In November, Harry Styles became the first male cover star in Vogue’s 150-year history.
If that doesn’t feel surprising, perhaps there’s a good reason: Harry Styles wearing a dress, in itself, doesn’t feel like that much of a surprise. Male musicians wearing dresses have been the sartorial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to gender-bending fashion since The Rolling Stones did similar half a century ago.
But while I’m not surprised by the pics of Harry wearing dresses, I am upset Styles’ masculinity has been pulled into question.
I’ve fancied men who have effeminate ways of presenting ever since I first started finding men attractive – but importantly I’ve always viewed them as intrinsically masculine. That’s because being camp or effeminate with your gestures, or your clothing, does not remove from the other things that make a man a man, such as your physicality or gender expression.
For me, there is something intensely masculine about a man wearing a dress – or more, having the confidence to do so. They may be wearing a piece of clothing designed for women, but there are other powers also at play which suggest a broader sense of masculinity: body language, body shape, even hairy legs or a deeper voice.
For me, there is something intensely masculine about a man wearing a dress – or more, having the confidence to do so.
He may have a controversial past, but on this occasion I am thankful to social media personality Logan Paul for calling BS on the idea that Harry seems any less of a man. On an episode of his podcast, Impaulsive, when Logan’s co-star George Janko said the Harry pics “weren’t manly”, Logan replied: ”Bro, why? What is manly to you? What does it mean? Is manly being comfortable in your skin? Being comfortable with who you are, regardless of what you’re wearing?”
And at the crux of any furore around masculinity and femininity lies the question: what even is ‘masculinity’ anyway? I’d argue that in today’s genderfluid world, the relevance of the gender binary (the idea that there is only two genders, male and female) is sliding into irrelevance, much like the Jack Wills tracksuits Vogue writer Hamish Bowles nostalgically remembers from the singer’s One Direction days. Men’s magazines have been trying, and failing, to answer the baggy question about just what denotes a ‘modern man’ for the past decade or so. Many of them feel as if they only exist so publishers have content to put adverts next to.
I’ve always been interested in the question of what a ‘modern man’ is meant to looks like. I am no closer to discovering the answer, except to say that nearly all of my partners have presented as effeminate, but have felt more masculine than me despite this ‘effeminate’ badge.
Perhaps one reason they felt more masculine to me than I do to myself is because I am often told by people that I’m ‘masculine’ for a queer guy, even though I don’t feel particularly ‘masculine’ certainly not any more than one of my camp-presenting friends.
Queer culture is becoming more mainstream. Perhaps men hiding within the brittle confines of ‘conventional’ masculinity feel threatened by that.
For me, calling a man non-masculine feels particularly toxic, because saying so implies that the man in question is less good at being a man. To me, what the criticiser is really saying is that they themselves are less good at conforming to the stereotypes about how a man should look and act.
I’ve learned from dating lots of men that queer culture is the best place to assess what a ‘modern man’ might look like. Free from the rigours of societal expectation and conventional thought, they may dress differently, think differently and act differently – but those queer men are still men. Trust me, I’ve dated enough of them to have developed a pretty good sense for what makes one.
Queer culture is becoming more mainstream, as Harry’s queer af cover shoot for Vogue suggests. Perhaps men hiding within the brittle confines of ‘conventional’ masculinity feel threatened by that.
Feeling offended or outraged by what Harry’s boldly wearing in those photos, instead of cheering him on, makes you far less of a man than any dress possibly could.
Adam Bloodworth is a journalist at HuffPost UK. Follow him on Twitter at @Adamzx
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org