Some said Harry Styles’ Vogue cover wasn’t ‘manly’. Now, his revenge

Article by Melissa Singer /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
December 3, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

Why is Harry Styles trending? When is he not?

True, but what’s this about a dress and a banana? The 26-year-old Watermelon Sugar singer and former One Direction frontman, has clapped back at right-wing commentators who rounded on his appearance in a magazine spread wearing … a Gucci dress.

How does the banana fit in? In his response, which came three weeks after the initial salvo, Styles posted a photo of himself from a just-released story in Variety magazine in which he’s wearing a frilly suit and eating a banana, with the tongue-in-cheek caption: “Bring back manly men.”

Take me back to when this became a thing. Sure. Last month, Styles became the first man to appear solo on the cover of US Vogue, which is edited by Anna Wintour, who has had her own diversity troubles of late. The fashion world was enraptured but some critics, including right-wing commentator and author Candace Owens, decided it was too effeminate. She tweeted her outrage at the “steady feminisation of our men” and a call to “Bring back manly men”.

Who is Candace Owens? The 31-year-old started out as a vehement opponent of Donald Trump and the Republican Party but has been steadily coming around to their causes, including playing down the severity of the coronavirus and expressing criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement (Owens herself is Black). It just so happens that when she made the initial comments about Styles, she had a new book out.

Are we seriously having the “girls” clothes and “boys” clothes argument again? It seems so, which is kind of ridiculous when the US is still reporting record numbers of COVID-19 cases each day.

Clearly the conservative movement has bigger issues than a pop singer. Isn’t it funny how in many ways theVogue cover of Styles, which most agree shows a man owning his masculinity, contrasts with images of President Donald Trump, in his uniform of ill-fitting suit or golfing shirt, a man who has a long record of weaponising his? The University of Melbourne’s Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who teaches about gender and sexuality, says the story plays into the hands of conservatives’ narrow, binary gender norms that leave little room for “any fluidity or ambiguity”. “For detractors, this is testimony to the crisis of masculinity and the supposed emasculation of men in contemporary societies,” she says.

One, two, three, four. I declare a gender war. Indeed. But as so-called “tough guys” have been showing us since Marlon Brando casually slipped on Eva Marie Saint’s glove as a courting gesture in 1954’s On the Waterfront, wearing “women’s” clothing needn’t carry judgments about masculinity or femininity. Or is Owens suggesting Brando wasn’t “manly”, too?

So how did Owens’ spray against Styles go down? About as well as you can imagine. A ton of celebrities condemned Owens’ stance, including Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and actress Jameela Jamil, who pointed out that men wore heels and dresses as far back as the 16th century. Of course, Styles follows a long list of male (and female) celebrities who have subverted gendered stereotypes about dress: David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain, Boy George, and so on. And one cheeky tweeter pointed out that if Owens has such issues with men wearing a dress, why then is she such a frequent wearer of pant suits? As my colleague, Samantha Selinger-Morris helpfully pointed out, we shouldn’t be worried about men in dresses; we should be worried about men dressing up in Nazi costumes or blackface.

Though not everyone rushed out to buy Vogue. Some transgender advocates took issue not with the cover but the applause that was seemingly heaped on Styles for wearing a dress. Being an outwardly straight, white man, trans advocates argued that Styles can doff the dress and go back to his normal (read: privileged) life, without having to suffer the discrimination, harassment and even violence regularly experienced by transgender people, especially trans people of colour.

Who had the last word? In his interview in Variety, Styles alluded to the spat with Owens by saying: “To not wear [something] because it’s females’ clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes. And I think what’s exciting about right now is you can wear what you like. It doesn’t have to be X or Y. Those lines are becoming more and more blurred.”

The whole thing reminds me of that 1980s’ book, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. And yet, here we are. I wonder if Candace Owens’ husband, George Farmer, likes quiche?