Harry Styles Is Rewriting The Rules Of Masculinity On His Terms

Harry and co’s enthusiasm for frills and flamboyance is far from superficial, says Guy Pewsey – it’s changing what it means to be a man.

Harry Styles

by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

When Harry Styles first arrived on the music scene in 2010, aged only 16, the X Factor machine presented him and his fellow One Direction members as the perfect boyband. It was all about blazers, slogan T-shirts and skinny jeans, making them the ideal objects of female teenage lust. Less than a decade later, though, Harry has joined the charge in the new masculinity revolution. Just look at the December cover of Vogue:

In May of last year, the annual Met Gala took place in New York, bringing together the world’s most fashionable and famous. The theme was Camp. Stars paced a pink carpet. Lady Gaga offered three reveals. Cara Delevingne was a Skittle-hued rainbow. Katy Perry was, well, a burger. But, for the first time since I can remember, the night belonged to the men.

Jared Leto carried a replica of his own head. A corseted Ezra Miller adorned his face with lifelike eyes. Pose star Billy Porter was resplendent and winged in gold. Harry, who co-hosted, wore sheer Gucci – a look that alerted many men to a change in the tide. Harry – along with actors Billy, Ezra and Timothée Chalamet – is rewriting the rules of masculinity on his own terms.

Some of those doing so are more overt than others. If the division between male and female dressing is an invisible, sociologically constructed line, then Timothée veers close to it, in his sparkling Louis Vuitton hoodies and almost futuristic suits. Ezra straddles it, mixing pieces and looks in a way that screams of the irrelevance of dressing in terms of male or female. Billy, however, steps over it with ease – and in heels. His Christian Siriano tuxedo dress was the scene-stealer of last year’s Oscars. Harry, perhaps, lies in the middle, an ambassador for expressing oneself through fashion.

Clothes are, admittedly, not exactly the dominant feature of his latest video, for Lights Out. The scene in which he writhes amid a crowd of seemingly naked men and women has grabbed the headlines more than the outfits he wears beforehand. But the pieces – by Gucci, Lazoschmidl and designer Harris Reed – nevertheless make an impression.

For Harris, Harry was the perfect poster boy for their inclusive, gender-fluid designs. ‘Being someone who identifies as gender fluid, I’ve always seen it as important to put as much of myself into the work as inspiration,’ says Harris, who prefers the pronoun ‘they’. ‘I don’t think a man or a woman, someone who identifies as non- binary, or anywhere on the spectrum, has to dress in a certain way. I like the playfulness, the flounciness, of flares and billowy sleeves. I want to redefine the way we look at, say, a man who goes to work in asuitandawomanwhogoestoworkina skirt. Why can’t you wear a fabulous sheer kaftan, or a pirate blouse? People should be able to express who they are.

We believe in a world where our customer has the total freedom to be themselves, without judgement.

Harry, Ezra et al have their predecessors, of course. Men throughout history – from Victorian drag queens Fanny and Stella, to David Bowie, Prince, Liberace and Elton John – have explored androgynous, flamboyant looks in their time. But there has been a definite shift. As recently as 2014, rapper Kid Cudi was mocked by some when he wore a crop top at his Coachella set. By 2019, the same piece was a fixture – for both men and women – on the festival circuit.

Designer brands like Dries Van Noten, Needles and Sies Marjan have led the charge, with their influence rippling through to the high street. A quick search through the menswear section on ASOS unearths crop tops, sequinne shirts and playsuits (one of which I wore to Glastonbury this year, paired with a platformed gladiator sandal and a Gucci belt). James Lawrence, ASOS menswear’s head of design, is pleased to have met the growing demand by working with artists like Swae Lee on a style edit, and stocking brands like Collusion, who believe clothes should celebrate self-expression and inclusivity. ‘Our audience is wonderfully unique’, he explains. ‘We believe in a world where our customer has the total freedom to be themselves, without judgement. We encourage our audience to be brave and experiment with fashion.’

But while this re-evaluation of menswear is interlinked with the queer community, it’s not about sexuality. Pharrell Williams, the cover star of this month’s USGQ in an almost Disney princess-like coat by Moncler Pierpaolo Piccioli, as well as Timothée, are among the heterosexual men who wish to explore themselves through style – proving that women find many different versions of masculinity extremely sexy. And only this month saw Scaredy Kat’s debut inRuPaul’s Drag Race UK as the first competitor in the franchise’s history to have a girlfriend back home. At last, people seem to be waking up to the fact that the height of a heel, the flash of a sequin or simply a touch of pink are of no correlation to virility or to what we have come to know as masculinity.

It’s about opposition. Billy Porter has said his looks are meant to provoke. ‘My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up,’ Billy has said. ‘To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean?Women show up every day in pants, but the minute a man wears a dress, the seas part. Harris Reed, who began this exploration at a young age after coming out to their family, feels it’s political. ‘With everything going on in the world, to be creating something beautiful or pretty isn’t enough,’ says Harris. ‘It needs to be something that makes people question the status quo.’

It is, after all, wholly unsurprising that the men leading this charge down the red carpets are all in the creative industries. The change in approach is less evident in sport. Back in 1998, David Beckham was pilloried for donning a sarong and, on other occasions, an Alice band. More recently, Lewis Hamilton shared a video of himself telling his four-year-old nephew: ‘Boys don’t wear princess dresses.’ He later apologised.

The frontiers are being explored, then, but they have yet to be conquered. There is clearly a latent discomfort in the hearts of some with how others are choosing to portray themselves – even at Glastonbury, I was faced with incidents of homophobia relating to my own outfit of choice.

And if you need more proof of the barriers still in place, then see last week’s Home Office figures, which showed a 37% increase year-on-year in hate crimes against trans people recorded by police. Expressing your true self can still be dangerous.

I say thank God for Harry, and for those of his ilk. He is telling men that they can wear what they want to wear, delve into themselves and pin their hearts firmly on their sleeves. It may seem small, but it is truly life changing. And that is why I will keep wearing my playsuits, or whatever I want, with pride.

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