“He is the image of a new era,” Gucci’s Alessandro Michele said of Harry Styles for Vogue in November 2020, “of the way that a man can look.”
Michele’s assessment of Styles’ cultural impact, especially in the world of fashion, is one that many pop culture followers agree with heavily. None so much as his dedicated fan base, who look up to Styles for his action of breaking traditional roles of masculinity.
The November Vogue featured Styles wearing a custom Gucci dress and jacket on the front cover. Having been the first ever male solo cover for Vogue, this article and photograph became legendary.
Recently, however, Billy Porter has spoken out about his disdain for the adoration Styles is receiving, especially after this cover. Porter is a Black gay actor, musician and author known most today for his role on FX’s “Pose,” but also for his Tony Award-winning role as Lola in the original “Kinky Boots” on Broadway.
Porter rightly points out that Styles is hardly the first man to blur the lines of gender expression in fashion, and speculates the reason for his widespread approval is due to him being white and ambiguous in sexuality. While Styles is deserving of stylistic applause, the title of “the image of a new era” may be a step too far.
“He doesn’t care, he’s just doing it because it’s the thing to do,” Porter said to the Sunday Times. “This is politics for me. This is my life. I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars … All he has to do is be white and straight.”
Styles does acknowledge his inspirations in the accompanying article for his Vogue cover, citing “Prince and David Bowie and Elvis and Freddie Mercury and Elton John,” but not Porter. He is accrediting queer men for the path they layed, but Porter feels his spotlight has not been shined on those who came before him, and fought harder than him, enough.
Though, while Porter certainly has the right to call pop culture out for praising Styles as the ground breaker on a risk decades of men made before him, it may not be quite so fair to assume he should be the sole owner of that praise instead.
Jireh Deng commented on Porter’s recent statements in an NPR article titled “Harry Styles isn’t the leader of a fashion revolution, but neither is Billy Porter.” Deng makes pointed observations about the differences between these two icons and their respective journeys to acceptance.
“Styles, with his largely apolitical stance and soft presence online, presents a more palatable symbol of rejecting gender conformity for Vogue than other more vocal, politically invested openly LGBT individuals,” Deng writes. “That speaks to his privilege, as Porter points out: Styles hasn’t had to substantially risk anything in pursuing his artistic self-expression, compared to LGBT artists of color; in fact, he’s celebrated for it.”
Deng is right to say there is little at risk for Styles in the way there is for LGBTQ+ people who dare to challenge the gender binary. Styles himself says in Vogue that these fashion choices have never been something he’s given much thought to.
“There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never really thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something,” Styles said.
This alone shows how other people, specifically queer people and people of color, have more at stake when it comes to these fashion choices; how a custom designer dress on the cover of Vogue is a playful experience to Styles, but could have been career threatening for someone with less privilege.
Porter may not be in the place to take credit as the one individual who has done more to earn praise for his stylistic risks than Styles, but his overarching point has value nonetheless. Styles, among other pop culture figures, should not be the center of attention for gender norm- challenging statements — that conversation should center people who are taking the even bigger risk to be publicly queer in a space which still sometimes rejects them for it.