A surname like “Styles” is a lot to live up to, but if you’re older than about 25, it’s tempting to see Harry Styles as overcompensating.
With a wardrobe best described by a recent article in Vogue as a combination of “candy floss pink suits, printed satin flares, increasingly stacked heels and a constant supply of rings,” the former One Direction boy band member has assumed a mantle of greatness — not in terms of musicianship necessarily, but as a fashion icon.
Other young male celebrities will dabble with a daring colour or an eccentric accent like rhinestones, but nothing will top Styles’ decision to wear a sheer-sleeved, ruffled shirt and pearl earring to the Met Gala.
That moment, among others, has inspired the likes of GQ to gush that, ‘Rock n’ roll style is more prevalent than ever and almost no one waves that sartorial flag higher than Harry Styles” and others to offer how-to guides to dress like him.
For the most part, I don’t see Harry Styles as being a trendsetter in terms of what the average man will wear. This, despite the fact that increased visibility (and spending power) of the LGTBQ+ community has led some to suggest menswear departments might eventually disappear entirely.
Instead, I see Harry Styles as the continuation of a long line of experiments in androgynous fashion within the music industry, where the theatricality of performance tends to make audiences relax their standards of what “masculine” means.
In the 1970s, for instance, we had David Bowie, whose Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke outfits would not look at all out of place on Harry Styles today.
In the 1980s we had Prince, who not only would have worn what Styles wore to the Met Gala, but would likely have commissioned replicas in purple, maroon and other colours.
Consider the stylistic trajectory of both of those superstars, however, and you’ll notice that the gender-bending reached its peak early in their careers. They might never have become jeans and T-shirts guys, but no one was asking them to become the face of Gucci.
Getting older has something to do with this. Continue with the ruffles and lace into middle age and you start to risk looking less like an innovator and more like a drag queen.
What David Bowie, Prince and now Harry Styles wear is partly about provocation and attention-getting. That’s what you need to do when you’re establishing yourself.
Their willingness to push the boundaries, however, isn’t something I would dismiss as a young man’s sport. It offers real value.
We see a lot of androgynous menswear on the runways, but it’s not always easy to see how that translates into real life. Harry Styles and his predecessors help normalize the avant-garde.
Unlike what’s seen on a catwalk, the photographs of a male celebrity can continue to appear online and elsewhere in perpetuity, influencing us in ways that aren’t easy to measure.
Men’s suits today are slimmer, better cut and more likely to feature checks and other patterns than were common in business before Harry Styles was born. I’m excited to see what comes after, if only because he’s helped us explore the limits of how far men’s fashion might go.
There are plenty of menswear role models you can show you what constitutes “handsome.” People like Harry Styles can help guys think about what might make them feel beautiful, too.