The Harry Styles Vogue Cover - A conversation about gender, sexuality and fashion

Image Credit: Ellie McCreanor

Whether you agreed with the Harry Styles’ 2020 Vogue cover or not, you cannot deny that it started some much needed conversations. Caoimhe Mahon discusses the controversy and whether or not Vogue made the right decision.

Vogue magazine has produced a multitude of striking, powerful and applauded covers throughout its one-hundred-and-twenty-eight-year history. Peter Lindbergh’s iconic 1990 cover would go on to redefine what it meant to be a supermodel within the fashion industry, whilst the 1991 mirror cover welcomed in the millennium, and in 2019 Vogue issued a historic cover entitled, ‘Forces for Change.’ Clearly, Vogue has a renowned reputation for generating conversation and evoking influence via its world-famous covers. In Vogue’s December 2020 issue history was made once more when musician Harry Styles dawned the cover as the first solo male to do so in the magazine's print history. However, what made the cover even more striking was the Gucci jacket and dress which Styles modelled for the shoot. The decision to have a cis-gendered white male assume this role roused both feelings of pride and discontentment, making it one of the most controversial covers in Vogue’s history. 

The twenty-seven year old first came under the spotlight in 2010 as a member of the pop boy-band ‘One Direction’ on the reality TV show ‘The X Factor.’ After the star found fame, conversations that surrounded Styles in the public sphere varied, encompassing a number of personal issues ranging from his high profile relationships to his promiscuous reputation, and even raising questions about his sexuality. In 2015, the band split and Harry Styles embarked on a solo career. This would see his musical tastes take a different course alongside his image and fashion sense, which became renowned for its flamboyant and experimentative image. Therefore, the December 2020 Vogue cover was revolutionary as a cis man, modelling a dress, depicted both fashion and gender fluidity, thus encouraging rigid gender stereotypes to be torn down. 

However, Vogue received backlash in the wake of the December issue especially from members of the LGBTQ+ community who believed that, given the origins of this fashion culture, a white cis male was not the appropriate person to generate this discussion. Styles was praised for using his platform to celebrate diversity and encourage acceptance by many. Though, many LGBTQ+ members found this insensitive given that history reveals that the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the black community within it, were largely responsible for this fashion culture and were ostracised and condemned for expressing gender fluidity through fashion. Therefore, the progressive nature of this cover was questioned, raising concerns around race, wealth, sexuality and status. If Harry Styles was not viewed through the lens of a celebrity, if he was not white, if he was not a heterosexual male, would this cover have been as popularly received? Is society more comfortable with hinting at acceptance rather than actively accepting through inclusivity? Is this a step towards changing ideas of heteronormativity or confirmation of its gripping presence in society? 

Of course, given the history that surrounds this issue, society must be sensitive to the concerns and disagreements about Vogue’s choice of model amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, in the hope of sourcing a greater level of acceptance within our society, where rigid social norms and gender barriers can be torn down, I am determined to recognise the positives within this cover. Harry Styles, with his 36.5 million Instagram followers, is evidently an influential and highly recognisable public figure whose fan base extends across age groups, sexualities and genders alike. His status and reputation have allowed the conversation to spill out into society, generating a number of diverse and powerful conversations. Such conversations crucially need to be had including that of the inequality that exists between cis white men and the LGBTQ+ community when they dawn the same garment and yet receive such different responses. However, the very fact that this cover has opened a door for these conversations to be had is surely a benefit of the cover. Styles also represents how fashion is a statement, how it is an expression of emotion and of personality, and how fashion is personal, inclusive and individual. Fashion should not be segregated by gender, and one should not be confined to a box based on what is considered masculine and feminine and therefore, socially acceptable. This cover is so much more than a fashion statement. Instead, it harvests a political and cultural agenda where the patriarchy propped up by heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinity must be smashed. Not only does this Vogue cover signal that gender exists on a spectrum, but it also signals how fashion too can be fluid. In today's society with greater levels of diversity people do not have to confine themselves to binaries enforced in society through generations of norms and conventions. Though, with this newfound freedom comes an intensification of labels which are challenged in this cover. Perhaps it is not so much about identifying with a specific gender or sexuality when it comes to fashion and more so about freedom. Perhaps this cover is powerful for the very same reason it comes under scrutiny; because it dilutes toxic masculinity by showing that it is okay to be a straight white male and yet feel the ability to express yourself through clothing more typically associated with the feminine. 

Therefore, whilst given the unequal and turbulent history that surrounds the LBGTQ+ community and gender-fluid fashion, it is understandable that this cover could rouse feelings of discontent and unhappiness. These feelings only heighten the urgency required for important conversations to be had across society where each individual is heard and represented. An individual with the following of Harry Styles is arguably a suitable candidate for projecting the message and instigating a conversation. His cover opens up the conversation to people of many backgrounds and identities and allows them to carry the conversation on because they have been given the recognition they deserve. However, for that cis white male who picked up Vogue in December 2020 and saw someone just like them on the cover in a dress being praised, maybe that will be enough to encourage them to love every part of themselves, to throw away the rule book and use fashion as a tool of freedom and exploration.