An Analysis On the Image of Harry Styles

By: T’Angelo Gonzales and Maximillian Hess

For a 27 year-old musician, Harry Styles has undergone a hefty visual transformation and rebranding since his time as a member of the boy band One-Direction to his present-day musical endeavors as a standalone artist. With the gradual breakdown of gender barriers like apparel that allow both men and women to explore new options of self expression, Styles has worked to thrust himself into the spotlight by challenging his former gendered image as a member of a fairly vanilla boy band, opening up discussion on what means of male expression are socially acceptable. This evolution of Harry Styles’s image as an artist and public figure showcases his early conformity to and later subversion of Hegemonic Masculinity.

Styles began his career at the young age of 16 when he auditioned for the popular music competition show The X Factor. Like many other boys of his age, Styles is dressed in a stylistic manner that doesn’t call too much attention to himself, though he does feature a scarf as an accessory to add some personality to his look. It’s clear for several reasons that Styles isn’t making any bold decisions here with his image to deviate from traditional masculine imagery, from his choices in appearance to his then-lack of fame that could serve as an enabler for such boldness. It is noteworthy however to acknowledge Styles’s emergent taste for fashion, as indicated with his scarf to complete his subtle yet well rounded outfit. Certainly, this could’ve been the end of the conversation, but Styles’s image continued to linger and develop even behind the veil of One Direction.

Upon the formation of One Direction mid-competition during his run on The X Factor, Styles would see an increased pressure to conform to the hallmark heartthrob look of the old-school boy bands to cater to their younger audience, with an emphasis on female fans in One Direction’s case. What remained unique among One Direction was each member’s individualism against the images of the other boys, quite possibly due to their upbringing in the public eye as individual musicians before joining together. Still, the limits of hegemonic masculinity persisted, and the ground that Harry Styles breaks with his current look would surely have been highly controversial among media outlets during his time with his bandmates.

Upholding the Image of a Typical Boy Band as a Single Entity

As was noted before, the individualism found within One Direction was stronger than with older boy bands and could be part of the reason three of its members are still able to find success as solo musicians. Still, each member had to consider the band and their collective image when making decisions of any kind that could change public perception. One example of this is Styles’s desire to experiment with drugs, a matter that Styles felt would’ve hurt public perception of the band. Despite Style’s persistent urge to explore who he was as an individual and as a young man, the pushback he received both from his impact on the larger image of the band and from the expectation to uphold the teen boy heartthrob persona restricted the artist to certain means of expression.

Transitional Phase from Hegemonic Masculinity to Embracing Societal Feminist Norms

Following his departure from One Direction in late 2015 and with the release of his debut album the following year, Styles began to explore his image with regard to fashion and style. With an initially more formal approach, Styles struggled to find his voice and footing to catch the attention of the public eye. Much of his aesthetic still harkened back to the one-direction days, from the similar styling of his hair to the sharp look in his eyes. Hesitant to push his newfound freedom, Styles came off as rigid and uncomfortable. That quickly changed not long after the release of his first album Harry Styles when he began to loosen up his look in front of the camera. Styles grew his hair out and experimented with a more casual look that demonstrated an increased comfort with his look and individualism. Still, Styles’s aesthetic did little to actually expand on the discussion on masculinity. This changed in 2019 when Harry Styles attended the Met Gala in a traditionally non-masculine outfit that caught the attention of the public. Not only did this open up the discussion on Styles’s complicated identity as a man, but the timing of such a statement meant that he didn’t have to face the potential backlash of One Direction fans who enjoyed Styles’s image as a teen boy heartthrob. The public instead grew fascinated in Styles’s exploration.

