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More Than Colorful Art: The History of Drag

A drag queen is a person, commonly male, who uses drag clothing and makeup to mimic and sometimes exaggerate feminine gender signifiers and gender roles for entertainment purposes. Historically, the majority of drag queens were men who dressed as women. Drag queens are related to gay men and gay culture in modern times, but they may be of any gender and sexual orientation. Although most of us thought that the art of drag is men dressed as women, it is actually more than that.

Like all inventions, Drag began out of necessity, too. In the 17th century, when the plays of Shakespeare were performed at Globe Theater, only men were permitted to perform in the plays and women were forbidden to appear on the stage as they were in religious ceremonies. Hence, young boys whose voices were not deeper yet masquerade as women and took the stage instead of women. They probably discussed how their costume would "drag" around the floor while men were playing feminine roles. That’s why the term "drag" is believed to have theatrical roots. It was precisely in the spirit of what we now call drag, but it was a beginning. In the upcoming years, it quickly became a way for men to express their different sides over-exaggerating feminine looks, style and body language to create a character. They are often gay men, but many heterosexual men and women wear drag as well. Contrary to common belief, women can do drag as well. But, at this point ‘’queen’’ term changes to ‘’king.’’ Drag kings are generally women or trans men performers who dress exaggeratedly masculine clothes and have a masculine attitude, so it can be easily said that drag kings are the counterparts of drag queens.

RuPaul Charles from Vogue Magazine. [Photograph] (1)

John Cooper (1732) was a servant for a gentleman and messenger for gay men in that period. He was known to be the first drag queen in British culture and the first gay man who had a reason for dragging up. All his neighbours knew him as a "princess." Besides that, even though he did not wear women's clothing, everybody called him "Princess Seraphina." Despite the conservative thoughts of his time, he was accepted by his social circle, but his cousin, who was a distiller, felt that his conduct was outrageous. Contrary to Cooper's cousin's thought, masquerades were very popular in that period for a hidden part of society. From the 1720s onwards, masquerades appeared in London and took place in assembly rooms, theatres, brothels, and molly houses. The first masquerade held by the impresario John James Heidegger at the Haymarket Theatre. His "Midnight Masquerades" succeeded tremendously and attracted 800 people in a week. They provided the opportunity for many individuals to explore their sexuality such as fetishism and transvestism. In these events, men dressed as witches, harlots, and shepherdesses, and women dressed as cardinals and boys from Mozart's operas as well. In the 1720s, molly houses were very popular in London. Especially at Sunday nights, gay men were met there secretly, and many of them wore drag and danced together. The term "Molly" was a defamation used for homosexual men by conservatives, and the word was adopted to describe the bars, taverns, and coffee houses where they gathered in secret. Although the meeting places were called 'mollies' the places were frequented by men from all strata such as the working class and nobility. When police attacked the Molly Houses, they offered a secure space for homosexual men to socialize and discuss their identities publicly or communicate with them. Princess Seraphina took the stage in such events.

Portrait of Sarah Allen [Painting] (2)

The art of drag spread around America as Vaudeville. It combines music, comedy, dance, and burlesque in order to create a unique type of entertainment. This new entertainment sector drew interest in the early 20th century in America. However, as time goes on, drag started to take on more of an individual form of entertainment, and on the contrary, to be utilized as a part of ensemble performances and the queens began to create their own fanbase.

One of the well-known stars of the 20th century was Julian Eltinge and his popularity moved beyond vaudeville. His fans described him as ‘’actress’’ not a ‘’character’’ or ‘’persona.’’ He surpassed even Charlie Chaplin at the time, and he earned the title of being the highest-paid actor in the world. Julian Eltinge got the vaudeville idea from various theatres in the United Kingdom where cross-dressing was popular. Generally, he removed his wig and revealed his gender to the audience at the end of the performance. His popularity continued until 1930. Because of the variety of protests against this kind of show, he fell out of favour.

Julian Eltinge [Photograph] (3)

In the 1930s, American society became more conservative as a consequence of sex crimes and prohibition laws that abolished alcohol production and consumption. During the Prohibition era, gay men went to underground clubs and consumed alcohol secretly. In the underground clubs, they felt free to be themselves. Clubs enabled them to feel relieved after acting like a different person all day.

Throughout the Prohibition era, the popularity of drag increased dramatically, this increment was named "The Pansy Craze." Even after Prohibition ended, the underground clubs and gay bars put the drag shows on display and they continued to thrive in the 1950s and 60s.

Rae Bourbon [Photograph] (4)

In the meantime, the society criminalized queer culture and gay bars, and the police cracked down on them. Therefore, the drag shows moved to underground again. Despite, it was illegal for them to be served drinks in pubs or party together, the gay community began to thrive.

Within this period, The State Liquor Authority and the New York Police Department made sudden attacks on gay bars regularly. But, the gay community was supported by the New York mafia and the Genovese family, surprisingly. They gave the gay community an escape way secretly during the police attacks. In 1966, a member of the Genovese family bought the Stonewall which would later become the heart of gay culture and the centre of riots in 1969.

from ''Paris is Burning'' documentary [Photograph] (5)

The Stonewall riot started when the police raided a bar. This riot contributed the gay community to arouse against their aggressors. After this riot, a drag queen named Flawless Sabrina organized several beauty competitions in the United States for drag queens. Besides that, she was arrested several times and performed in public.

The Stonewall Riots [Photograph] (6)

In the early 1970s, the LGBTQ community moved their shelter to uptown Manhattan, and it is thought that the drag "ball" movement originated. In these events, queens took the podium in order to impress the judges and gain trophies.

By this way, the drag mother idea was brought forward. According to the drag community, they can choose their own drag family. In the drag family understanding, drag mothers teach inexperienced queens how to work on stage and put on makeup, in other words, they educate new queens. Also, they provide a safe home to young people who may be going through a tough time in their life. Drag mothers are known as the head of their house, and they are responsible for the entire drag family. Whatever the mother’s surname, their drag children add the surname to their name, or drag mothers choose their stage name as well.

Drag ball in London [Photograph] (7)

In the 1980s, thanks to the genderless styling of David Bowie and Tim Curry's drag and gender-bending performances in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, drag culture started to spread to the society. By the 1990s, the world was ready to discover the colourful world of drag queens without judgments. At this point, RuPaul Charles played an essential role in changing the history of drag in the modern days. In the early 90s, he named himself in the clubs in New York City, and he became a local celebrity.

In 1993, he crowned his success with the single "Supermodel (You Better Work)." Moreover, he performed a duet with Elton John in a drag persona. In 2009, RuPaul premiered the first season of the drag competition "RuPaul's Drag Race," and since then, the show is watched by audiences from all around the world. Besides that, every year, he holds "DragCon" which drag queens perform.

RuPaul Charles [Photograph] (8)

In the modern era, thanks to various thoughts, drag queens do not have to hide underground anymore. This art which was born out of necessity is an opportunity for many people to discover themselves and escape from the world they do not belong to. Just like RuPaul’s said: ‘’We born naked and the rest is a drag.’’

Bibliographical references

Kempt, H., Volpert, M., & Bornstein, K. (2019). RuPaul’s Drag Race and Philosophy: Sissy That Thought (Popular Culture and Philosophy, 129). Open Court.

Lawrence, T. (2014, January 17). “Listen, and You Will Hear all the Houses that Walked There Before”: A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing. Tim Lawrence - Articles.

Lawrence, T. (2013, July 5). Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989–92 (Soul Jazz). Tim Lawrence - Articles.

The fabulous history of drag. (2020, June 11). BBC Bitesize.

Visual sources


Author Photo

Çağla Deniz Bülbül

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