If you have an ounce of sense or taste, you will look at the red carpet for the Grammys, if at all, the same way that less enlightened 18th century thrill-seekers paid to be shown round the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Those you observe are to be pitied, to be sure, but you are viscerally aware that they occupy a different world from your own.
One of the highlights, if one may use that word, was the young chanteur and Holmes Chapel lad Harry Styles, late of One Direction and now a solo artist of inexplicable success. To give Styles his due, his third album, Harry’s House, won three awards, including the Grammy for best album, an accolade at which no-one should sniff. But there was at least as much coverage of his red carpet costume, a Swarovski-glittering, harlequin-patterned jumpsuit with flared legs and a deep scoop at the neck. Underneath was displayed his bare chest with hints of nipple, some of his more than 50 tattoos and a gold cross necklace.
It’s safe to say young Styles dresses “flamboyantly”, by which we mean he occasionally wears items of clothing which might be classified as women’s apparel. He is no stranger to a feather boa, for example, as well as sheer blouses, floral prints and, occasionally, an actual dress. He leans heavily on Paul Simonon’s judgement that “Pink is the only true rock and roll colour”.
This is all rather tiresome and carries a sense of him tugging urgently at your sleeve, desperate for you to look at him. Of course some of the bien pensant cultural commentariat have spoken breathlessly of his bravery and iconoclasm, his rejection of conformity and his freedom of spirit. The designer Michael Kors hilariously described Styles’s wardrobe as “the modern embodiment of British rocker style: edgy, flamboyant and worn with unapologetic swagger”. Anyone with any aesthetic and historical sense knows he is nothing of the sort.
What makes Styles’s posing and preening so wearying is that he obviously thinks he is a radical at the cutting edge of gender identity and sexuality, blazing a trail through society’s norms. In fact he challenges common standards about as much as a Conservative MP in the Surrey stockbroker belt. It baffles me how anyone can think a man wearing a dress is at all controversial when Grayson Perry was recently knighted and Edna Everage (later a Dame) first appeared on television in 1956. This has all been done before, and so much better.
You want to play with gender roles and costume? Try 1930’s Morocco, directed by Josef von Sternberg, in which Marlene Dietrich appears in impeccable white tie, unmistakeably a man’s evening dress, sings the heartbreaking ballad When Love Dies, and then satirically — or is it satirically? — kisses a girl in the audience and takes a flower from her. It is an electrifying performance.
If you want a more modern comparison, look at David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase. His dyed hair was the least shocking weapon in his armoury: the catsuits were distinctly androgynous if not actually feminine, and he wore striking and elaborate make-up and bright lipstick. This was a man who was unafraid to seize gender norms and subvert them with intelligence and wit. There is a reason he is an enduring cultural icon.
The point here is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Styles gambolling across the world stage in women’s clothes or elements of feminine identity. But there is also absolutely nothing original or fearless about it. It might almost attract more criticism if he were to wear conventional black tie or even a suit. An eternal message for rebels: make sure someone hasn’t beaten you to the punch. No-one likes out-of-date radicalism.