Let's Talk About Harry Styles' Vogue Cover

On November 13, Vogue revealed that Harry Styles would be gracing its December 2020 edition, becoming the first man to ever appear solo on the coveted magazine’s cover. Styles emerges on the cover adorned in a lacy blue gown designed by Gucci’s Creative Director Alessandro Michele, complete with a double-breasted tuxedo jacket. Throughout the magazine, Styles is featured in ensembles that juxtapose and bend traditional gender norms for clothing, pairing a 1980s-inspired zoot suit with a Victorian crinoline and petticoat in one photo.

Over the past couple of weeks, these images have received a lot of attention from people at either end of the political spectrum. Many have celebrated these photos for defying conventional gender expectations of fashion, praising Styles and the Vogue team for showing the world that the gender attributions we place on clothing are arbitrary and people should wear whatever they want.

However, others have certainly been less receptive to Vogue’s stylistic choices. In response to the cover shoot, conservative commentator Candace Owens tweeted that Styles’ outfits represent the “steady femininization of our men” in western societies. Owens asserts that the photos and, “feminization” of men in general, are “an outright attack” on our culture, since “there is no society that can survive without strong men.”

There has been an uproar of responses online to Owens’ rigid comments, many pointing out that gender is a social construction, as are the concepts of “masculinity” and “feminity.” Dresses aren’t inherently associated with femininity; rather, they are associated with it because our society has determined that they should be throughout history.

Whether a man decides to wear a dress or not, shouldn’t take away from his being a man. Clothing is a way for people to express themselves, and sometimes that expression doesn’t follow overarching gender or cultural norms. And that is something we should celebrate rather than criticize. Placing sharp boundaries between what a man can wear and what a woman can wear limits how people can express themselves, particularly those who don’t identify with the binaries of “man” or “woman.” Which brings me to another popular critique of this Vogue cover shoot.

Many fans of Harry Styles and his Vogue cover shoot spread have claimed that he is becoming the modern face of gender fluidity in music and fashion. While it is exciting to see a mainstream pop singer defy reductive conceptions of gender and fashion, claiming that he should be an emblem for gender fluidity or queer culture is tone-deaf to put it nicely.

For years, people of color and LGBTQ people have put their lives at risk by defying gender and cultural norms to express their true gender identities. And these types of expressions have frequently been met with violent racist, homophobic, and transphobic comments. Throughout history and on a day-to-day basis, people of color and LGBTQ people are rejected from society for displaying the same types of outfits and aesthetics Styles, a white, cisgender man, is being celebrated for. I think writer Daniel Rogers put it best in his article for Dazed magazine, writing that the response to the cover shoot is “indicative of how we read these aesthetics differently on POC or queer bodies than on publicly straight white men.”

Personally, I have been a huge fan of Styles and his music for years. Do I find it exciting to see him appear in Vogue in traditionally “feminine” garb? Absolutely. Do I think that Styles should be a figurehead of gender-fluid fashion and music? Absolutely not. While it’s important that we as a society continue to push back on restrictive gender norms, it’s also important to celebrate these types of aesthetics when they appear on bodies that have long been marginalized and disenfranchised, not just on a white, rich, cisgender man.