Using Public Image to Establish a Voice & Challenge Toxic Masculinity Through Fashion

In 2020, Vogue released its US edition December issue that featured Harry Styles as the first man to ever appear solo on the cover. Harry Styles was styled in a pale lace Gucci gown and a black tuxedo jacket. This cover in particular was revolutionary because the wardrobe choice continues Styles’s ability to challenge gender binaries. In the interview with Vogue, Styles mentioned how removing barriers allows someone to open up the arena in which they play. This bold and exciting path to ending hegemonic masculinity and gender binaries is truly inspiring for audiences who seek role models to challenge gender constructs that are ingrained in society. Harry Styles pushed the boundaries throughout the entire photoshoot with Vogue by featuring other outfits society would consider to be womenswear.  

The Process of Removing Gender from Discussion

Styles has managed to remove gender from the discussion by upholding a persona that does not often speak about his ability to gender bend. Instead, he displays his views on these topics through his creativity and collaborations with other creatives. This is powerful because it showcases the idea that it’s not a big deal for a man to dress in what society considers women’s clothing. Instead, it holds a meaning, and that meaning is to be shared in settings that respect, understand, and encourage the progressiveness of expanding gender identities. Styles’s approach to ending hegemonic masculinity is very well thought out, and hopefully it will continue to inspire generations to step outside the norms of gender binaries.

Finding Comfort in His Own Skin

Harry Styles also promotes his deconstruction of toxic masculinity tropes through Issue#8 of Beauty Papers. Styles was quoted for his “treat people with kindness” statement for the issue. This message becomes powerful through the image above. Styles is sitting very relaxed while he maintains a confident and present look on his face while featuring a pair fishnets – an accessory many men would not dare to wear. It’s obvious to any viewer that he has become very comfortable with himself and the image he is putting out for his fans and the rest of world to see. This issue in particular “responds to the shrinking freedoms of our world with an explosion of individuality, creativity, diversity, and unity.” Styles embodies this message through his ability to continuously challenge society’s expectations for men.

The Now-Expanded Creative Palette of Harry Styles

Throughout the years Styles has pushed the borders for men’s fashion while still relevantly and creatively expressing himself through traditional mens fashion. Styles has managed to create such a large creative palette for himself that he has normalized his appearance to consist of both women’s and menswear. This mindset pushes the boundaries for future generations to be able to express themselves in any way they choose without having constraints on what to wear because it’s in a certain gendered section in a store.

“It’s like anything – anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself. There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes.”

Harry Styles for Lifestyle Desk
Styles’s efforts to Continue his Image & Challenge the Gender Binary

According to L’Officiel, it’s rumored that the Grammy award winner is in the midst of developing a makeup and fragrance company. This would be another monumental step for Styles as he continues to display his gender-fluidness through his ability to create. Since departure from One Direction, Harry Styles has been able to create a platform that embodies what it truly means to gender bend. His ability to transform common ideologies associated with men is truly inspiring. Seeing a White male push concepts that are far from the stereotypes associated with hegemonic masculinity and masculine culture is powerful for those who struggle to accept their differences. His confidence is admirable and should continue to be celebrated. 

Resources

Banks, H. J. (2020). Adored Pop Star or Freaky Artiste: The evolution of Harry Styles. Social Alternatives, 39(4), 12-18. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/scholarly-journals/adored-pop-star-freaky-artiste-evolution-harry/docview/2524413586/se-2?accountid=7118.

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829–859. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243205278639

Frodsham, I. (2019, November 22). Harry Styles: I didn’t want to ‘mess up’ boyband success with drug use. London Evening Standard | Evening Standard. https://www.standard.co.uk/showbiz/celebrity-news/harry-styles-one-direction-drugs-a4293626.html.

Halperin, S. (2020). Harry Styles This Charming Man. Variety350(5), 30–38.

Issue#8. Harry Styles One. Beauty Papers. (2021, April 20). https://beautypapers.com/product/simple-poduct-print/.

One Direction singer Harry Styles becomes first man to appear solo on this fashion magazine cover. The Indian Express. (2020, November 14). https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/fashion/one-direction-singer-harry-styles-first-man-solo-vogue-cover-7051441/.

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