Styles’ music is neither provocative nor political. It’s a bit of soul, a hint of funk, a bit of folk and lots of easy-to-hear lyrics. The new album was well received but it’s fair to say that “Harry’s House” isn’t going to transform the pop genre. His most significant contribution to culture is his style, which is akin to a cultural mille-feuille. This is a man who embraces the grandest gesture and the fanciest dress. He is part of a long line of musicians who have used fashion as the vehicle to which their music is harnessed.
Styles’ public presentation — heavy on Gucci’s fluid sensibility and complete with feather boas and mismatched prints — is a delight. It’s a jagged statement about the obsolescence of boy-girl rules, the boredom of guesswork, and the glory of creativity. Styles embodies it all, he is applauded for all this, within the safe confines of the world of entertainment and the privileged position of someone whose identity aroused curiosity but was not equated with a transgression.
Styles insists on wearing his tulle and organza and being himself, at a time when people from so many sectors of society intend to tell those less advantaged, whose individual lives have little impact on their neighbors, how to be and how to live. It’s a small but invigorating thing to see a pop star take full advantage of all the sweet freedom that comes with their territory.
Fame has its burdens, some of which can be cruel to the psyche. But in the case of musicians, it also comes with a particular advantage, which is the expectation of eccentricity – which is really just another way of saying individuality. It’s a gift that can be tragically rare in so many other areas. Styles leaned into that freedom.
Her dress blurs gender as it has long been defined. He takes the dresses and sheer shirts and frilly blouses that are associated with delicate femininity and he slips his muscular, tattooed arms into those darling sleeves and wears those garments with quiet confidence. He wears thrift stores on stage. He wears it during an appearance at a charity event. He just wears it while walking on a path with his girlfriend. In most other professions, dressing outside of convention would be provocative. What do we think of Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and her cheerleader skirts and fuzzy boleros? Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman has built an entire persona on his hoodies and shorts and inked arms. Observers are eager for an explanation. One direction.
Styles’ appearance raises questions not because it breaks an unwritten rule, but because it’s so invigorating. We are less likely to ask “Why is he doing this?” and more likely to ask “How does he do it?” We should all benefit from the expressive leeway of pop stars.
It took a lot of history to get there. To get to Harry Styles. There have been plenty of rockers and soul singers who have bulked up and used a combination of biker leather and frilly frills to showcase seething machismo, to suggest that their testosterone has gone so high that they need a lace jabot to tone it down. on a level their fans can handle. The men’s feminine attire was used as an intentional violation, a thoughtful act that aims to confront the status quo. And it was used as a statement about his own sexuality – a way to convey what couldn’t be said out loud.
James Brown. Prince. Little Richard. They all used the feminine style for their own purposes.
Much suffering, both physical and mental, has been endured by many men and women over the generations before we came here, where people like Styles can reap the joys and pleasures that others have worked so hard to make available. It’s not so much about cultural appropriation as having the luxury of enjoying a huge assortment after a long-suffering crew tends to the plants, harvests the crops, and does the cooking.
The cover of “Harry’s House” shows the singer standing in an upset room. A sofa, a side table and a lamp hang from the floor to the ceiling. Styles stands in the corner with his body tilted slightly to the camera. His hair is tousled and he wears wide denim pants and an ivory babydoll top with a peter pan collar. It’s a shirt that looks like a toddler’s repurposed dress. Styles’ right hand is perched on his chin as if trying to remember what’s on the day’s to-do list.
There’s nothing particularly sexy or harsh about the picture. The sweetness of the shirt isn’t juxtaposed with anything edgy unless you count the tattoos on his arm and it’s been a long time since a rock star’s illustrated body has made you gasp someone. Styles wears the clothes with the same nonchalant ease with which someone might wear a t-shirt. And while it may seem inconsequential, that shrug is a fairly recent victory.
It was 2020 when Styles became the first man to appear alone on the cover of Vogue wearing a long, ruched dress by Gucci. And it wasn’t until 2019 that Billie Porter wore a Christian Siriano gown on the Oscars red carpet. And it wasn’t until 2012 that Rio Uribe founded Gypsy Sport, one of the first brands to officially highlight racial diversity and gender fluidity.
It’s easy to look at Styles and overlook her quirky clothing choices as an artist’s extravaganza. They are, of course. But it’s also a small triumph for those who understand not only the complexities of gender fluidity, but also its beauty. As a culture, there are so many serious things to sort out as people come to terms with who they are and how they want to be understood. Everyone exists on a public stage. The only difference is the size of their audience. We need to be more generous in applauding everyone, not just pop stars.