When beloved boy band One Direction broke up in 2015, millions of fans all over the world were devastated. For many, the band’s upbeat pop anthems and meticulously styled matching outfits were a staple of their adolescence—as reminiscent of middle school as braces and training bras. It was the end of an era, one which inspired the kind of euphoric obsession that can rarely be replicated later in life. The end of One Direction, however, was just the beginning of Harry Styles.
Harry was always the most universally adored member of One Direction, as well as the most recognized outside of the insular world of fandom. It’s not hard to figure out why. His cherubic curls, husky voice, and lively but endlessly polite personality made for the perfect pop star: just approachable enough to emulate the innocent boy-next-door, but with a rough edge of sex appeal that could make even the most cynical teenage girl swoon. As the years following the band’s founding went by, and One Direction fans grew older and more mature, the boys were given more leeway to cultivate their personal aesthetics. Even then, Harry was attracted to a more opulent look than the rest of his bandmates, who dressed almost exclusively in an amalgamation of dark-colored trackies, sneakers, and snapbacks. Standing next to them in eye-popping luxury suits and silk scarves, it became clear that Harry’s future—whatever it might be—was inevitably going to stand out from the pack.
And it did. Since the band split up five years ago, Harry has become the verified Timberlake of the group. He’s released two full albums, acted in an Oscar-winning film, hosted and performed on Saturday Night Live, and been selected as the face of Gucci’s men’s tailoring campaign. In his numerous Gucci photoshoots, Harry’s outfits have grown more and more daring over time, ranging from plaid three-piece suits to purple ascots to neon pink blazers. On the cover of his most recent album, he poses in a pair of stunningly white sailor pants—adorned with gold buttons—and a plunging fuschia blouse. All custom Gucci, of course. The photo was shot with a fish-eye lens, distorting the image so that his already lengthy legs look even longer. It’s the kind of Bowie-esque portrait that instantaneously creates the iconic.
But comparisons to legendary androgyne David Bowie come with a price: endless interrogations about his sexuality, accusations of queer-baiting, and unabashed hostility, even from former bandmate Liam Payne. It seems that no matter what he does, Harry just can’t get gender or sexuality “right.”
This is, of course, ridiculous. There is no “right” way to perform gender or sexuality, and that includes whether or not one chooses to publicly state their identity. Harry Styles is not queer-baiting you because he would rather not announce the most intimate aspects of his personhood to the entire world—and note that I use the word “personhood” with intention, because when all is said and done, Harry Styles is a person just like the rest of us. He is more than the content he produces; he doesn’t owe you a label, whether that label is straight or queer. He does, however, owe the queer community more overt recognition as a major influence on his aesthetic.
While rainbow flags and other queer paraphernalia frequently appear with him on stage, Harry has never explicitly credited the LGBT community as the inspiration for his gender-neutral wardrobe. Perhaps he thinks that this goes without saying. But in the words of my friend Sasha Carney, “Styles is not a private individual in the way that you or I might be… Within the frame of [his] public persona, his dislinkage of effeminate queer aesthetics from queer identity labels, politics, or explicit queer desires makes perfect sense.” According to their theory, real, tangible ties to queerness are additional baggage that Harry does not wish to claim, for PR reasons or otherwise.
It is my genuine hope that this dislinkage is not as intentional as some believe it to be—but either way, Harry’s silence is in active disregard of a marginalized community that he could very easily uplift. Even a simple tweet about the history of queer fashion or drag ball culture would be a good first step, because when mainstream celebrities recognize and celebrate queer people, the world listens. Beyond that, it’s just the right thing to give credit where credit is due, especially as far as subjugated groups are concerned.
Harry Styles as we know him would not exist without the contributions of queer—and specifically trans—elders such as Flawless Sabrina, Crystal LaBeija, and Gladys Bentley. They set the precedent in a time when wearing clothes made for the “opposite sex” wasn’t just transgressive or unsual—it was illegal. They were the first to demand that conventional society treat people, all people, with kindness. And if that isn’t what Harry’s aesthetic is all about, then who and what does it really serve?
By Isabelle Robinson
Illustration by Alexa Flores