Executive Content Editor
Recently, Harry Styles made history as the first non-woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue, sparking a larger discourse on the nature of androgyny, masculinity, and gender fluidity in fashion. The popular opinion seems to be that he’s somehow revolutionized or “invented” gender-nonconforming fashion.
While I applaud him for defying gendered fashion norms, he is not the first to do so. Queer Black people (specifically trans-femmes) have been doing so for decades, Harry Styles is simply the most recent white man to do it — a.k.a. the most palatable.
Centering whiteness in gender-nonconforming fashion is ahistorical and dismissive of the Black creatives who’ve spent decades being marginalized and dismissed for resisting gendered fashion norms in the same way that Harry Styles is being praised for.
There is a long, storied history of Black queer creatives pushing gendered boundaries in art, music, and fashion, only to have their legacies co-opted and popularized by white people. This leaves Black creatives to suffer the disenfranchisement that comes with queerness, without the mainstream recognition that their white counterparts get from co-opting the styles that come from Black queer culture.
This is not to say that Harry Styles has done anything wrong — he’s brought unprecedented, mainstream attention to androgynous fashion; but with that attention, we should recognize the Black queer folk who originated and continue to innovate contemporary gender non-conforming fashion.
Modern queer fashion — specifically in America and Europe — was pioneered in ball culture as far back as the late 1800s. Balls are spaces where Black and Latine trans-femmes, nonbinary folk, and other queer people design original pieces to walk, pose, and perform in — one of the only spaces where they’ve been historically guaranteed acceptance, safety, and community. Ball culture is home to themed fashion runways, dance competitions, lip syncs, and a variety of other performances that bring queer communities together through creative expression.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, ball culture became especially important to queer Black and Latine communities as they were disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which further stigmatized queerness. During this time, maybe because of this hardship that made balls so necessary, ball culture as we know it today took shape.
Ballroom performers handcrafted extravagant, opulent designs as a way of exploring Black & Latine aesthetics imaginatively in a space that actually celebrated their queerness — escaping from a heteronormative world that stigmatized and criminalized them.
Throughout its history, Black ballroom culture influenced popular Black performers through costuming and choreography including Prince, Little Richard, Janet Jackson, and many others — all of whom incorporated and celebrated the queer design and performance styles that come directly from ball culture.
Despite this, the gender-neutral fashion that Black & Latine people pioneered continues to be whitewashed in an attempt to make queerness more palatable, marketable, and mainstream.
Too often, when white celebrities wear androgynous fashion, they’re turned into the faces of gender-neutral fashion; whereas when Black people do the same, they’re critiqued for being “too much” or “too queer.”
Again, this isn’t to say that Harry Styles has done anything wrong or that he shouldn’t be celebrated, but we have to demand equal visibility for his Black contemporaries that are just as important to the fashion world.
Queer Black celebrities and designers like Lil Nas X, Indya Moore, Telfar Clemens, Billy Porter, Angelica Ross, and many others are all revolutionizing and challenging the gender binary in fashion, and they deserve the same mainstream recognition that white celebrities like Styles are now getting.
The fashion world owes a creative debt to nonbinary, queer, and trans-femme people of color who have always pushed gendered boundaries — and they deserve editorials, covers, and recognition for their hard-fought innovation.