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Wearing a Dress Doesn’t Make Harry Styles Less of a Man

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Harry Styles made history as the first solo male to appear on the cover of Vogue. Donning a ruffled dress and blazer, Styles upset many right-wing conservatives with his “feminine” style cover; namely, conservative commentators Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro. 

Owens called the cover “an outright attack” on Western society, claiming that “the steady feminization of our men” is somehow linked to Marxism being taught to children. In Owens’ eyes, “no society can survive without strong men.” To her, Styles’ Vogue cover marked an attempt to weaken the men of ours.

But what actually constitutes a strong man? Is it the clothing he wears or how much he can bench press at the gym? Or is it the choices he makes, his values, or maybe a combination of everything? Owens’ view of a strong, “manly man” seems to be one who doesn’t appear on Vogue wearing a dress. However, strength and masculinity shouldn’t be defined simply by the clothes an individual wears. Nor should masculinity alone define a man. Masculinity shouldn’t be about fixed characteristics and limits. Although I agree with some traditional characteristics of masculinity, such as confidence and kindness, I don’t think that someone is less masculine if they don’t display every single trait. Nor do I think that physical traits and style have much to do with masculinity at all. In an ever-changing society, it’s impossible to set defining limits due to the evolution of gender roles.

Shapiro also weighed in with his opinion, not only supporting Owens’ claims but writing in a Twitter thread that “[t]he POINT of Styles doing this photo shoot is to feminize masculinity.” Yet Styles isn’t “feminizing” masculinity, he’s simply expressing it in his own way. Just because he’s not following the stereotypical gender norms of previous decades, doesn’t mean he’s any less masculine. Styles is doing and wearing what he wants in a confident and stylish way. Wearing a dress doesn’t change who he is as a person. Whether in a skirt or Gucci suit, Styles remains the same kind man in whatever he wears. In the same thread, Shapiro seems to contradict himself when he mocks the left in a tweet saying that the left openly says gender is socially constructed. However, he tweeted earlier that “boys are taught to be more masculine in virtually every human culture.” 

As expected, a number of fans and celebrities tweeted their support for Styles, some expressing that if Styles in a dress affects you this much, it’s more a problem about you than him. 

Others showed their support by sharing other examples of men in dresses or non-conventional masculine clothing, such as those from the 17th century or musicians from earlier decades. But Owens doubled down on her tweets, continuing to share her outdated views and claimed that “stable men do not wear ball gowns.” 

Just as this isn’t Styles’ first time breaking barriers in fashion, he also is not the first man to do so. Artists such as Elton John, Prince and David Bowie have been dressing without boundaries for decades, and they remain some of the most respected singers in the industry. Jaden Smith also wore a dress to his prom back in 2015, and has continued to show his love for skirts and dresses since. 

Men wearing “feminine” clothing isn’t new to society. In the 17th century and prior, men wore dresses and heels, often as a sign of privilege and power. It’s only in the more recent centuries that the “traditional” masculine and feminine roles in fashion have really been established. 

In recent years, Styles has become somewhat of a style icon, known for his high waisted pants and bold suits. In 2013, he won the British Style Award, and has since then become an ambassador for the luxury brand Gucci. This is hardly Styles’ first time branching out from “traditional” men’s fashion, as he’s also been known to wear sequin, colored nail polish and blouses. In his December Vogue Interview, Styles shared that “there’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes.” He mentioned liking to have fun and experiment with fashion, preferring to “play” rather than limit himself with “any barriers.” These choices don’t make him less of a man. He is simply reinventing what some may think of traditional masculinity.

Fashion is meant to be expressive. It allows individuals to love and feel confident in what they wear, and people like Owens or Shapiro shouldn’t have a say in how other people dress. Masculinity, unlike what some may think, is not only confined to the clothes you wear. It’s about you as a person, your behavior and more. If women can wear pantsuits and have it be labeled as “power suits,” why can’t men wear dresses?

Jacqueline Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2020 Fall Quarter. She can be reached at jacqunn4@uci.edu