In the 2011 documentary “One Direction: A Year in the Making,” Harry Styles sobbed as he recounted reading hate-filled comments online.
“I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who didn’t really care that much about what people thought about them,” Styles said in the documentary. “But I just don’t think I am.”
Eight years later, Styles is blazing the trail and redefining masculinity and honest self-expression with no sign of caring about how others perceive him.
On Oct. 10, Styles released “Lights Up,” the first single from his upcoming album. Simultaneously, the “Lights Up” music video debuted, placing Styles in the middle of shirtless, sweaty and sensual party-goers, leaving some on the internet intrigued and wondering whether Styles was making a statement on National Coming Out Day.
When dressed, Styles donned a custom Gucci metallic shirt, a silk periwinkle two-piece suit and a fluid pink blouse paired with trousers and white-heeled boots. The boybander — who began his career glued to his skinny jeans, hoodies and an occasional blazer — is changing men’s fashion.
Along with Styles are pop culture mega-houses like Troye Sivan, Ezra Miller and Billy Porter, all of whom command red carpets with their extravagant, non-traditional style. These men stray away from the traditional black tuxedo and welcome self-expression through fashion.
Styles co-hosted the Met Gala, an annual fundraiser hailed as “fashion’s biggest night,” wearing Gucci pleated pants and a sheer blouse that had a flamboyant bow and lacy details. Styles took elements that are predominantly deemed feminine — sheer, lace, bow — and paired them with even more feminine pieces like painted fingernails, chunky heels and a pearl earring.
Porter, a Broadway performer and star of “Pose,” shutdown the Met Gala carpet when he arrived on a litter carried by six men. His entrance wasn’t the only extravagant thing; Porter wore a bejeweled catsuit, a 24-karat gold headpiece and 10-foot wings. He has also worn a bedazzled suit-cape combo to the Golden Globe Awards and a Christian Siriano tuxedo-gown to the Oscars.
These men are playing with colors, prints, fabrics and articles of clothing that men are told to stay away from. For his “Lights Up” music video, Styles worked with Harris Reed, a designer who creates inclusive, gender-fluid clothing. This wasn’t Styles’ first time working on a gender-fluid project.
In early August, Styles became the face of Gucci’s first gender-neutral fragrance, Mémoire d’une Odeur. Gucci and Styles said the scent is meant to “transcend gender and time.”
Since midway of One Direction’s time together, Styles began to transcend gender. Often working within a color scheme to match the rest of the band members, Styles deviated the norm, arriving to the 2015 American Music Awards in a cream, floral suit while his band-mates stuck to darker suits.
“I used to wear all black all of the time,” Styles told Dazed Beauty. “But I was realizing (dressing up) was a part of the show, if you will. Especially when performing. So I think (for) the people I have always admired and looked up to in music, clothes have always been a big part of the thing. Like Bowie, Elvis Presley. It’s always been part of the thing.”
With his flared pants and shoulder-length hair, Styles continued to dress and act drastically different than other men in pop music.
Early on, Styles was deemed the flirt of the band, with some outlets pinning him as the one who dated women twice his age. Beyond a hand-full of relationships playing out in public, Styles has tried to keep his private life in the shadows. He gives coy smiles and changes the subject when asked about his personal life, aiming to respect the women in his life.
He talks heavily of his mother’s influence on him and tends to show affection toward his friends, regardless if they’re male or female. This has led to speculations of Styles being gay or bisexual.
We once lived in a world where males would jump at the mere utterance of their name in correlation with homosexuality. Styles, however, is in no rush to label himself, giving today’s boys a glimpse into what living an authentic life really means.
But Styles isn’t the only one making waves in the conversation of masculinity. Pharrell Williams is GQ’s November cover-boy, sporting a yellow Moncler Pierpaolo Piccioli coat that can only be compared to Belle’s dress in “Beauty and the Beast.”
During a time when young African American men wore everything three sizes too big, Williams wore fitted clothing. With success, his style evolved. He acknowledges that he blurred gender lines in fashion, but that it initially happened because of his aesthetic. He did not set out to change people’s minds on men and fashion.
Williams opened up about being embarrassed of particular songs he’s written or performed before, namely “Blurred Lines.” The song includes the lyrics “I know you want it,” seen as misogynistic and promoting date-rape culture.
Williams said he now understood the outrage over the lyrics.
“I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn’t matter that that’s not my behavior. Or the way I think about things,” Williams told GQ. “It just matters how it affects women.”
Reflecting on a career that spans decades, Williams pondered what masculinity meant.
“I think the truest definition of masculinity is the essence of you that understands and respects that which isn’t masculine,” Williams said.
Styles — and other men in pop culture — are taking what isn’t masculine and celebrating it. Donning clothing that “wasn’t made for them,” sharing experiences and sentiments typically reserved for women and being unapologetically themselves, this era of pop culture men is ushering in a liberating environment for the coming generations.