I daresay, my hand is not on the pulse of current pop culture or fashion. (The use of “daresay” should be a dead giveaway, a nod to my high school days when my English teacher was on a bent, having us read all-things-Bronte. Apparently something like The Outsiders was too avant-garde. Alas, still haven’t read it.) Still, I can see how Harry Styles gracing the cover of the December issue of Vogue is a bit of a thing. First guy to appear solo. Not sure that it’s the kind of thing those men’s rights advocates living in tin roof sheds in particularly rural parts of red states will be wooting about. Frankly, it doesn’t mean all that much to me...except to the extent it does.
Harry’s got great hair and a decent body but, if I were to creepily swoon over someone half my age, Harry wouldn’t be it. The guy’s coughed up a couple of catchy songs. I don’t change the radio station on a road trip—sigh, remember those?—when his old boy band’s “Story of My Life” comes on. I’m partial to this year’s “Adore You” to the chart-topping followup, “Watermelon Sugar,” an ode to female oral sex that warrants but an eye roll compared to its contemporary, let’s-not-“sugar”-coat-anything, “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion. (Okay, I know a teensy bit of pop culture if only because I’ve always been a Billboard music chart nerd.) Harry Styles could exist or not exist and my life would be just fine.
What I do like about this Vogue moment is Harry’s attire. Us Magazine reacted to the cover shot and the other photos included in the Styles feature as, “Gender fluidity at its best!” On the cover, Harry wears a white lace Gucci gown under a black blazer. (At first glance, I couldn’t tell from the thumbnail shots on the Twitter feed on my iPhone that it was a dress. I thought it was a stretchy, oversized t-shirt (and a hideous one at that). The cover shot isn’t as daring as it could (and should) be because it’s cropped above the knee, hiding much of the flow of the dress and the telltale hemline. This is not a Billy Porter moment. But it’s the fact that the celebrity isn’t Porter (or even Sam Smith) that makes this its own moment. Styles, by all accounts decidedly straight, is upping the bar for what is metrosexual.
The photos inside are mixed. One shows him in a black kilt which seems rather ho-hum unless you want to ogle his bare chest. A shot of him standing in front of a bike wearing a longer plaid kilt—positively skirt-like—is more of a gender bender (blender?), especially with his feet accessorized by what appear to be punkish, lacy green stockings. In my mind, the most feminine look is in a photo of Harry wearing a black suit with pronounced shoulder pads and either a to-the-ground black skirt or very flowy pants. The look is completed with what looks like the framing for three hoop dresses, topped by a sheer white tutu, belted with a bright pink bow. (Sorry if my descriptions are wonky. I’ll never have the vocabulary or the insight to be a fashion writer.) To be sure, this is not Esquire magazine. If anything, it seems as though Harry Styles crashed a Tilda Swinton photo shoot.
Of course, what we see in high fashion rarely shows up on the subway or in the sandwich line at Subway. Male models have been wearing feminine garments on catwalks for years and I haven’t caught myself glimpsing some guy wearing an Alexander McQueen runway knockoff dress while walking the seawall or brunching on the Hungry Man’s Platter on Commercial Street. Still, I’ve been amazed at how quickly times are changing and how people barely raise an eyebrow.
Sometimes it’s a young guy’s ear that I eye. Long ago, I thought I was bold when I had a simple stud in one ear—which one, I don’t remember; the punctured lobe long ago covered up all evidence. That’s, of course, nothing now in a world where people seem intent to outdo one another in terms of ink and piercings. It’s not the number but the accessorizing choice that I notice. I’ll spot a guy grabbing an oat milk latte ahead of me with a large hoop earring or something vintage from grandma’s jewelry box. Okay, much bigger statement than my wee stud of yesteryear. Nobody takes a second glance at Latte Boy’s ear, except this old guy. I’m not judging; I’m in awe.
