Earlier this month, Vogue released a cover story of Harry Styles in ‘traditionally feminine’ clothing—a Chopova Lowena belted skirt, a Gucci jacket and dress combo, et al. Shortly after, conservatives like Candace Owens, a Black Republican and right-wing commentator, called the photos an “outright attack” on society, linking it to Marxism, and demanded we, as a society, “bring back manly men.” Then, downright bad human being Ben Shapiro considered it nothing more than “a referendum on masculinity for men to don fluffy dresses.” That’s “a lot of emotion for safe,” aka a man in a dress.
Anyway, Shapiro’s comments were quickly met with leftist YouTube critics like Lindsay Ellis and Anthony Fatano calling out his fear of a “feminised masculinity,” with even controversial YouTuber Jake Paul defending Harry Styles from fragile men who felt their masculinity threatened by these photos. For weeks, Twitter and the world of the editorial was overrun with think pieces about what it means to be ‘manly,’ the right’s fear of non-conforming expressions of gender and a strong message: for the love of Gucci, just let Harry Styles wear a dress in peace.
But, for Gen Z, this conversation about men in dresses is an outdated one. Yes, Black men like Prince and Lenny Kravitz have been subverting gender norms of fashion and beauty since the 1970s, Medieval Royals wore voluptuous fluffy coats made of fur and well-embellished tunics, and Eastern cultures have embraced femininity for generations, but our generation is growing up with a new understanding of gender and gender expression and its relationship with fashion and beauty. Over on TikTok, Femboy culture is thriving. Cisgender men are embracing their femininity, wearing American Apparel-style mini skirts, over the shoulder gowns and crop tops. And, as I discovered over the last few months, the very same thing is happening to me.
My relationship with gender and sexuality is, like all of us, ever changing. Growing up in an all-boys school, I was surrounded with toxic masculinity. As one of the few queer men in my school and coming from a leftist queer-friendly neighbourhood, I felt estranged from other boys in my year. At home, I lived with my mum and was surrounded by older women, non-traditional masculine role models and gay men as godfathers. Sport was compulsory at my school but I never really vibed with it. Over the eight years there, I moved from club to club, trying new sports as if I were a trinket no one knew what to do with, handed down a circular culture of toxic masculinity like a biennial game of pass the parcel. I never questioned whether I was a man, but I never felt I fit into the spaces that I was convinced were what defined masculinity.
Then, at university, my friend introduced me to RuPaul’s Drag Race, where I was first exposed to more queer expressions of gender. But even then, while I fantasised about the looks, the personalities and the drama, I still felt alienated by it. I still saw gender as black or white. And, even if it were a spectrum, I only knew it as “traditionally masculine” and then BAM, hyper drag persona. It felt like an extreme step but the only one, and one that I wasn’t ready to experiment with.
Sure, drag queens could express themselves in fun and unique ways and didn’t have to conform to the traditional idea of a bloke, but me? Oh no, my upbringing at school reminded me that I was a “young man” and I was going to act like one. At school, teachers would refer to us as a collective, “young men.” “This is not how young men behave,” I once remember a secondary school teacher saying, after a group of rowdy boys started playing with their phones during assembly. “As young men, you should be setting an example for your younger peers.” You’re right, I thought, I shouldn’t be like those people I see on TV. I can like them but I can’t be like them.
But, since starting as a writer for Syrup and getting more immersed in Gen Z fashion, makeup and style, I’ve slowly started to pull down those walls of traditional understandings of gender and gender expression that first built itself up during my adolescence. At 24 years old, I’m on the *cusp* of Gen Z and being surrounded by older people and other men, so I didn’t grow up with conversations about how gender is just a concept and to tear it apart. But, working in this industry and engaging in fashion that defies gender norms, reminding myself everyday that fashion isn’t gendered and anyone can wear anything—bar cultural appropriation, ofc—I have manifested a healthier relationship with gender and gender expression.
In the last six months, I’ve experimented with makeup, purchased my first eye shadow palette, invested in a generous selection of crop tops and my first skirt. Nearly half of my closet was made for a traditional feminine body, but I don’t care. If it fits, I sits… in it. I still remember the first time I left the house in traditionally femme pieces—a baggy pair of floral on black sailor pants matched with a bright red floral three-quarter sleeve blouse, rose-tinted eye shadow and blush. I caught awkward stares from strangers, compliments and questions about where I bought them from passersby, and even, most unbeknownst to me, was recently hit on on the street—a literal first. I felt confident and finally proud in how I looked and began to care about how I presented myself. Not for others but for myself. Every person, no matter whether their pronouns are he/him, they/them or ze/zem, should experiment with their relationship with fashion. It’s fun as fuck.
So, I guess, my point here is that yes, the conversation about whether Harry Styles should wear a dress is ridiculous, but not because of what you might think. Yes, Styles has the freedom to wear whatever he wants to, and looks absolutely stunning in that Vogue photoshoot, and it really shouldn’t have been that big of a deal. But, specifically as far as Gen Z is concerned, we’ve already had that conversation—and we’re still having it. Our generation don’t care about traditional forms of gender, in fact we actively welcome you to play around with it and experiment. Harry Styles was right, there really is “so much joy to be had in playing with clothes.”
Header image: Gucci.