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It’s hard to go anywhere without encountering Harry Styles’ unparalleled, experimental, and often ‘70’s-inspired fashion sense. Whether someone is most familiar with Styles’ boy-band-cutie era or as an innovator in modern menswear, one can definitively say that the musician often lives up to his surname. Styles’ outfits at his most recent appearance at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards do not disappoint, as he continues to move fashion in a more gender-fluid direction.
Styles opened the award show wearing a full leather Gucci suit, which he accessorized with a light green feather boa — but his best look of the night was arguably the yellow plaid blazer and purple feather boa combination he wore to the red carpet. While Styles’ Grammy fashion may not have been as “groundbreaking” and controversial as some of his previous looks, such as his historic solo appearance on the Dec. 2020 cover of Vogue, he wore bright-colored boas, a piece of clothing most often associated with femininity. Nevertheless, it is hard to separate the fashion from the political statement it is inherently making.
The firmly established gender binary in fashion means that when men like Styles wear historically “feminine” clothing, it undoubtedly creates controversy (the dictionary definition for the word “dress” even states that it is an “outer garment for women and girls”). From his floral-print suits to his custom Gucci dress and newfound obsession with boas, Styles has consistently mixed elements of both masculinity and femininity into his sense of style, challenging the gender binary that many of his peers uphold. But why has Harry Styles since become the poster child for challenging toxic masculinity?
While Styles does bring necessary attention to the issue of toxic masculinity, particularly in regard to fashion, his position of privilege in society as a white man means that he takes up more space than the queer people of color who developed the fashion he now wears. Additionally, Styles’ refusal to put a label on his sexuality allows him to benefit from Black and queer culture for his aesthetic in a way that can be reckless and extremely damaging, while still being able to benefit from the privileges of being perceived as a straight. While labels are by no means necessary when it comes to sexuality and gender identity, as a highly influential and powerful public figure, Styles’ perceived distance from the queer community can allow his highly impressionable fan base to appropriate Black and queer culture without acknowledging its pioneers.
By centering Harry Styles, a white man, in the fight against toxic masculinity, we begin to celebrate white celebrities who present as existing beyond the gender binary at the expense of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Styles’ androgynous sense of style is being held as the default while erasing and ignoring the existence of BIPOC individuals who have been doing the same thing for decades — such as Prince, Jamie Windust, Little Richard, Hari Nef, Lenny Kravitz, Alok V Menon, and Lil Nas X, to name a few.
Because the media has often tokenized queerness, the praise that Styles receives for his sense of style outside of the confines of the gender binary conveys the message that if you are white, straight-passing, famous, and conventionally attractive then you can dress in a gender-nonconforming way on the red carpet of an award show without worrying about becoming the next victim of a hate crime as many queer or nonbinary, especially Black gender non-conforming and transgender folk, have to worry about in their day-to-day lives.
Styles’ fashion sense can no longer be recklessly praised for pushing toward the abolition of gender norms and toxic masculinity. As stylish as Harry Styles may be, we must recognize that the gender binary itself is a tool of white supremacy and colonial violence, and must begin to move beyond putting cisgender white men, such as Styles, on a pedestal for doing what other celebrities — especially BIPOC and queer celebrities — have been doing for decades.
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