A creative fluidity has blossomed in men’s fashion in recent years, propelling us into the midst of a menswear renaissance, and refashioning stale historic notions of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Throughout history, who wears what has created controversy and strong opinion, and in particular, masculinity has been shaped and restricted by gendered expectations of fashion: skirts and dresses are girly, suits are for men; heels are for women and athletic gear is more masculine.

These confined, toxic notions of masculinity demand that men fit into a specific box and suggest that for a man to dress in anything less than the ‘fully masculine’ would be akin to stripping him of his manhood: he would become soft, feminine, gay, or fragile. These terms are used especially among men themselves about those who do not conform to masculine stereotypes. But these terms should not denote anything bad: neither ‘feminine,’ ‘gay,’ ‘soft,’ nor ‘fragile’ should ever be used as an insult.

“The ‘manly men’ are those who have the courage and strength to dress in whatever they prefer”

Significantly, fashion itself has traditionally been a gendered activity, associated with women and gay men, reduced to something that is frivolous and meaningless by wider patriarchal norms. Dressing up, wearing makeup, and taking an interest in clothes has largely been dismissed by the world of straight men, and yet fashion and masculinity have been intertwined for centuries. Masculine ideals of power, strength and dominance are often demonstrated through male clothing, with height and athletic stature being emphasised by modern menswear. Even as newborns, baby boys are fashioned into their masculinity through the colour blue, showing that masculinity and fashion are inherently linked by our society’s fixation on gender.

Nevertheless, the gender divide in fashion was not always so rigid. In Ancient Greece, men would wear chitons which were far less shaped than our clothing is today. Meanwhile, trousers were worn by foreign horse riders, and by Amazon women in vase paintings, leading the Greeks to denounce trousers as ‘barbarian’, an opinion which the Romans subsequently upheld. Even in Renaissance times, the clothes of both men and women were generally described as draped garments or tunics. The elite masculine wardrobe developed over time to include oversized silhouettes, bold colours and luxurious fabrics, including silk and velvet.

“Today he proudly wears nail polish, sparkly suits, tutus, tiaras and dresses, happily explaining that he values being in touch with his femininity. This does not make Styles any less of a man”

This lavish masculine style is intensely different from 19th century styles, in which clothing became far more gendered. Trousers began to be worn, and men wearing skirts vanished. The ‘gentleman’ was created, and the suit evolved into the epitome of masculine fashion, becoming equivalent to male power, professionalism, and virility. In the modern workplace, menswear almost always revolves around the suit, usually plain, dark coloured, and completed by the tie, another not-so-subtle symbol of manhood.

Today, however, the possibilities of menswear are finally shifting away from this restrictive gendered divide, and the barriers created by toxic masculinity are beginning to break down. Harry Styles uses fashion to challenge the stereotypes of what it means to be a man. During his One Direction era, the media sold a false perception of Styles as an ultra-male womaniser, adopting a sexist image of traditional masculinity which Styles has since been able to change through his clothing. Today he proudly wears nail polish, sparkly suits, tutus, tiaras and dresses, happily explaining that he values being in touch with his femininity. This does not make Styles any less of a man.

Styles was the first man to appear solo on the cover of Vogue and he did so wearing a dress in December 2020. While his cover was admired by many, it also caused controversy. Conservative author Candace Owens responded in a tweet that “There is no society that can survive without strong men… Bring back manly men.” Styles cleverly turned her words on their head, directly quoting them when he posted another photo of himself, posing for his Variety cover shoot in a baby blue pleated suit, complete with white ruffles and a V-neck cut. His post directly calls out the toxic masculinity that runs deep in our culture, showing that ‘manly’ can mean whatever a man wants: whether in a dress or not, he is still just as much of a man.

Designer Harris Reed, whose designs are a favourite of Harry Styles, also embraces gender fluid clothing. Reed’s pink ensemble, which is set to feature in the V&A’s upcoming exhibition on menswear, recalls the fashion of Joshua Reynolds’ 18th century portraits: oversized sleeves, bows, ruffles and a pink silk texture all prove that lavishness and luxury are returning to menswear. It seems that at last, modern men are being permitted to flaunt their interest in fashion.


Mountain View

What would Harry Styles wear?

While Western society has come to tolerate women in trousers, it is still blatantly offended by a man in a skirt. This is largely down to the toxic masculinity which pushes men away from their feminine side, and leads them to name-call their friends for liking pink, and to uphold misogynistic ideas of femininity as weaker and female interests as frivolous. At last, however, these barriers are being broken down: changing concepts of men’s fashion mean that the V&A will hold the first major exhibition to explore menswear next year. Cultural shifts mean that being manly no longer has a toxic dress code. Even Daniel Craig attended the most recent James Bond premiere in a pink velvet suit: that a man who plays a character so associated with the traditional masculine uniform could stun the red carpet in a vision of pink shows just how much the notion of ‘manliness’ has changed. Being a man today can mean whatever one wants it to mean — and, as Harry Styles has proved, the ‘manly men’ are those who have the courage and strength to dress in whatever they prefer.