Harry Styles and the ‘Fine Line’ between fashion and style

Harry Styles and the ‘Fine Line’ between fashion and style

Harry Styles wore a hot pink Gucci shirt with white Gucci trousers, first seen on the cover of his second album, on Dec. 13 at the Forum for his album release party. “Fine Line” had dropped at midnight earlier that day, but the Los Angeles crowd sang along to every song, the lyrics already memorized.

The outfit is quintessential Styles as he’s been for the last few years: flowing, wide-leg trousers, 1970s-vintage details and patterns and colors regularly described as “feminine.” Alongside breaking records with his solo music and launching an acting career with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017), the former One Direction singer has attempted to position himself as a rising fashion icon since the boy band’s indefinite hiatus announcement in 2015.

“[His clothes are] definitely always eye-catching,” said Alex, a 29-year-old consultant in Washington, D.C., and co-owner of the fan-run site Harry Styles Fashion Archive (HSFA). “It’s always interesting and a little performative.”

HSFA started in 2015, around One Direction’s hiatus announcement. Alex and co-owner Lu, a 25-year-old working in public relations in London, met online through the fandom. Though neither currently work in fashion, they bonded over a shared interest. To dive deeper into the online community they loved, they joined forces on fashion blogs focused on each One Direction member’s wardrobe. (The Louis Tomlinson Fashion Archive is their second-biggest platform.)

HSFA had its humble beginnings on Tumblr, but Alex and Lu’s posting system — now extended to Instagram and Twitter accounts boasting a collective 80,000 followers — mostly stayed the same over the years. A new photo of Styles appears online, and the blog’s co-owners begin searching for the brands he’s wearing. When they find the piece, they post an image of Styles cropped beside the outfit details they aim to highlight, with a caption explaining what and who he’s wearing, and if possible, where to buy and how much it costs.

“[The members of One Direction] have all taken off on their own and developed their own identities outside of what was perhaps pre-assigned to them by being in a unit like that,” Alex said.

For his part, Styles has been lauded for bending gender stereotypes with his colored nails, his elegant jewelry and the playful silhouettes of his many suits. His 2019 Met Gala look — a sheer Gucci top and a dangly pearl earring — brought in over 700k impressions and 200k engagements on HSFA’s Twitter; on Instagram, their top posts remain all Gala-related even months later.

Fashion writers have since been praising the musician, comparing him to the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bowie and other effeminate rockstars of past eras.

There is, arguably, a timelessness to Harry Styles. But to compare him to certain musical giants of the 1960s and 1970s, who used fashion as part of their art, is not an accurate assessment, according to Keanan Duffty, founding director of the Masters of Professional Studies Fashion Management program at Parsons School of Fashion and the author of the music-fashion book “Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style.”

“I think there are many similarities between the Clash and One Direction in that they were both kind of boy bands that were put together by impresarios in the music industry,” Duffty said.

To drive this singular comparison home, Duffty referenced a 2017 Rolling Stones interview with Styles, in which the singer quoted the Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon: “Pink is the only true Rock ’n’ Roll color.”

One Direction fans who have followed the group since its days on “The X Factor” likely remember the baggy jeans and endless Hollister sweats worn by the singers. But in 2011, after being signed to Simon Cowell’s record label Syco, the boys began working with stylist Caroline Watson, who created looks based on each member’s personality.

If Zayn Malik was the “sexy, mysterious one,” Styles was “the kind of guy who wore the funny bow ties, and he was cute, and you’d take him home to your mom,” Duffty said.

“[Watson] leaned on certain designers who she felt were appropriate for the band, because she wanted them to be like a male Spice Girls,” Duffty said. For Styles, that meant a lot of Yves Saint Laurent — a brand he still wears frequently.

A mix of YSL coats, boldly patterned button-downs, tight black skinny jeans and Chelsea boots became a signature outfit for Styles. In 2013, when asked about a British Style Award he had received, he said it came as a shock considering he only owned two pairs of jeans.

The journey to the Harry Styles fans now see dancing on stages across the world has been a gradual transformation, according to Alex, but one that seemed inevitable. Styles began working with stylist Harry Lambert in 2014, and in 2015, he was seen at the American Music Awards in a floral print suit with bell-bottom pants.

“Everyone [in the fandom] was like, ‘What is that? What is going on?’” Alex said. “That was probably the first big departure.”

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The outfit stood out because it was no longer aligned with the traditionally masculine looks he’d worn on red carpets — so divergent from the tight pants he was known for during his “off-duty” hours. For fans, it became a definitive moment in his style progression, a point in time that represented a distinct change. But, in actuality, the suit was Gucci and the black button-down was another Saint Laurent piece. The outfit was not entirely different from what Styles had worn in the past and what he’d wear going forward.

“James Brown’s cape is a moment,” Duffty said, describing fashion choices that deeply affected the worlds of art and entertainment. “There are many things from Michael Jackson, but let’s say the red ‘Thriller’ jacket — that’s a moment. The Sex Pistols, bondage pants, they’re a moment. They moved pop culture.”

