“Bring Back Manly Men” – Exploring the Controversy Behind Men in Dresses


This month, Harry Styles made history by becoming the first solo man to feature on the cover of Vogue magazine. He made international news in the process – not because of this achievement, but because his decision to wear a dress for the occasion sparked a wider conversation about fashion, femininity, and gender roles.

Vogue, December Issue 2020, Photographer: Tyler Mitchell

Harry Styles has openly defied gender expectations for the duration of his solo career, working with fluid fashion designers such as Harris Reed and exploring similar themes within his music. In an interview with The Guardian last year, where he also wore a dress, he stated that “what women wear, what men wear, for me it’s not a question of that. If I get told a nice shirt is for ladies … it doesn’t make me want to wear it less”. In the infamous article with Vogue, he discussed his decision to don traditionally feminine attire simply by saying “anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself”. The cover received praise from both the general public and several big names, such as Gucci’s Alessandro Michele who said that Styles’ grasp on his femininity “inspiring to younger generations” and “revolutionary”.

However, as to be expected, several critics were not so accepting of his decision to put on a dress. First to weigh in publicly was author Candace Owens, who wrote on Twitter that the “steady feminisation of our men … is an outright attack” and that we need to “bring back manly men”. Even famous conservative commentator Ben Shapiro commented, arguing that the cover was a “referendum on masculinity”.

Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens via Twitter

Harry Styles is far from the first man to put on these articles of clothing- men have been wearing skirts and dresses for all of history. In older societies the skirt was a garment worn by all members of society and was only phased out due to advancements in tailoring between the 15th and 19th centuries (according to the Victoria & Albert Museum). Many popular fashion brands have had male models wearing skirts on the runway for decades, and figures as iconic as Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain and Jaden Smith have been wearing them for just as long. Like Styles, these celebrities were also forced to defend their fashion choices, with Iggy Pop famously expressing that he wasn’t “ashamed to dress like a woman”, and Jaden Smith simply tweeting “If I Wanna Wear A Dress, Then I Will” back in 2018. In short, this is far from the first time a gender-based debate has stemmed from someone dressing how they want to, and it probably won’t be the last.

Claudia Dayani, February 16th, 2016, ISC Annenberg Media, “Jaden Smith Addresses Skeptics on Gender Fluidity”, Photograph: Vogue Korea 

It’s worth noting that the reason men are mocked for these clothing choices is due to misogyny and the perceived inferiority of women. In order to allow people to present freely as they would like to, we must, as a society, step away from these outdated assumptions about masculinity and femininity. If the breaking of these stereotypes becomes normalised by celebrities with large platforms like Harry Styles, then it can be argued that the practise can become easier for others – particularly marginalised groups who do not necessarily have the privilege to express their identities safely.

Whilst I don’t believe we should be throwing praise at any cisgender man who dresses androgynously, I do think we should acknowledge the importance of gender non-conformity taking place in the public eye.


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