Oh, Harry

So a man can’t appear on the cover of Vogue without wearing a dress?

By Ray Zhang

American Vogue is taking diversity seriously. Two covers back to back with black stars—Lizzo in October and Naomi Campbell in November—and then, on the December issue’s, the first-ever solo male in their 127-year history: Harry Styles. A guy as part of Vogue’s cover has been done before. There was, as I recall, LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen in 2008, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in 2014, Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid in 2017, and Justin Beiber and Hailey Baldwin in 2019. But Mr Styles up there all by himself—that’s clearly not done before. Looks like tumultuous 2020 has really got Vogue thinking and doing.

Harry Styles has style (or, as his second name suggests, styles), we’re constantly reminded by the media, and non-binary at that. It seems to me that Vogue is also telling us that Mr Styles has what it takes to appear unaccompanied on its cover: the willingness to don a dress. The others before him sure did not. Mr James was in a basketball tank top, Mr West in a blazer, Mr Malik was all suited up, Mr Beiber wore only his tattoos. Fashion was the responsibility of the women. Even Mr Malik, still the most dressed-up among them, was somewhat obscured by his then girlfriend (now mother of his child), although the cover blurb was certain to tell us that they “shop each other’s closets”. And if you were still in doubt, the editorial feature informed you that the couple was “part of a new generation who don’t see fashion as gendered.”

In the old days of fashion magazines, covers gave women a reason to buy an outfit that was deemed fashionable, or a look that might inspire, for example, those who sew their own clothes. I am not sure if any woman might rush out to buy the Gucci dress that the former member of One Direction wears on this Vogue cover, as they were once inclined to in, say, 1988, or 10 years later (more recently?), when this now forgotten name, Carrie Bradshaw, said, “…sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” The traditional (okay, that’s not the new normal) cover hopes that women might actually cop a cover outfit after seeing it. I’d be fed, somewhat, to know if it’d be the same with this one.

I feel Vogue didn’t quite go all the way with Harry Styles. Both Lizzo and Naomi Campbell were shot full-length: We saw the whole dress. The photograph of Mr Styles, who reportedly identify as cisgender, was, conversely, cropped, and we witness only the upper body in vague half-drag. At a glance, we might not have guessed that the singer/actor wears a dress. I mean, it could have been a tunic, such as a thawb, but with a smocked upper body and lace-trimmed neckline. Would Alain de Botton-quoting Mr Styles—Beng as he appears to me—look just as fetching as the other two cover girls if he were captured with the dress in full length, which, as one photograph in the editorial feature did show, was a frilly, tiered tulle gown Mae West might have worn in her day?

The sight of a man in a dress, long or short, is not quite that unusual in the age of repeated Billy Porter flaunts. Never mind the muscularity of MAGA maleness. As one fashion observant friend said to me just this morning, “(the cover) is quite unremarkable. Men in women’s clothing for fashion shoots, gender-bending etc, etc—quite done to death. W’s editorials have been doing it for a few years. UK magazines, too.” In fact, frock wearing among pop stars—not just for magazine features—go as far back as David Bowie who, in the ’70s, wore what he called the “man-dress” (Michael Fish was a favourite designer). Yet, Vogue chose to go easy on the eyes of their readers, which is immensely ironic if you consider how religious in their zeal Americans have been in pushing for obvious inclusiveness.

If appearing on the cover of Vogue is a career high for many models, actresses, and reality TV stars, it could be one, too, for Mr Styles. Could he still be a cover boy sans dress? This has not been a great year for many of us. The singer, too, had it hard: the postponed world tour, the halted filming of the Olivia Wilde-directed film, Don’t Worry Darling, and the more mundane lockdown. While he admitted in the Vogue article to wearing mostly sweatpants when confined at home, he has not, as with so many less well-placed individuals also WFH, cast fashion aside. He has, in fact, embraced it in all its myriad forms. I’m all for guys to blur the lines of fashion—heck, even erase them—but Mr Styles, a Gucci model and their willing rep, doing so is really instinctive than disruptive. On the cover of Vogue, Harry Styles in a dress is not ground-breaking. If it were Jason Statham, that would be.

Photos: Tyler Mitchell/Vogue

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