Harry Styles did not only make the front page of Vogue late last year when he appeared in a dress — the 26-year-old also made waves across the Internet. Critics were quick to denounce this feminine fashion choice, and fans were just as quick to defend his masculinity despite the article of clothing. In the midst of this hot debate, however, one question was left unanswered: where did our present notions of masculinity and femininity in clothes come from, and just how transgressive should this breaking of boundaries be?
500 years ago, a male performer in a dress would have hardly drawn the same amount of attention as today. England in the 1500s was the backdrop of Shakespearean drama where, contradictory to what the liveliness of the theatre scene may suggest, women were still barred from the stage. As a result, the heyday of theatre saw male actors taking on female roles, using makeup, wigs and feminine costumes to complete the illusion — in other words, what is now recognised as full drag. Similarly, many other established forms of theatre across various cultures such as the Peking Opera saw men in women’s clothing due to a similar ban on women performing. Up till the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy, the iconic Dan or female roles were played by men, complete with hyperfeminine face paint of thick eyeliner, bright blush and bold red lips.
Beyond the stage, skirts had long been a part of daily menswear, from the flowing Greek toga to the Celtic kilt. At the Palace of Versailles, the seat of power in the early modern era, frills, silk stockings, and even high heels were in fact reflections of masculinity. In an age where most of the population was poor and had to resort to basic and practical clothing, elaborate lacy and jewelled pieces became a marker of capitalist success, wealth and thus masculinity; their impracticality further reinforcing the wearer’s privilege as someone who did not have to labour to earn his living. Louis XIV himself popularised the high heel as a symbol of masculinity both in this vein, and as a means to give the wearer added height and thus a more imposing and dominant presence associated with masculine superiority.
Ironically enough, the culprit of today’s disapproval towards Styles can be said to be Beau Brummell, himself a fashion icon of the early 1800s. An influential middle-class man rather than a born aristocrat, he denounced the ornate, eye-catching fashions of the traditional nobility as frivolous and garish. In its place, understated, albeit expensively tailored, silhouettes and fabrics became the new image of ‘sensible’ masculinity. Their status was further reinforced by notably contrasting the ‘superficiality’ (and thus inferiority) of femininity and its opulent dresses, and in tandem with ideals of the laborious self-made man in the Industrial Age as opposed to the slothful, indulgent aristocrat. From the online reaction Styles garnered, there is no doubt that these ideas still persist in fashion today.
But there have been those who have walked the road of gender non-conforming clothes long before Styles, and often in higher heels and bigger wigs still. In the 1970s-1980s, fellow British singers David Bowie, who was renowned for experimenting with anything, from colourful eyeshadows to formal suits, and his contemporary Freddie Mercury were just as unafraid to perform in glittery spandex and full drag with the rest of his flamboyantly named band. Meanwhile, drag queens have prevailed over the course of the 20th century, bending these unspoken rules of gender and fashion as means of entertainment, rebellion, self-expression and liberation. One of the most influential today is none other than RuPaul, whose widely broadcasted television series have made the art of gender nonconformity more visible to the public, shaving off some of its taboo.
Perhaps it is a societal failure on our part if a man in a dress sparks such controversy. Even well-meaning fans’ assertions of their male stars’ masculinity to validate them unwittingly contribute to the implicit notion that femininity is inferior, though they rightly contend that clothes do not make the gender. All of it reflects how deep these false constructs run in a society that prides itself as modern and enlightened, and how little we know of the basis of our ideas regarding gender and fashion. But there is a glimmer of hope for as long as there are people who are seeing fashion’s superficiality and perpetuation of toxic notions of masculinity and femininity, and resisting them, much like Styles.