I’ve always viewed fashion as a tool for self-expression. It’s a creative outlet—I would even argue it can be an artistic exhibition of one’s dreams and desires. You decide every day what you will wear. Likewise, what you wear illustrates what you want to say about who you are, what you stand for, what you represent.
Yet people often overlook how fashion is a major component that brings to the fore and normalizes conversations about gender. Now more than ever, we’re questioning long-held assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman, and what masculinity and femininity respectively entail. Fashion allows the people who are at the center of these debates to contribute to the conversation.
Many of these dialogues have blossomed from within the artistic community. Singers, actors, musicians, and artists have long blurred the line between masculine and feminine through their work and, just as often, through the way they dress. The clothes they wear are nuanced and political conversation within themselves.
Take Billy Porter’s look from the 2020 Grammys. Dressed in a shimmering oceanic blue bodysuit paired with a matching cropped blazer, Porter embraced close-cut silhouettes and amplified his ensemble with equally eye-catching accessories—a diamond choker, a delicate spider cuff, rhinestone boots, and an equally glitzy clutch. The ostentatious topper to this ensemble was a wide-brimmed hat dripping with a curtain of jewels, partially masking his frosty-blue eye makeup and silver lipstick.
His ’fit was a galactic, romanticized western mirage. Simultaneously an illusion and a look. A blend of his masculinity and femininity.
Currently starring in the television series Pose (a performance for which he won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, becoming the first openly gay black man to do so), Porter has been known for his jaw-dropping, gender-bending style choices since his run in the musical Kinky Boots as drag queen Lola from 2013 to 2015. Remember his 2019 Oscars Dress? Blending the traditional masculine dress code with old Hollywood femininity, he stepped onto the carpet in a black velvet tuxedo ball gown.
For Porter, fashion is not just an outlet of self-expression for his sexuality. His style choices embody gender-fluid fashion. They’re a beacon of possibilities to onlookers, showing that one can proudly refuse to fit into society’s outmoded gender expectations. Porter is by no means the only performer challenging the definition of masculinity in the often toxically masculine Hollywood environment, nor is he the first (a few of his predecessors in this area include Elton John, David Bowie, and Prince).
Harry Styles is another artist who comes to mind when discussing fluid fashion. The album cover for his latest album, Fine Line, features him in a shiny fuschia shirt and billowing white pants, with his fingers adorned with rings and multi-colored nail polishes. For his past album tour, he adopted shimmering fabrics and an array of paisley-patterned shirts and embroidered suits as his concert garb—elements traditionally limited to women’s fashion.
Conversely, artists such as Janelle Monae and Billie Eilish have adopted more masculine fashions—structured suits and baggy garments—the antithesis to the typical soft and sexy pop star. Eilish even admits that her oversized style is meant to disguise her body, an intentional decision to leave her figure a mystery to the public eye. Monae balances both sides of the gender style spectrum, wearing ball gowns one day and tuxedos and tophats the next.
Eilish and Monae’s fashion choices are redefining what it means to be a woman, expanding the definition to fit the stars’ own personal conceptions of femininity. Each individual gets to decide what it means to be male or female, and the clothes they wear can aid in molding and articulating that definition.
As artists, Porter, Styles, EIlish, and Monae are expected to perform, which often means leaning into a stage persona. What they wear—especially now that everything is documented through social media—is part of that performance. Image and brand are pertinent. These artists blend the divide between what is expected of men and women when it comes to fashion by presenting the unexpected—like Porter’s dress—in the process of reconstructing an entirely new perception of masculinity and femininity.
Although these four figures I’ve mentioned are all artists—they’re actors and musicians, trailblazers by nature and expectation—it’s often said that art imitates life. These stars are only reflecting the conversations that are playing out in society at large, conversations about questions of identity and how fashion helps to shape that very thing.
Featured Graphic by Maya Taha / Heights Stuff