In March, leather suit-wearing, feather boa-adorned Harry Styles opened the 2021 Grammy awards with a jazzed-up version of his song ‘Watermelon Sugar’. Styles was introduced by the night’s host, The Daily Show presenter Trevor Noah, with a warning for the women in the audience that he’d “steal your heart and your dress and [look] damn good doing it”.
Styles’s playful, and oftentimes camp, fashion choices, and the controversy they frequently conjure, help to highlight the way in which fashion directs conversations in society.
Camp has had many iterations over the decades, but a common understanding was explored by Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp’. Camp is “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”, wrote Sontag. It conjures up the dandies, fops and effetes of the past. Camp embraces the androgynous, and although it has crossover with the queer scene and identity, to which it owes a debt of inspiration, it also exists in a parallel realm.
In November 2020, Styles, in a lace-trimmed blue Gucci dress, appeared as the first solo male cover star of Vogue magazine. The conservative fallout from the cover focused on his apparent representation of the fall of masculinity in the west. “There is no society that can survive without strong men,” tweeted US conservative commentator Candice Owens. “In the west,” she went on, “the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack.” Owens condemned Styles’s photoshoot and dress, and ended her tweet with a call to “bring back manly men”.
Although the former One Direction star cheekily responded with an Instagram of himself eating a banana dressed in a light blue women’s suit with a ruffled blouse, simply captioned “Bring back manly men”, the online debate around masculinity continued. Styles is not the first to embrace androgynous style—in contemporary history, Black and brown queer, trans and non-binary people in particular have paved the way there—but his fashion and notoriety have undoubtedly reopened the proverbial can of worms when it comes to men’s fashion and links to masculinity, in whatever way that might be defined. Here in New Zealand, a mild panic about the “state” of men broke out in the 1920s and 30s following World War I, with fears that men were not masculine enough; that they were becoming “effeminate”.
The solution? Fashion. And lots of it.
Unlike the common, modern association of effeminacy with homosexuality, during the period between World War I and World War II it was more strongly related to worries around degeneration. Concerns were expressed in terms of physical and mental wellbeing, in addition to sexual desires. The fears around effeminacy were very much echoed in sentiments like Owens’s tweets around 100 years later.
Fashion was thought to be an area in which a man’s effeminacy could potentially be revealed; yet also seen as something used to purposefully avoid that label. And much as it does today, the way men demonstrated their masculinity and sexuality through fashion and clothing suffused popular print culture of the period.
First published in 1937, the New Zealand men’s monthly magazine The Monocle (unrelated to the modern culture and design title) showcased a recurring feature titled Gallants in Embryo that focused on the fashion of its readership. “Gallant” was a word used to describe men who were both charming and chivalrous towards women, and who were dashing and fashionable. While by today’s standards its attitude towards effeminate men leaned towards homophobic, the feature’s fashion advice could at times veer into what we might call camp today.
The author and illustrator, Harrison Ford (no, not that one), filled the feature with the “dos and don’ts” of men’s fashion, discussing aspects of masculinity, sexuality and psychology. Fashion could be used as a defence against “effeminacy”, and men’s knowledge of how to dress as a masculine man, in a masculine manner, was vital in this respect.
The first Gallants in Embryo column starts off with the following address to its readers: “Let’s face it! What are our worst faults? Some of us don’t care; but there are many gallants in embryo who fear the brand of effeminacy.” In these first lines Ford established that his feature would help those men who feared being classed as effeminate; and he outlined how in each article he would separately deal with different items of dress in order to “give a general guide to fashions”.
Male fashion didn’t have to be drab and boring, he assured. Ford noted that “The male has always been the more resplendent of the sexes”, identifying male peacocks, golden pheasants and lions as being more striking than their female counterparts. Dressing well, Ford claimed, could have “a psychological effect on the tired business man and emboldening effect on the effete lover”. However, it was all about balance. “Variety in dress,” he wrote, “is only a matter of deciding how much you can get away with, without being thought ‘sissy’.”
Harry Styles would have been a step too far for Ford, who embraces both a vibrant masculinity and flamboyant effeminacy. Public figures such as Michael B. Jordan, John Legend and Taika Waititi would be closer to achieving this balancing act, as defined by Ford, by adding florals, patterns, colour and accessories, to otherwise drab men’s suits.
Conversations from a post-war, post-pandemic 1920s and 30s may continue to be mirrored in our own world, as we emerge from our own once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Is Styles’s Grammys debut, with his daringly camp rock ‘n’ roll fashion, his feather boas and phallic-fashioned banana jewellery, a sign of more boundary-pushing masculine fashion to come? Will his fashion choices transcend trends for our own masculinity-obsessed “Roaring Twenties”? Or will the Harrison Fords of our time find a way to suppress men’s expression of femininity again? Only time, and the depleted stock of feather boas, will tell.
Ailish Wallace-Buckland is studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum and Heritage Practice at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. She completed a Master’s in history last year looking at ‘“The menace of effeminacy”: Medical and popular discussions of masculinity in interwar New Zealand, c. 1918–1939.’
Read the original article on The Spinoff.