Writing by Heather Baillie. Illustration by Paola Lindo Valentina.
As gentle guitar chords float through the air, our protagonist walks across the screen with a small army of helpers. A smile breaks from cheek to cheek and a look at the camera is equal parts joy and mystique, as his helpers lift up more of his skirt.
In a historic edition of Vogue, Harry Styles is as breathtaking as the landscapes in which he stands. With not a drop of toxic masculinity in sight, long gone are the days of skinny jeans and infinity scarves when a young Styles dreamed, out loud and to the nation, of loving himself. They are replaced with a stature of strength and elegance. He switches from dresses to trousers to skirts and kilts, sporting one decadent look after another. Styles embodies a confidence he seems to glow from within as he is adorned in garments closer to art than fabric. Since the photos were unveiled to the public, there have been, of course, keyboard warriors attacking the young singer for his creative expression. Famous for treating people with kindness, Styles is accused of inadequacy in his masculinity – and it raises some questions, to say the least.
The gendering of skirts as feminine is a fairly recent thing. We can look through history at the Romans and their togas, at Renaissance Europeans with their tunics and tights, to see that skirts have had a longstanding place in masculinity. Something to note from the photos in Vogue is that Harry wears a Kilt. While a lot of people refer to it as a skirt, a man in a kilt provokes a very different set of expectations and gender frameworks than most types of skirt. The kilt is the epitome of masculinity for many; now it functions more as occasion wear, seen at weddings, funerals and ceilidhs or on a busker on the Royal Mile. The Scottish Kilt has persevered as a symbol of masculinity for us; it carries images of Jacobean strength and six foot seven warriors of old, of Gordon Highlanders, pipers and community leaders. The Kilt commands respect, each unique tartan carrying with it a rich history. While Styles’ Kilt is not a traditional Scottish tartan Kilt, it is a Kilt nonetheless.
The popularity of male musicians embracing typically feminine expression is not new. Some of music’s great cis-men have been skirt-wearing singers. Perhaps a large part of their success is due to the willingness to accept femininity as a positive thing. These music makers in touch with creative emotion may have their gender play to thank for their status – the skirt, the dress, the fitted blouse, they represent women and femininity, and by wearing garments such as these the singers communicate respect. They are demonstrating that they do not view women as inferior, that it is not embarrassing to be associated with femininity. Their clothes are not a reflection of sexuality or hegemonic masculinities, they are a statement of love – for themselves and how they want to be seen, and for women and trans-feminine folks who so often do not get to see themselves celebrated on their own screens.
Elton John, David Bowie and Kurt Cobain, to name a few, show us that Harry Styles in a dress is really not so earth-shattering. It’s interesting to look closer at the profile of the femboy and most prolific men in skirts. The face of femboy subculture is a thin, toned, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied man. This is not a discredit to those men, but rather an encouragement to look beyond and try to understand gendered clothing through an intersectional lens. It must be asked: to what degree is the privilege of the white, cis-gendered, able-bodied man protecting him from a much more sinister reaction to his fashion choices? It is impossible to ignore the lack of representation for trans and non-binary people, people of colour, people living in fat bodies and people with disabilities in this embrace of men in skirts and gender fluidity. This is your encouragement to diversify your feed; make efforts to engage with creators at the intersections and support those who are defying gender boundaries and are not yet embraced by the mainstream.