More often, though, I’m drawn to a man’s hands. Not out of some pervy idea that I can size up a guy’s crotch. (I’ll leave that to Trump’s fascination with Marco Rubio.) I’m looking at fingernails. Sometimes it’s just one nail painted in Neon orange or hot pink; other times it’s all the nails covered in one hue of polish or sporting a mix-and-match mosaic. As far as I can tell, these aren’t Goth or punk looks, intended to jar fuddy-duddy onlookers. Whether it’s one nail or ten, I’m empowered by their freedom of expression, I’m heartened by the fact that what once would have been so bold and so risky in terms of personal safety, is now so accepted. A guys painted nails elicit no more reaction than someone opting to wear brown shoes instead of black. We’re that much closer to letting people just be.
And to think there were days I thought my purple Converse were too much. As I laced them up, I played out the day ahead in my mind. Would I have to wander down some alley, risking being called “girly” or “faggot” just because my footwear drifted too far from It’s-a-boy blue toward It’s-a-girl pink?
I’ve seen men walk through Vancouver’s mutt-mix scene on Granville Street and stroll down trendy Robson Street in leather jackets and skirts or shapeless dresses reminiscent of my mom’s 70s muumuus. I’ve heard no whistles or taunts. If anything, I was the most inclined to stare—not to gawk but to take it in and maybe laugh at myself for once worrying that my disco era platform shoes in eighth grade looked too much like high heels. I have a floral patterned (birds of paradise?) Ted Baxter shirt that only needs to be dry cleaned because the shoulders have gathered dust in my closet.
Oh, we’ve come a long way. Just this morning, while researching a writing project, I watched a silent film from 1915, with a Laurel and Hardy-type duo hamming things up with now-dated slapstick—lots of pratfalls and kicking and bopping one another (Why waste a good brick?). To take the guffaws to another level, the larger man (naturally) pops in a used clothing store and comes out donning a dress and wig, a heavy veil drawn over his scruffy face. Anything for a laugh. Milton Berle, “Some Like It Hot,” Flip Wilson’s Geraldine and Tom Hanks’ “Bosom Buddies” followed in this comedy genre. Male femininity was a sight gag, not a fashion statement or matter of true self-expression.
I have no doubt that today’s younger men with nail polish and skirts have heard a few derisive laughs and putdowns. For every fashion-forward male, there’s a dude who thinks men peaked as Neanderthals. I’m embarrassed to admit that, while I applaud greater choices today, I can still get judgy or uncomfortable myself. When I was dating Daniel in the spring, he wouldn’t go anywhere without draping the strap of his small carrying bag over his head and one shoulder. Sure, it looked a little boxy, but I always had to swat away the thought that it looked like a purse. I believe they called it a murse (man + purse) on “Seinfeld”. (“Friends” had a thing about a “man bag,” too. It’s a rare occasion when the show feels dated.)
Repeatedly, I told myself that Daniel could wear whatever he wanted, but it’s the first word of this sentence that reflects so poorly on me.
One Sunday morning, as we set out for Daniel’s favorite cafe, a guy in a car full of guys—they always need an audience of their peers—rolled down his window and yelled, “Nice purse, faggot!” Daniel, who never seemed phased by anyone, to the point where I thought it might be part of some sort of clinical diagnosis, walked on with me, continuing his thought. Two blocks later, however, he muttered something minor about his “purse,” a sign he’d been rattled. (A week later, he bought a new carrying bag in manly gray with a hipster Herschel label; still rather murse-like.)
Maybe I can appreciate all this progress better from a little distance. It’s a sign of age that I’m seeing some changes, however wonderful, as for a younger generation. I had my time, my pierced ear drawing its share of knowing grins and frowns. Gosh, for a time I even wore purple jeans. I’m not yet ready to be put out to pasture in a Bermuda shirt, Dockers shorts, knee-high brown socks and sandals, but I won’t be making space in my closet for tutus. Over to you, guys. Please do carry on!