Harry Styles on the cover of his third studio album, “Harry’s House.” (Columbia Records/AP)
6 min

Harry Styles has a new album, which means that the British pop star’s presence on the cultural stage has been magnified and his charisma is on fizzy, full display in interviews and performances. And his attire is a reminder of what free expression can look like, even as it serves as a reminder of how everyone isn’t nearly as free as Styles.

Styles’s music isn’t provocative or political. It’s a bit of soul, a hint of funk, a smidgen of folk and a lot of easy-on-the-ears lyrics. The new album has been well-received but it’s fair to say that “Harry’s House” is not going to transform the pop genre. His more significant contribution to the culture is his style, which is akin to a cultural mille-feuille. He is a man who embraces the grandest gesture and the fanciest dress. He’s part of a long line of musicians who have used fashion as the vehicle onto which their music is hitched.

Styles’s public presentation — heavy on Gucci’s gender fluid sensibility and supplemented with feather boas and mismatched prints — is a delight. It’s a chipper declaration about the obsolescence of boy-girl rules, the tediousness of assumptions and the glory of creativity. Styles embodies all of this, he is applauded for all of this, within the safe confines of the entertainment world and from the privileged position of someone whose identity has been cause for curiosity but has not been equated with a transgression.

Styles presses on wearing his tulle and organza, and being his singular self, at a time when people from so many corners of society are intent on telling less-advantaged folks, whose individual lives have little impact on their neighbors, how to be and how to live. It’s a small but invigorating thing to see a pop star making full use of all of the sweet liberty that comes with his territory.

Fame has its burdens, some of which can be cruel to the psyche. But in the case of musicians, it also comes with a particular benefit, which is the expectation of eccentricity — which is really just another way of saying individuality. It’s a gift that can be tragically rare in so many other fields. Styles has leaned into that freedom.

His attire blurs gender as it has long been defined. He takes the dresses and sheer shirts and frilly blouses that are associated with delicate femininity and he slides his muscled, tattooed arms into those darling sleeves and wears these garments with quiet confidence. He wears frippery onstage. He wears it when making an appearance at some charitable event. He wears it just strolling down a path with his girlfriend. In most any other profession, dressing outside of convention would be a provocation. What does one make of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and her cheerleader skirts and fuzzy boleros? John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democratic nominee for senate, built an entire persona on his hoodies and shorts and inked up arms. Observers itch for an explanation. A meaning.

Styles’s appearance begs questions not because it’s in violation of some unwritten rule but because it’s so invigorating. We’re less inclined to ask “Why does he do it?” and more likely to wonder “How does he do it?” We should all get the expressive leeway of pop stars.

The gray and the pink

It’s taken a lot of history to arrive at this point. To arrive at Harry Styles. There have been a lot of rockers and soul singers who have gussied themselves up and used a combination of biker leather and frilly ruffles to highlight roiling machismo, to suggest that their testosterone is cranked up so high that they need a lacy jabot to tone it down to a level that their fans can handle. Feminine attire on men has been used as an intentional violation, a considered act that is meant to confront the status quo. And it’s been used as a statement about one’s own sexuality — a way of making plain what once could not be uttered aloud.

James Brown. Prince. Little Richard. They all used feminine style to their own ends.

A lot of pain, both physical and mental, has been endured by many men and women over the generations before we have arrived here where folks like Styles can reap the joys and pleasures that others worked so hard to make available. This isn’t a matter of cultural appropriation as much as it is having the luxury of enjoying a tremendous smorgasbord after a long-suffering crew tended the plants, harvested the crops and did the cooking.

The cover of “Harry’s House” features the singer standing in a room that’s turned upside down. A sofa, side table and lamp dangle from the floor-now-ceiling. Styles stands in the corner with his body angled slightly away from the camera. His hair is mussed and he’s wearing wide-leg denim trousers and an ivory babydoll top with a Peter Pan collar. It’s a shirt that looks like the repurposed dress of a toddler. Styles’s right hand is perched on his chin as if he’s trying to remember what’s on the day’s to-do list.

There’s nothing particularly sexy or tough about the image. The sweetness of the shirt isn’t juxtaposed with anything edgy unless one counts the tattoos on his arm and it’s been a long time since a rock star’s illustrated body made anyone gasp. Styles is wearing the clothes with the same nonchalant ease with which someone might wear a T-shirt. And while that might seem like no big deal, that shrug is a fairly recent victory.

It was 2020 when Styles became the first man to appear alone on the cover of Vogue wearing a long, shirred gown by Gucci. And it was only 2019 when Billie Porter wore a Christian Siriano gown on the Oscars red carpet. And it was only in 2012 that Rio Uribe founded Gypsy Sport, one of the early brands to formally highlight racial diversity and gender fluidity.

It’s easy to look at Styles and shrug off his quirky clothing choices as the extravagances of a performer. They are, of course. But they’re also a small triumph for those who understand not only the complexities of gender fluidity, but also the beauty of it. As a culture, there’s so much serious business to sort through as people come to an understanding of who they are and how they want to be understood. Everyone exists on a public stage. The only difference is the size of their audience. We need to be more generous in applauding everyone, not just the pop stars.