The history and hang-ups of Harry Styles’ Vogue cover shoot

Harry Styles’s photoshoot for the December issue of US Vogue is noteworthy for two reasons. It is the first time the magazine has featured a solo male on its cover, and Styles is adorned in androgynous garments. The images have gained global attention, sparking an inevitable surge in social media reposting, and triggering a fairly predictable backlash as commentators claim they are unoriginal: men and male celebrities have been gender-bending for years. 

The debate around Styles’s Vogue cover shoot has included people who are not typically involved in fashion frays – US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez considers the portraits ‘wonderful’, by contrast conservative commentator Candace Owens thinks they are harmful to western society. For all of the talk, Daniel Rodgers is one of the few commentators to reflect on the implications of the shoot, in an article for Dazed Digital. 

The history of men exploring their gender and sexual identities is certainly age-old, and far older than most reports on the Vogue shoot suggest. Before the androgynous appearances of Prince, David Bowie and the ‘Peacocks’ of the 1970s, there was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel of 1928 in which the title character lives for several centuries and changes sex mid-way through the narrative. From the eighteenth century, and showing how art imitates life, there are the real-life stories, salacious and shocking, of the Chevalier d’Eon, a French captain and courtier whose biological sex and gender identity was the subject of speculation and law suits. D’Eon apparently spent half of his life dressed as a man, half dressed as a woman. If this cross-dressing initially helped the French King Louis XV, who used d’Eon’s ability to pose convincingly as a woman to a spy in the courts of England and Russia, the transformation became permanent. In 1775, d’Eon signed an affidavit to the effect that he was, in fact, Mademoiselle d’Eon. Whether to show support for d’Eon, or merely because she was intrigued on meeting this much-talked-about-figure in 1777, Queen Marie Antoinette ordered her dressmaker to make a new suite of clothes for the Chevalière.

Earlier still, there are the commissioned portraits of sixteenth-century banker Matthäus Schwarz in his ‘First Book of Fashion. The book’s images, often described as precursors to Instagram selfies, show him showing off in bold and bright multi-layered outfits. Schwarz also had his naked body painted. Next to one of these images, completed when he was twenty-nine, Schwarz writes that he ‘had become fat and round’. His book, which preserves a critical reflection of a life and body in and out of clothes, emphasizes how men have long pursued various modes of self-presentation to understand their gendered identities. 

Then as now, white men preponderate in these personal experiments. Many exceptions decisively establish that a preoccupation with gender and sexual identities unites races and cultures, but the white – typically cis-gendered – male body has always been the norm from which other bodies have been judged.

For example, in a recent lecture Dr Siddhartha Shah, curator of Indian and South Asian Art at Peabody Essex Museum, has spoken about the deep cultural meaning of Indian men’s historic and contemporary jewellery. Pearls, in particular, were widely worn by India’s Mughal emperors and Maharajas as symbols of their singular authority and virility. This practice differed to Western norms, where pearls were chiefly worn by fashionable women. Shah quotes a publication of 1907 that asserts European men had a ‘virile distaste for effeminate display’, which the pearl was thought to symbolise. He suggests the linkage between Indian male jewel-wearing and effeminacy in the British imagination created both cause and catalyst for their prolonged intervention in the sub-continent.

Western concerns about the instability of men’s gender and sexual identities, and the dominant idea of the white cis-gendered male body, are pursued further in Matt Smith’s current exhibition, Losing Venus, at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Highlighting the queerness of some of the Museum’s collections, Smith shows that cross-dressing and male-male sexual relationships were accepted in many regions before the assertion of European imperial rule. He cites the example of young boys in Tahiti who were raised to act and dress as women and likely engaged in male-male sex acts. The establishment of British rule curtailed these practices as new law codes criminalised male-male sexual relationships and asserted the pre-eminence of the white male body and heteronormative behaviours.

The implications of this history for the Harry Styles Vogue shoot is both positive and negative. On the one hand, Ocasio-Cortez is surely right. These photographs force viewers to “examine, explore, engage and grow with it”. They help to challenge the rigid view of what male bodies should, and can, be. 

On the other hand, to assert that Styles’s shoot is revolutionary, as Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele has done, is misinformed; considerably so. The magazine images and the long history of men experimenting with their gender and sexuality identities exposes an uglier side to the pretty magazine stills. 

The extensive conversations about Harry Styles’s Vogue cover shoot reveal that men’s engagement with their appearance is never solely about ‘play’ – a term used by Styles to describe his relationship with dress – but about deeply ingrained and freighted issues of politics and power that are centred around white cis-gendered male bodies, like Styles’ own. Ominously, the images of his androgynously-dressed body, and the debate they have sparked, indicate that these issues remain entrenched, even at the end of a year that has exposed many socialised assumptions as ignorant and injurious.

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