that's a valid use of it.
The thing with Styles' use of the dress is that it reads differently. It reads as an honest choice. As someone who simply enjoys a frilly dress and who likes pretty clothes regardless of what gender those were intended for.
This, for most conservatives already having a meltdown over their culture war against transgender rights, feels like an attack on the very pillars of masculinity and the idea of gender itself.
This change of perspective, shifting the intention from "sticking a middle finger to the establishment" to "I just like it" shifts the final message of the fashion choice. The statement shifts from "fuck you" to "it's ok for men to wear a dress". A "fuck you" is extremely easy to ignore, but an honest endorsement is a wrecking ball to their belief system.
And yet, he is also not the first man to wear a dress in such a manner in recent years. So why are conservatives essentially more threatened by the image of Harry Styles in a dress than the image of, say, Billy Porter in a dress?
The answer is quite short but no less unfortunate: it's racism.
While it is true that there has been a backlash to these men as well, it has not been as publicized or as visible. Unfortunately, that is down to the fact that these conservative hacks, in their racist mindset, are convinced that there is no way a man of color can have any real effect on the values of "decent" men (by which they mean white men). On the other hand, Styles, a white celebrity and performer with legions of fans is a more dangerous element to have around for them.
That is, of course, a load of bullshit, but it is important to understand their thought-process to understand their lash outs. Also, to make fun of them and ridicule them. Which is exactly what Styles did.
DOUBLING DOWN ON THE MESSAGE
Shortly after the Vogue cover and its substantial backlash, he was named Hitmaker of the Year by Variety. Consequently, they ran a piece about him with its accompanying photoshoot. The day the article came out, Styles posted one of the photoshoot images (the most irreverent one at that) accompanied by Candice Owens' own words: "Bring back manly men".
You have to take into account that Styles is rather hermetic and private. He is someone who never comments on any gossip or public discourse around himself. He is someone who only uses social media to share official music-related news. So it is telling that he chose, on this particular occasion, to answer back (even if it was in a rather mocking tone) and do it publicly. To me, this shows that this was a topic important enough for him to double down on his initial stance.
Also, the irreverence of the fruit involved is just so funny to me. It feels targeted to annoy and I'm here for it.
On more serious matters, notice how, once more, it all goes back to the use of baby blue and pink, just like in the album cover. It's a clear visual call back to society's gender binary. It's taking the concepts of femininity and masculinity and underlying them as fluid entities that can coexist regardless of gender. In his own words: “To not wear [something] because it’s females’ clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes.”
DISCLAIMER NUMBER 3 FROM YOURS TRULY
Before we wrap this up, I feel it is important to clarify something essential in this conversation. A lot of people have accused Styles of doing "this" (dressing however he wants) to call attention to himself and to gain access to the LGBTQ+ market. Basically, he has been repeatedly accused of queerbaiting.
And the thing is, the term queerbaiting does not apply to real life. It is a team used regarding works of fiction where an author hast total control to choose a sexuality/gender identity for a character and he chooses to imply a character queerness while also explicitly stating that he is cis and heterosexual.
That cannot be applied to real people. Real people don't have that level of control over their sexuality or gender identity. You don't get to choose it. And whilst you can choose to stay closeted, it is not the same. In real life, people stay closeted for a multitude of reasons, one chief amongst it is that the world is still pretty bigoted. So there are real-life consequences in the decision between staying in or out of the closet. Consequences that do not exist in fiction.
These accusations have translated into a lot of: "if he is gay, he should just come out, otherwise it just means he is a straight man making us think he is gay to gain support". And while I understand the sentiment, it is problematic on a whole other level.
First and foremost, I refuse to assume anyone's sexuality unless explicitly stated by said person. Seeing as he has not done that (sexuality being a topic he avoids like the plague) I refuse to engage in that conversation.
Secondly, to assume someone's sexuality by how they dress or behave is also kind of iffy. Don't do it.
Or if you do it at least don't be judgemental about whether they should be in or out of the closet. Everyone's reasons to be in the closet are different and everyone's situation in life (family, work, etc) are different.
Last but not least, no artist gains anything by "queerbaiting". The support an artist gains for calling out to and supporting the queer community immediately means a loss of substantial support on the conservative side of the marked and even on certain centrist sectors. The truth is, that most artists who openly support the LGBT+ community do it because they think it is the right thing to do. After all, it is far rarer to see Lady Gaga or Madonna accused of queerbaiting.
THANK YOU FOR COMING TO MY TED TALK!
The inescapable truth is that we live in a very visual society and, because of it, an artist tells us who he is and what he stands for as a musician and performer (and himself to an extent) not only through his music but also, and very importantly, through his image, which is substantially crafted through his fashion choices.
Harry Styles poignant fashion choices, besides being fabulous, manage all this quite brilliantly. They highlight his energy, extravagance, exuberance, and pure joy that he brings to the stage as a performer. They reflect his approach to creative work: try what you like and what makes you happy. As he said in his Vogue interview: “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 here where his creative influences are most noticeable: “You can never be overdressed. There’s no such thing. The people that I looked up to in music—Prince and David Bowie and Elvis and Freddie Mercury and Elton John—they’re such showmen. As a kid it was completely mind-blowing. Now I’ll put on something that feels really flamboyant, and I don’t feel crazy wearing it. I think if you get something that you feel amazing in, it’s like a superhero outfit. Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with."
But it goes beyond that, those same choices are also looking to make a statement on manhood as a fluid concept. Its manhood as delicate, as feminine, and as strength through vulnerability. Most of all, it's manhood as whatever you feel comfortable with.
In his own words: “What women wear. What men wear. For me it’s not a question of that. If I see a nice shirt and get told, ‘But it’s for ladies.’ I think: ‘Okaaaay? Doesn’t make me want to wear it less though.’ I think the moment you feel more comfortable with yourself, it all becomes a lot easier.”
At the end of the day, this is an important message to be out there. And it is important to normalize men and women dressing outside the gender norms. This will only be achieved through visibility and repetition. And that is the reason why it is important that big, well-known figures in the public eye feel comfortable enough to do it. They can bring widespread visibility and spread the word to people that might not be very politically engaged in the first place.
“POP Culture is where the pedagogy is. It’s where the learning is.”
- Bell Hooks -
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