In a society dominated by stereotypes, aesthetic has become intrinsically linked to sexuality; certain aesthetics (and most often, accompanying styles of dressing) have become associated with certain sexualities. This connection is problematic in the same way stereotypes are: it puts people into boxes. Gen Z’s newest mission is demonstratively proving that aesthetic doesn’t have to have anything to do with sexuality.

Harry Styles, a self-proclaimed fan of playing dress-up who effortlessly toes the line between masculinity and femininity, has a unique aesthetic, one that has created a dialogue about his sexuality for years. Styles, who, at 26, is among the oldest members of Gen Z, recently gained attention for being featured on the cover of Vogue. He is the first man in “Vogue”’s 129 year history to grace the cover, and he did so in a dress.

This cover, and the accompanying story, brought Styles great praise. Most Gen Zers (plus a select few from older generations) see Styles as an icon for the way he consistently ignores stereotypes and does his own thing. In the words of Rolling Stone, Styles on the cover of “Vogue” is nothing more to us than a “gorgeous person in a gorgeous dress, looking gorgeous.” 

Criticism of Harry Styles’ Vogue Cover

However, not everyone received Styles’ cover with such positivity.

Candace Owens, a conservative author and commentator, came at Styles on Twitter, tweeting “There is no society that can survive without strong men…the steady feminization of our men…is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.”

Conservative political commentator and media host Ben Shapiro retweeted Owens, adding that men wearing “floofy” dresses is a referendum on masculinity, and anyone who “pretends that it is not” is “treating you as a full-on idiot.” 

Styles, in response, posted images from the “Vogue” shoot on his Instagram with the caption “Bring back manly men.” 

The claim by Owens and Shapiro that Styles is not manly because he’s wearing a dress stems from a connection between aesthetic and gender, which is the base of the link between aesthetic and sexuality. And even more troubling than these conservatives who criticize Styles for wearing a dress are those who question his sexuality as a result of his aesthetic.

The Intersection of Aesthetic and Sexuality

Questions about Styles’ sexuality have been around since he was in One Direction, when some fans believed he was in a secret relationship with his bandmate Louis Tomlinson. 

Styles has been experimental with his style long before the Vogue cover—a notable example is his 2019 “Notes on Camp” Met Gala ensemble, which included a sheer, lacy blouse with a bow and a single drop pearl earring—but he has never explicitly defined his sexuality.

In a 2017 interview with The Sun after the debut of his self-titled album, Styles said “Everyone should just be who they want to be. It’s tough to justify everybody having to answer to someone else about stuff like that,” adding “I don’t think it’s something I’ve ever felt like I have to explain about myself,” on his own sexuality.

Styles kept this energy in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, where he said in response to his sexuality, “It’s: who cares? Does that make sense? It’s just: who cares?…I dunno, I just think sexuality’s something that’s fun.” 

In the same interview with The Guardian, he has said that his aesthetic, whether that’s his style or the design of his album covers, comes from what he thinks will “look cool,” and that it should not dictate perception of his sexuality.

Even beyond Styles, this perspective on aesthetic and sexuality is gaining traction, partially due to the popularity of a certain side of TikTok, a social media platform dominated by Gen Z and young millennials. 

Boys on the app model dresses and paint their nails; not because there’s a specific accompanying sexuality, but because they like the way it looks. They can toy with the idea of non-heterosexual experimentation, or they can be sure of their straightness and just like wearing dresses. 

Furthermore, there is a specific community of heterosexual boys and men within the app who are straight and sure of it, but interact with their friends in ways that might make them seem gay. The point of their videos is not to parody gay male interactions, but rather to emphasize that expressing yourself does not have to align with a gender identity or sexual orientation. 

They represent a new generation of heterosexual males who no longer fear “appearing gay.”

From Styles to these TikTok boys, there has been undeniable progress in disconnecting aesthetic and sexuality, and proving that you can have a certain style without the sexuality that is “supposed” to come along with it. 

Styles has a perfectly blasé attitude about breaking the link between the two, but for many, myself included, aesthetic remains intricately tied up with sexuality. 

I’m bisexual, and I do think about the implications of what I wear; when I think about my sexuality, I consider my clothing in that expression. I am conscious of how particular outfits convey or don’t convey my sexuality to the world. For the most part, I have a style that makes me pass as straight, but sometimes dress more androgynously. 

The real proof to me that aesthetic and sexuality are linked is that I tend to feel differently on days where I “dress gay” or “dress straight.” As much as I want to disconnect my aesthetic from my sexuality, the reality of our society is that when we present a particular aesthetic, we get assigned a particular sexuality.

Society has programmed me to see aesthetic and sexuality as inherently connected, which I think is part of the reason why I wasn’t really able to figure out and feel comfortable in my sexuality until my first year of college. 

Since I didn’t look like the typical lesbian stereotype, how could I like girls?

I had to meet bi and gay girls who also didn’t fit classic (and largely inaccurate) stereotypes about gay women—who looked, dressed, and otherwise aestheticized like me—before I could see how my aesthetic could fit into my sexuality.

This is why the work of Styles and others to publicly break apart aesthetic and sexuality is so important. Aesthetics don’t have sexuality counterparts, and the connection doesn’t have to line up.

Breaking Norms: Harry Styles, Prince, and David Bowie

As we credit Styles, however, we must also credit those who came before him. Styles undeniably breaks norms and crosses lines, but he is not the first to do so. And while he should be celebrated for his choices, he’s not exactly a revolutionary, as he’s described in the “Vogue” piece by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who designed Styles’ 2019 Met Gala outfit. 

Male artists in the past (like David Bowie and Prince, for example) have leaned into androgynous dress; Styles is not the first to do so. And Bowie and Prince, along with Styles, had the privilege of fame on their sides. For most people with an aesthetic that doesn’t “match” their sexuality, the negative consequences are much greater than the ones Styles faces.

This is not to say the covers shouldn’t be celebrated. Having a man on the cover of “Vogue”—and a man wearing a dress, at that—is an important accomplishment and a major step forward. However, Styles should be celebrated with a hint of awareness: we must not forget the individuals, many of whom are BIPOC, who have pushed boundaries long before Styles and received the opposite of celebration and praise in response.