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You probably already have what you need in your closet. Start with a print blouse, the louder the better; when you put it on, unbutton as many buttons as you dare, and then one more. Next come skinny black jeans and a pair of Chelsea boots, any color. Don’t do anything to your hair.
That’s all it takes! Now you are dressed up as Harry Styles.
That’s how I slipped into it, anyway: By looking at my wardrobe and recognizing that there were three pieces that, worn separately, were just clothes, but that those three pieces correctly combined could shift me away from my boring self and in the direction (sorry) of someone I found thrilling and fascinating. I wore one Harry-inspired outfit, and then another, and another.
Dressing up as one of the men formerly of One Direction is not uncommon among members of their largely female fanbase. This isn’t entirely surprising; looking to celebrities for fashion cues is, in and of itself, nothing new. Websites like What Kate Wore, which tracks the provenance of the Duchess of Cambridge’s every outfit, help civilians procure the pieces that show up on their fave’s backs as soon as paparazzi pictures are released. “Shopping the look,” though, is essentially taking fashion advice, and this isn’t quite that. My Harry outfits also weren’t precisely cosplay, a long-standing fandom practice which, as the name suggests, is traditionally intended for situations where it’s clear that the outfit is a costume. Cosplay is dressing up as, which, as opposed to just dressing like, makes space for seriously elaborate get-ups, and allows for explicitly gender- or race-bent interpretations of well-known looks.
Dressing like the boys of One Direction is its own particular thing: a simultaneous acknowledgment and subversion of the notion that all clothes are one kind of costume or another. Because women dressing like men is, to a point, acceptable and even expected. There’s nothing tremendously transgressive about putting on jeans and a button-down; in a way, Harry is more notable when he wears his femme-iest looks than we are. Dressing up like him is a magic-eye technique: if you recognize the styling, it’s a costume. And if you don’t, it’s just an outfit.
The queer community has been exploring and expanding ideas of gender-specific presentation since long before Harry Styles was born, but for many women, dressing like One Direction provided their first foray into butched-up fashion, allowing them to explore territory they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to approach. Alessandra Ferreri, a 27-year-old content specialist for Wattpad, bought a lambswool-lined denim jacket like Louis Tomlinson’s from 1D’s “Midnight Memories” video as part of a Halloween costume, but it’s since become a staple piece in her wardrobe — despite the fact that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of her typically “feminine, polished” look.
“Spring came this year and it was the thing I was most excited about, after the sunshine,” she says. “It goes with everything. And feels strangely iconic? I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. But before seeing it as Louis costume, I never would have picked up a jacket like that off the rack.”
These pieces can impart power that feels exciting precisely because it’s divorced from the traditional understanding that feeling good means looking good, and that looking good means looking acceptably femme. Ellie McElvain, a 24-year-old who works in digital media, owns “the same ratty Randy's Donuts hoodie that Harry wears all the time when he's doing like, power boxing aerial yoga or whatever he does,” she says. She also favors the loud print shirts that are often his LA off-duty look. “When I'm not in Harry drag I dress in a lot of the same basic outfits: jeans, jean jackets, a variety of T-shirts, and the same beat-up Vans every day. I'm like a size 14, so I don't love straying from the stuff that feels comfy and good.”
For Karen Draper, who works at a Los Angeles high school, it’s Harry’s bandmate Louis Tomlinson whose style helps her refigure her relationship to her body. Like most women, she has a complicated and not always positive relationship with it, and she’s frustrated by the perceived mandate that loving your curves is possible only if you’re willing to stick to a vintage-inspired, high-femme aesthetic. While Harry is tall and lanky, coltish in the way that connotes acceptable androgyny, Louis is short and thick, with an ass he once joked he’d had insured like J. Lo’s. His style suggests the possibilities of embracing a body that isn’t obviously fashion, and dressing it like you care about it anyway.
“It’s good to decide that you want to not care about gender or what mainstream fashion thinks you should be wearing, but you still need someone to inspire you to the kind of stuff you do want to wear,” Draper says, “and Louis has been very important to me in that sense.”
Several of the women I spoke to for this piece referred to dressing like the Direction explicitly as “drag,” a term that contains both the gender-bending that’s going on, but also the weird transgressive joy of it: Getting dressed and caring about it can be creative and fun and escapist, and not just about what looks “flattering.” It allows you to want to be something other than your best self — or even yourself at all.
It also suggests the fraught relationship that fans have to the band, which is a subset of the complicated way all fans relate to all celebrities in the post-modern panopticon. Because the fact that we can dress up as Harry Styles means that even Harry Styles has to dress up as Harry Styles: What we recognize about him is ultimately largely a replicable aesthetic. We know we only experience celebrities as personas, as characters, and it’s deeply frustrating. So we put on their clothes and try to imagine what it might be like if we knew them as people instead.
This is particularly interesting when you consider how most people imagine the relationship between female fans and male musicians: as straightforwardly lustful — a desire to get looked at and liked. But as Catie Disabato, a freelance PR consultant and writer, puts it, “The real thing for me is, do I want to be him, or do I want to fuck him?” Disabato’s question, and the way we cloak ourselves in their clothes, suggests that there’s something else at work here: The desire to enter their world is actually rooted in part in a yen to possess their power as our own. As Disabato puts it, “How better to express all the glottal yearning of that feeling than putting on something I know he would wear?”
One Direction in particular opens doors for this; their fearlessness about embracing feminine styles and loving their female fans suggests a respect for the femme that is all too often absent in popular culture, especially popular culture propagated by men in order to be sold to young women. Perhaps the most relatable thing of all is the sense that the boys, too, are exploring themselves through fashion — that what they wear means something to them, in the same way that our clothes are so desperately meaningful to us. “Harry obviously takes so much pleasure in his clothing, so much joy in picking an outfit, and while I do think he likes getting a positive response, I think the main person he's trying to please with his clothes is himself,” Disabato says.
“This is a luxury not many women, of any age, are afforded,” she continues. “We're taught to value our clothing and appearance, then dismissed as frivolous for doing so. Harry treats dressing with the same attention to detail and joie de vivre as many women do — so he dresses from the same emotional place as many of us do — but he isn't saddled with the baggage of femaledom in a patriarchal society.”
This sense of blurred boundaries and permission to explore is especially powerful because fandom is often a place we use to explore other versions of ourselves. Fan fiction teaches us that a narrative can be accepted as canonical and still suggest a multitude of interpretations and re-imaginings, and cosplay takes that off the page and onto our bodies. Fandom is often regarded as a play space, enacted digitally and separate from flesh-and-blood, everyday identities; One Direction drag allows us to take a step toward uniting the versions of ourselves we imagine, and the versions of ourselves we are.
It doesn’t always work; other kinds of demands step in and insist. A few years ago, Meghan Nesmith, a Boston-based writer, was thrown for “the world's largest loop” when a coworker described her style as “vaguely country club.” She subsequently “got a tattoo, bleached my hair, donated all my J.Crew, and tried to give fewer fucks.” For her, “Harry's flow and grace and glam seem to say something about resisting the narrative he'd been stamped with, something about giving himself permission to be a little looser.” She took that inspiration and ran with it.
Nesmith spent a year dressing like Harry Styles, but lately it hasn’t fit as well with her lifestyle, and she’s toned it down a bit. Still, she says, she misses it. “He's still my lodestar, but it's harder to embody him when my life feels so small and better suited to, like, sweats. But thinking about this all makes me want to go hard again. It's like suiting up, putting on your armor, baring your teeth.”