You Better Work

Yas, queen. We’re talking about the history of drag.

 So much more than just a man in a dress or a suspiciously large woman, drag has reached stiletto-heights of popularity since RuPaul’s Drag Race packaged it as a reality competition show and gave Anytown, America a scintillating look into what it really takes to be the next drag superstar. No matter how you identify, the world of drag welcomes anyone who has a sense of irony, a theatrical flair and a desire to present a gender illusion that somehow manages to convey your true self.

A consummate theatrical art form, drag combines spectacle, fantasy, singing, dancing, acting, character study and performance art with technical skills like hair, makeup and costuming. People love it now, and people have loved it for a really long time. We’re gonna take you on a crash course through drag history which is by no means comprehensive—but we have included some links to more in-depth articles so take a click at those if you want a farther trip down this deliciously interesting rabbit hole.

For anyone who’s been introduced to Shakespeare, we know that men and boys played roles of women, and this is a great place to start a convo about the word “drag” and its history as something linked to gender-bending. In Victorian England, males played female roles because women were prohibited from working in the theater. Because female costumes included skirts and petticoats that dragged the floor, costumes for a woman character became known as “drags.” This theater term made its way to everyday parlance by 1870, when party hosts asked guests to come “in drag, which means men wearing women’s costumes.”

OUT @ The Straz’s Mean Girls pre-party event featured bearded queens Adriana Sparkle and Aquariius, as well as Ripp Lee, who explore more abstract ways to present themselves.

So, this theatrical context explains the modern use of “drag” to mean a man performing in women’s clothes, even though the original Shakespearean actors didn’t perform “in drag” per se; they happened to be men in dresses because it was illegal for women to hold those jobs.

However, by the early 1900s, a legit female impersonator, Julian Eltinge, often billed as “Eltinge,” became one of the highest-paid actors in the world. Careful to make sure the press saw him smoking cigars and boxing when he was out of costume, Eltinge still managed to parlay himself into America’s original drag superstar. In 1912, a 42nd Street theater in New York named itself the Eltinge Theater, and Eltinge was everywhere from Broadway to films like Maid to Order and Madame Behave. She was adored and admired as what would be considered today a social and beauty influencer from coast to coast.

Julian Eltinge in the Broadway production of The Fascinating Widow (1911).

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the “moral crackdown” on female impersonators and anything homo-suspicious ruined a lot of people’s lives by criminalizing homosexuality. However, it’s here that linguists suspect “drag” became inextricably linked with gay culture through its appropriation to Polari, a secret gay code language developed in Britain. A pidgin of theater terminology and Parlyaree, a mix of Italian rudiments with Mediterranean sailor-speak, Polari originated in London’s West End theaters and spread through gay communities including female impersonators.

By 1927, as Drag Race: All Stars 3 winner Trixie Mattel explains in the video below, the Manual of Psychiatry defined drag as “an outfit of female dress worn by a homosexual” or as “a social gathering of homosexuals at which some are in female dress.” That was that: drag belong to the gays.

Driven (even further) underground during this criminalization period, LGBTQ+ culture relied on its resourcefulness and creativity to keep themselves alive and well in safe spaces—such as the drag ball, pageant or clandestine gay bar, where queens and all others were allowed to perform and whatnot out of the reach of law enforcement.

So, here’s the irony of ironies: because people love drag performers so much, these secret, underground clubs got insanely popular, launching a period called “The Pansy Craze,” as female impersonators were a.k.a. pansy performers.

During The Pansy Craze, much was also made of women presenting as men; of course, women appeared in drag prior to this moment, but Marlene Dietrich’s iconic photos in tuxedos galvanized the drag king image. As drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys explained to Time magazine, drag occurs when someone is “putting on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance.” The “ironic distance” being a key marker of what makes drag drag and not cross-dressing or gender identification. As Jeffreys continues to explain, “drag is when someone goes into a dressing room, they put this thing on, they go out on stage and they perform … [after the show] they take it off.”

The notion that drag is a public performing art form surfaced again in the 1950s when comic Milton Berle often frocked-up as Mildred and, in the Land Down Under, Barry Humphries launched Dame Edna, who would be world-famous on stage and screen for four decades.

In the drag underground in New York the 1950s and 60s, the name Mother Flawless Sabrina was everything. Flawless’s impact on the LGBTQ+ scene as a drag powerhouse can’t be overstated, and we could write several blogs on her alone. She started the National Academy, a nationwide drag organization, in 1959, staging as many as 46 pageants and competitions a year until 1969. Flawless cultivated and preserved drag during a time when anything not hetero was considered illegal and an illness.

The drag superstar in the 70s, Divine, grew up under Flawless’s tutelage. With her breakout role in John Waters’s 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingoes, Divine took what she learned in the New York pageant scene and created a glamour-grotesque that redefined drag for the general public. As usual, people couldn’t get enough of their era’s reigning queen, and Divine had a successful career as an onscreen personality.

The 1980s shaped drag as we see it today—drag heavily influenced by RuPaul who was heavily influenced by the New York gay scene when he moved to the Big Apple. We simply must mention the queen who traveled from Atlanta with Ru to New York—Lady Bunny. Lady Bunny created Wigstock in 1985, which was a bold queens-in-broad-daylight drag festival that became an overnight success and staple of the NY drag scene.

During the 80s, Harlem also created a vibrant drag ball culture famously documented in the film Paris is Burning. The House of LaBeija, founded in 1977 by the legendary queen Crystal LaBeija, is the oldest, and continues to influence the contemporary world of drag with chapters in Russia, Paris and Mexico. Throughout the modern age of persecution of LGBTQ+ people, drag maintained a steady presence as both a healing art form and as a fabulous wayfinder into self and a chosen family.

Meanwhile, if ever there were people who looked like they were in drag but weren’t, it was the B-52s, that wacky Athens, Ga., band who went mainstream in 1989 with their hit “Love Shack,” which cast RuPaul as a dancer in the video.  Seven hundred feet tall in a white two-piece halter suit with a ginormous Afro wig, RuPaul sort of made the video, which paved the way for her own hit, “Supermodel” three years later.

And once RuPaul happened … well, we’re living that part of the story.  

RuPaul’s Drag Race created performing careers for queens like Bianca Del Rio, who has performed to packed crowds at The Straz.

As history proves, drag performances are crazy popular, and we have more evidence here at The Straz, where our local drag promoters often rent our theaters for sellout shows. We’ve presented Ginger Minj and Bianca Del Rio, both made famous by runs on Drag Race, and host a series of drag diva brunches and drag performers for our OUT @ Straz events. Stay tuned to Caught in the Act in the next few weeks for more on OUT and tickets to our upcoming drag brunches.