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Billy Porter and the Overlooked Non-Binary Fashion Contributions of Black Men

Photographs Courtesy of Frazer Harrison, Getty Images & Inez & Vinoodh, GQ

After eleven months since Harry Styles donned a full-length dress as American Vogue’s first solo male cover, Billy Porter spoke out about the lack of credit and opportunities given to LGBTQ+ creatives, especially those of color, for pushing gender non-comforming fashion. In his interview with The Sunday Times, Porter directly challenges Vogue and Styles: "I created the conversation [for non-binary fashion] and yet Vogue still put Harry Styles, a straight white man, in a dress on their cover for the first time." Porter continues by saying that he has had to “fight [his] entire life to get to the place where [he] could wear a dress to the Oscars.”

Although it was not fair for Porter to call Styles straight as Styles has repeatedly rejected labeling his sexuality, he does bring up an important point about the marketability of Harry Styles as a straight-passing white man compared to that of an LGBTQ+ person of color. Billy Porter also raises a valid concern about people of color, especially Black men, historically being overlooked for their gender non-comforming fashion. For example, ASAP Rocky, a well-known American rapper, was featured in GQ’s May 2021 cover wearing a kilt by Vivienne Westwood. When comparing the search results for “ASAP Rocky GQ” and “Harry Styles Vogue” on Google, it is clear that Harry Styles received much more media attention for being featured in a magazine while wearing non-binary clothing compared to ASAP Rocky. Additionally, Billy Porter himself has worn countless statement looks that push the boundaries of gender expression and fashion, such as his Oscars 2019 black-velvet tuxedo gown that combines two traditionally feminine and masculine red-carpet looks. This is to say that when Billy Porter asserted that he "changed the whole game" in terms of men in skirts and dresses, there are numerous examples of Porter’s revolutionary combinations of masculine and feminine style elements to support his sentiment. Not to mention Prince: the music and style legend whose contribution to androgynous fashion — a space that had previously been dominated by white celebrities — cannot be overlooked. Black male celebrities have constantly been challenging the definition of gendered fashion, but why have they not gained the same attention from the general public and media as Styles’s Vogue cover?

Part of the answer lies in the deep-rooted history of the perceived hypermasculinity of Black men and the subsequent emasculation for comedic relief through film and television. More specifically, there is a trend of Black male comedians donning dresses only for comedic entertainment, which has become seen as a rite of passage. In the tv show White Famous (2017), Jamie Foxx insists that Mooney, an amateur comedian, wear a dress for his new film to gain mainstream popularity. Foxx cites his real-life past experiences cross-dressing for fame in In Living Color (1990), playing Ugly Wanda. Whenever the camera panned to Ugly Wanda, In Living Color audiences were heard cheering and laughing at Foxx’s character in her assortment of dresses.

Aside from other implicit biases, these film and television depictions have conditioned the general public to believe that Black men wearing dresses and skirts is purely comedic and, therefore, should not be taken seriously. As a result, Black men such as Billy Porter and ASAP Rocky do not often gain the same media attention and internet support for their non-binary fashion because of the perceived hypermasculinity of Black men and the resulting film portrayals that have ingrained this idea of Black men in dresses as comedic relief. Though Billy Porter may not have solely revolutionized gender non-comforming fashion, there is a clear pattern of Black male celebrities being overlooked and underpraised for their contributions to the advancements of non-binary fashion.

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