The Evolution of Drag: A History of Self-Expressionism.

Drag has a rich cultural history, spanning cross-dressing performances and deliberate parodies of heteronormative gender roles and sexuality. Since the Ancient Greek tragedies, men have always taken on female roles. Shakespeare's plays famously featured men dressing up as women. Additionally, Baroque operas included early examples of drag. Drag can also be dated to Ancient Egypt, where powerful queens such as Cleopatra used to dress themselves up as men to assert more dominance, strength, and power, to help claim the throne. This form of art has been around for centuries, and every single era of drag has been crucial to the success and acceptance of drag today. However, understanding drag requires learning about the queer and racial context associated with drag and its history.


Stephen Fry, Malvolio; Mark Rylance, Olivia in The Barbican production
Male performer dressing up as a woman in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

The term "drag queen" was first used to describe men appearing in women’s clothing in Polari — a type of British slang that was popularized among gay men and the theater community in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The "drag" terminology is generally traced back to Shakespeare’s plays; in them, male actors would wear long costume dresses that used to "drag" on the stage floor. Famous Shakespeare characters like Lady Macbeth and Juliet were all believed to have been portrayed by men. During that time, women weren’t allowed on stage. They were seen as inferiors, unfit for acting and incapable of performing. The Christian church was mainly responsible for the ban of women on stage, and deemed it exclusively vacant for men. Even when religion's influence on drama decreased, seeing a woman acting would be extremely shocking and offensive. Drag was also present in Japan, in the early 17th century. "Kabuki", a classical dance-drama, became popular at that time. This performance art featured female impersonators showcasing intricate makeup, falsetto voices, and feminine movement.


Kabuki company of Ebizo Ichikawa XI. GanMed64 on Flickr.com
Japanese Drag art also known as "Kabuki"

In the roaring 20s, drag shifted from an ensemble performance to an individual form of entertainment, also known as "Vaudeville". The genre involved female impersonation, combining burlesque, comedy, music, and dancing. It was through Vaudeville that the first well-known drag queen came to prominence: Julian Eltinge. At the time, Julian became the highest paid actor in the world, surpassing Charlie Chaplin. Following these events, the United States entered the prohibition era, which abolished alcohol production and consumption from 1920 until 1933. This is when gay men started using underground clubs as an opportunity to express themselves. The underground prohibition scene offered gay men and women the opportunity to feel free. It was an underground utopia for American queers, no matter their race, gender, or identity. However, this didn’t last long. As drag became more popular, the drag-safe spaces started to be hunted down by the police. Female impersonation was completely banned in New York, ending Vaudeville for good.


Harry S Franklyn, 1920s Drag Queen
Harry S. Franklyn, 1920s Drag Queen

World War II brought back the heteronormative culture and beliefs that don’t accept drag. Therefore, drag artists and queer individuals kept struggling and fighting stereotypes, unfair laws, incorrect judgments, and a huge lack of their own human rights. Drag continued suffering up until the 70s, when a new popularmentality started evolving. Drag was back in parts of New York in the 1970s, and some of the biggest drag balls were organized there. These competitions require participants to own the runway in the best drag possible in order to impress the judges and walk away with a slew of awards. This was also the birthplace of the drag mother notion. Talented and promising drag performers would be put in the hands of experienced queens, who would train them on how to act on stage as well as enhance their appearance. They frequently provided a safe haven for young people going through terrible times in their lives, not only for those aspiring to be drag queens. As a result, drag mothers came to be recognized as the leaders of their households, in charge of a complete drag family. Their drag protégés were permitted to acquire their mother's last name and even have their stage name selected for them by their mother.

Haus of Edwards: Laganja, Alyssa, and Shangela
Haus of Edwards: Laganja, Alyssa, and Shangela

Drag queens, most notably Marsha P. Johnson, protested police raids on homosexual clubs in New York City during the Stonewall Riot of 1969, which led to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front. During the 1970s and 1980s, the campaign for acceptance and equality gained traction, with Harvey Milk being the first openly homosexual man elected to public office in San Francisco in 1977.

A photo of Marsha P. Johnson featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson"
A photo of Marsha P. Johnson featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson"

Given drag’s strong position in popular culture, it has developed a solid foothold in the art world as well. Because of the prominence of RuPaul's Drag Race, the art form is now frequently featured on major TV channels, magazine covers, and the focus of multiple podcasts and videos. RuPaul was on the verge of worldwide recognition by the early 1990s, combining a drag character with a singing career that featured a duet with Elton John. RuPaul’s Drag Race aired for the first time in 2009, where it made its premiere debut. Its combination of tasks, costume design, skits, and parodies has made it essential television for an unexpectedly wide audience, and has even implemented a whole new set of vocabulary words popular in the queer community. Terms like "YAAAS QUEEN", "spill the tea", and "throw shade" are now used in mainstream communities and by the younger generations.

RuPaul (centre) accepted the Emmy Award for RuPaul's Drag Race alongside fellow stars Symone (left), Gottmik, and Michelle Visage. Photo / Getty Images
RuPaul (centre) accepted the Emmy Award for RuPaul's Drag Race alongside fellow stars Symone (left), Gottmik, and Michelle Visage. Photo / Getty Images

Drag is not limited to just gender performance. Drag incorporates societal roles, breaks taboos, and elevates performance art. Its long history and political power assert how relevant it is as a means of expression and creativity. Drag artists can be themselves or someone else. Drag is limitless. It unquestionably shaped the modern world of art, and it continues to do so to this day.   References Crookston, C. (Ed.). (2020). The Cultural Impact of RuPauls Drag Race: Why Are We All Gagging? Intellect Books. McAllister N.B. (2017). Drag and Female Impersonation in Japan and the United States. (Undergraduate Honors Theses, University of Colorado, Boulder, U.S.A). Mehra, S. (2020). KINGING AND QUEENING: GENDERED POWER IN DRAG (Bachelor’s Thesis, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, India).

Mehran, M. (2020). ‘Tens, Tens, Tens Across the Board’: Representation, Remuneration, and Repercussion–RuPaul’s Drag Race from Screens to Streets (Master’s Thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada).

Surkan, K. (2003). Drag kings in the new wave: Gender performance and participation. Journal of homosexuality, 43(3-4), 161-186.

Svich, C. (2012). Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance. Contemporary Theatre Review, 22(1), 170-171.

Author Photo

Gaelle Abou Nasr

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