Vogue recently announced that Harry Styles would be their next cover star, simultaneously becoming the first male to ever feature solo in their 128 year history. However, the excitement of this news was quickly terminated with political commentator Candance Owens tweeting, “the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.” Where some find Harry Styles’ fashion to be a pivotal shift in men’s fashion and masculinity, conservative commentary has quickly piled in to rerun a culture war that harks back to the 1970s.
Firstly, it needs to be brought to attention that men wearing dresses is not a new phenomenon, especially in pop culture. In a similar vein to Harry Styles, David Bowie is notorious for his fashion choices that blurred the lines of androgyny and femininity. Stars like Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz are also infamous for their fashion that confronted traditional gender conventions. The same can also be said for men in contemporary pop culture today, including Jaden Smith, Yungblud and Billy Porter. If men wearing dresses or dressing in a way that is not traditionally ‘masculine’ has been happening for decades, this begs the question as to why Harry Styles wearing a blue floor-length Gucci gown has ignited such outrage. Harry Styles has notoriously made stereotypically ‘feminine’ fashion a strong part of his own brand – longer hair, pearls, painted nails – which leads one to contemplate why a dress was a step too far.
One could argue that Vogue is a women’s fashion magazine, thus it should be focused on challenging the archetypes of women’s fashion and beauty such as women dressing androgynously and the normalisation of women not wearing makeup, choosing not to wear a bra and body hair. Nevertheless, this still does not explain the conversation catalysed by the image of Harry Styles in a dress. Having previously covered famous pop culture magazines, logically there is no obvious reason that Harry Styles wearing a dress should have upset large numbers of people.
Although, it has to be acknowledged that Owens is openly conservative in her values. It therefore comes as no surprise that she finds comfort in tradition and sees anything that strays from the “manly” man threatening. For some, this concern is perhaps intensified by the image of ‘feminised’ men on the cover of a magazine that is inherently regarded as a pillar of the fashion industry. In which case, we can assume that if Harry was wearing a dress on a magazine that did not carry the reputation of Vogue, maybe Candance Owens would not regard it as an “outright attack.”
However, I believe there is a deeper reason for the cultural upset. It is no secret that society has inherently shaped boys and men to refrain from engaging in the ‘feminine,’ whether that be the stigma of phrases such as ‘real men don’t cry’ or wearing the colour pink. There is something about being confronted with the image of a strong, wealthy, white man – who is at the peak of the societal food chain – choosing to entertain traits that do not align with the typical conventions that deeply upsets the patriarchal society we live in.
At first this may seem like a weighty and abstract concept, but it has very real consequences. For one thing, this vernacular that men can’t and should not be ‘feminine’ perpetuates and endorses toxic masculinity, which can be regarded as taking part in traditional gender roles that limit the emotions boys may experience. This suffocation contributes to the taboo subject of men’s mental health, something that is often ignored. According to the Mental Health Foundation , in England three times as many men as women die by suicide, with men aged 40-49 having the highest suicide rates in the UK. Furthermore, men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women, with only 35% of referrals to NHS taking therapies for men . Furthermore, according to the Government’s National Wellbeing Survey, men report lower levels of life satisfaction. While these statistics are about men, they matter for women too: the narrative that men must be strong and masculine because emotion is feminine and it is considered a weakness helps no one. It only clouds society by perpetuating patriarchal values.
In this article, I have tried to shed light on the damaging implications of endorsing the language of ‘manly’ men, following Harry Style’s Vogue cover. What I have deliberately not tried to do is to define what conservatives like Candace Owens fear the most: the ‘feminine’ man, because quite frankly, what is a feminine man? Is it simply wearing a floor-length dress? Or is it also nail polish or makeup? The irony is that no one has decided what the criteria for this mystery ‘feminine’ man is and it is problematic how scared society is of something that is far from a threat.
This article was written on the 21st of November.