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On Nov. 13, Harry Styles made history as the first solo man to ever grace the cover of American Vogue. He did so in a periwinkle ball gown designed by Gucci. In other images from the cover shoot, he wore pieces from long-time collaborator Harris Reed, a designer known for his genderfluidity and andogynous designs anchored in glam rock and Victorian influences.
Also on Nov. 13, conservative author and commentator Candace Owens unleashed a tirade of social media posts berating Styles for his dress-wearing and the rest of society for allowing such an “outright attack” on “manly men.” She later followed up her original tweet — taking a break from tweeting conspiracies about the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. and about the Black Lives Matter movement (which she falsely claims is a “domestic terrorist cell”)— by reinforcing that, yes, she did mean “bring back manly men,” adding in the claim that “terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ were created by toxic females.”
The idea of “manly men” that Owens is talking about, however, is a retrograde conception of masculinity rooted in a false sense of nostalgia for a society that never was — one in which masculinity was predicated on a skewed conception of John Wayne-esque machismo, and in which women were outwardly barred from taking up as much space as they do now. As many of Styles’s defenders were quick to point out, men have been wearing fashion we currently see as “feminine” for centuries.
As MSNBC wrote in their coverage of the incident, “Did she forget about Jesus?”
Indeed, from the elaborately decorated high heels worn by aristocratic European men throughout the 16th and 17th centuries (and, prior to that, by Persian soldiers in the 15th century) to the sparkly outfits worn by musicians like David Bowie or Freddie Mercury that dominated arena stages for decades, the conception of what fashions can and should be worn by men has always been at least somewhat fluid.
The fragile form of masculinity that is scared to wear a dress is the same one that refuses to care enough about other people to wear a mask during a pandemic for fear of being emasculated. And it is the same misconception of masculinity that Donald Trump took advantage of in order to create the sense that his administration would bring back a chauvinist America whose “greatness” is questionable at least.
In fact, the tradition of masculinity aggrandized by Owens is the type of hypermasculinity that exists as a direct backlash against feminism and the freedoms it has granted women — freedoms which include Candace Owens’s right to be a public figure rather than a doting housewife confined to the four walls of the family kitchen and, of course, her right to wear a suit, as she did in an Instagram post from Nov. 2019. The post is now flooded with over 40,000 comments from people either quoting Styles’s lyrics in an attempt to clog her feed or using Owens’s own superficial conceptions of gender against her.
“Bring back feminine women!!!” reads one of the comments. “Delete this picture!” reads another. “A woman shouldn’t be wearing a suit!”
Elsewhere on her Instagram, fans have flooded Owens’s tagged photos section with pictures of the “Adore You” singer from the Vogue shoot and his countless other ventures into more genderfluid fashion.
As comedian Kathy Griffin tweeted, “Candy Owens doesn't know what she in for going up against the Harry Styles stans."
“When you try to drag Harry Styles but he looks amazing...anyways, #TPWK Candace Owens” wrote one such stan in the Twitter tirade that followed Owens’ post, employing Styles’s signature “Treat People With Kindness” slogan in their tweet. That tweet was just one of the hundreds of thousands written by Styles fans in support of the singer and his fashion choices.
Celebrities, too, were quick to jump to the singer’s defense. Everyone from Olivia Wilde — who is currently directing Styles in his sophomore acting role in her upcoming film “Don’t Worry Darling” — to actor Elijah Wood spoke out against Owens’ comments.
Attacks in the name of preserving “masculinity,” like the one launched by Owens, however, are nothing new. As actor Zach Braff said in his defense of Styles, “our whole life men and boys are told to be manly. Life is short. Be whatever the fuck you want to be.”
Add in Owens’s forced connection between what she sees as “the steady feminization of our men” and the rise of “Marxism,” and the whole incident follows a deeply established pattern in the U.S.’s history of fearmongering and discrimination. For decades, the American right has perceived any moves towards the breaking down of a gender binary as somehow both queer and anti-manliness. It has also long conflated this perceived proximity to queerness with a leftist communist takeover. At the same time as the Red Scare and McCarthyism were taking over the nation’s consciousness in the 1950s, for example, there was also the “Lavender Scare.” While the former was a massive political scheme targeting communists that was rooted in an intense fear of anti-capitalist ideology, the latter targeted members of the LGBTQ+ community by dismissing them from government en masse. Both populations were seen as subversive in the beliefs they represented, and were therefore shut out just as Owens attempted to shut out Styles.
Of course, gender fluidity in fashion did not start or end with the pop singer. Artists have explored fluidity in their dress for decades, and it would be remiss to ignore the massive strides made by the LGBTQ+ community that allowed for Styles to wear a ball gown and skirt in a Vogue photoshoot.
While Owens continues to tweet about men in dresses and the subsequent downfall of society, Styles has yet to publicly respond, and it would be no surprise if he never does. He looked incredible in the Vogue shoot, anyway.
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