“Is Harry Styles doing that?” He posed. “Or is he just wearing Gucci? Because there’s a big difference.”

What about the Met Gala outfit that took the internet by storm? And surely, with or without the Gucci or Saint Laurent labels, the custom suits he wears on stage give the singer a cohesive and memorable image, different from the likes of other pop stars like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes. Separately, Alex marks the 2017 performance of Styles’ song “Kiwi” on “The Late Late Show” as “a moment,” with the singer wearing a Charles Jeffrey jumpsuit.

These “moments” must culminate into something. And yes, Harry Styles is certainly fashionable, Duffty said, as mainstream artists and Hollywood starlets must be nowadays. But is Styles stylish?

“If you look at James Brown, for example, you could argue that his wild hair and his jumpsuits and his capes were not fashion, necessarily,” Duffty said. “He was way beyond fashion. He didn’t care about trends. He was actually wearing something that would look amazing on stage … and that sent a really big message to the public.”

“I think that’s a big difference between where we are in pop music today and pop music’s assimilation of fashion,” he continued. “[Fashion and pop music] have become a bit of a bedfellow.”

To move the pop culture needle forward through fashion, originality is needed. Styles’s wardrobe is a lovely homage to an era of gender fluidity and rebellion, but Duffty believes it stops there.

“It’s not like [Styles] is trying to crash through stereotypes,” Duffty said. “You know, it’s a great Gucci suit, but I saw it on the runway … He could have done something different with it.” (Similar thoughts have been shared about Styles’s music as well: “We remain no closer to understanding him as a songwriter or solo artist … mostly, I hear a guy who’s still afraid he’ll never make a David Bowie record,” Jeremy D. Larson wrote in the “Fine Line” review for Pitchfork.)

To become iconic in the avenue where fashion and music meet, it’s important to “be more transgressive,” said Duffty. He cites FKA twigs as an artist pushing boundaries forward with her music and image.

Noting the differences between artists working to dismantle gender stereotypes like Jagger and Bowie, who he said were up against “macho, bare-chested rock stars,” and the manufactured multihyphenates of today like Styles is important. Nevertheless, to dismiss Styles and his platform would be a disservice to his fans, who still look to the singer for fashion inspiration.

“I don’t want to attack Harry Styles. He’s a cute boy,” Duffty said. “And maybe [addressing stereotypes is] not his motivation.”

To this point, with or without the “icon” label, Styles makes fashion accessible for people like Alex, Lu and the thousands of fans who follow their accounts, looking for a way to engage with this often closed-off world.

His wardrobe is the perfect array of eclectic for the burgeoning casual student: Lambert ensures that Styles doesn’t tie himself to one large label and often highlights designers just starting their careers. During his first solo tour, Styles wore many outfits created by gender-nonconforming designer Harris Reed. Recently, at iHeartRadio’s 2019 Jingle Ball, he was seen on stage in a glittery denim shirt-and-jeans combo by emerging designer Archie Alled-Martínez.

It’s Styles’s platform that holds the true power. The marketing of a label is important and since the advent of the celebrity supermodel in the 1980s and 1990s, labels like Gucci have used celebrities “to speak to a younger audience, in a voice that the younger audience understands,” said Duffty.

For Gucci, that meant bringing on Alessandro Michele in 2015, who, in turn, took on Styles to reach that younger audience.

Alex echoed the sentiment, noting the Michele Effect: “If you look back at the Gucci collections that have come out and how those have grown, you can really see that [Gucci and Styles have] kind of grown together.” (Michele even designed a t-shirt for Styles’s new merchandise, available on his website.)

In the end, if not iconic, Styles’s curated looks and his partnerships with small designers and big labels alike are stepping stones to an informal education in a high-brow, distant industry.

“I was the type of person who really looked forward to red carpet events to see what everyone wore,” Alex said. “But I’ve never been interested in it being a job, especially [because] I didn’t grow up in an area where that would be a job available, like in New York.”

Alex and Lu have gained knowledge and access into the fashion industry through their enthusiasm for it, coupled with their love for Styles. They know it’s not the singer behind all the pizzazz; in fact, through HSFA, they have talked to the main person curating Styles and his fashion-forward platform. When the blog owners have a particularly hard time trying to find a piece that Styles was seen wearing, they sometimes reach out to Lambert.

“He follows us on Instagram,” Alex said. “Harry Lambert does such a good job. I want him to get the praise and credit for all these outfits … because he’s definitely well-loved by the fandom with what he’s done with Harry Styles.”

Ultimately, Styles may not be a fashion icon the way Bowie and Jagger were in their heyday. But rather than inspiring an isolated world, he’s pushed the door open and waved through his millions of fans. And maybe that’s all that matters.

Top Image: Harry Styles and Alessandro Michele at the 2019 Met Gala. Photo by Stephen Lovekin/BEI/Shutterstock