The story of drag in Western culture is bound with the story of the stage and queer identity and style. The relationship between drag and transvestism and the articulation of a queer identity through cross-dressing has come full circle from the molly houses of the eighteenth century, where men went to dress, gossip and have sex with one another, to the lesbian styles of the 1920s—men’s formal dress, top hats and tails—popularized on stage by performers Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland.
In the popular imagination, drag is often mistakenly conflated with transvestism; however, the two are radically different aesthetically and politically. The transvestite’s concern is to pass as a woman or a man in a crowd using mannerism, clothing and dress codes to construct the illusion of the opposing gender, whilst drag mimics and exaggerates ideal characteristics or stereotypes of women and men. The story of drag began on the stage, in pantomimes, minstrel shows and vaudeville, whilst transvestism belongs to the domain of the fetishist. In the words of Daniel Harris:
The stylistic ideal of the drag queen, is screaming vulgarity, the overstated look of the balloon-breasted tramp in the leopard-skin micro-mini skirt who strives to be loud, tawdry and cheap… unlike the lone fetishist who in an effort to ‘pass’, squeezes into corsets and tapes his breasts together to create the illusion of cleavage.
Drag kings parody and mimic stereotypes of masculinity that represent the bastion of patriarchal culture: the trucker, the red neck, the crooner, the ‘sleazy’ Latino lover, the racist skinhead or the professional boxer. Kings’ drag names are also chosen to reflect the traits associated with such stereotypes such as Mario from the Barrio and Vinnie Testosteroni, drag kings from San Francisco, and Rocco D’Amore, who is based in Melbourne, Australia.
Drag queens have tended to imitate legendary Hollywood icons: the Mae Wests, the Marilyn Monroes, the Joan Crawfords, the Greta Garbos. The drag queen craves nostalgia and longs for the days when women wore white kid gloves, pillbox hats, flapper headbands, mod go-go boots, fox furs and opera-length evening gowns. The drag queen rejects contemporary fashion with its unisex and androgynous styles and opts for a sartorial look that represents the days before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when women were expected to stay at home and raise children. Cultural and social equality for women was a major issue in the second wave of feminism. The movement campaigned against the social and cultural stereotyping of women as only capable of becoming housewives and nothing more. It advocated for equal civil rights for women, sexual liberation, childcare, health, welfare, education, work and reproductive rights including the right to abortion. Drag queens embody and parody the stereotypical effeminate behaviour endorsed by patriarchy such as the dutiful housewife dressed in lingerie and kitten heels who waits for her man to arrive home from work, dinner ready in the oven and martini for him in her hand. The drag queen parodies sexualized feminine stereotypes like the sex kitten, the trophy wife, or the vamp. The drag kings’ and queens’ performances are all about camping it up.
In the classic ethnographic study Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1979), Esther Newton deals with the symbolic geography of male and female styles, as enacted in the homosexual concept of drag (sex role transformation) and camp. For Newton, drag queens deal with their alienation through camp. She defines camp not just as a role-play but as a ‘strategy for a situation’ and ‘the camp ideology’. She traces three aspects to it: incongruity (the juxtaposition of things; say, garments or items of clothing, not usually meant to go together), theatricality (the performance of that juxtaposition; its stage quality) and humour. This is point where drag and camp merge, producing a particular type of aesthetic and style.
The drag show and the stylistic impersonation of men and women via performances act as forms of male and female mimicry and parody, or camp, in order to challenge and destabilize gender practices that prioritize mainstream hegemonic masculinity. By appropriating (stereotypical) exaggerated masculine and feminine behaviour via dress and mannerisms, drag becomes a strategic weapon, via camp humour, to counteract positions of disempowerment in cultural practices by undermining and reinscribing gender roles.
Camp functions as a set of practices and styles appropriated from popular culture and reformed within the context of gay (male) culture. Drag is merely one incarnation of camp, writes Andy Medhurst, ‘just one room in camp’s mansion’. As Newton points out in Mother Camp, ‘Camp humour is a system of laughing at one’s incongruous position instead of crying’, and ‘camp undercuts all homosexuals who won’t accept the stigmatized identity. Only by fully embracing the stigma itself can one neutralize the stigma and make it laughable.’
This relationship between drag and camp in gay culture has been acknowledged and debated by many scholars, from Susan Sontag to Judith Halberstam. Yet as Halberstam notes, little attention has been paid to drag kings and male impersonators, or ‘women behaving like men’. As to whether camp can be ascribed to butch or femme lesbians or drag kings is debatable given that the term was coined under different historical and cultural differences to describe gay men. As Andy Medhurst explains, ‘Butches’ social and cultural position as women cannot be lazily equated with queen’ social and cultural position as men, and to use the term “camp” as a blanket term for both… conceals the crucial difference.’ Furthermore, Medhurst claims, ‘Lesbian camp is as impossible as gay male butch-femme.’ Halberstam notes that when drag king performances are campy, it is because the actor allows her femininity to inform and inflect the masculinity she performs and suggest that such performances require another term to describe not only the humour but also to distinguish them from the gay camp and drag queens. She suggests that camp be replaced with kinging to avoid collapsing lesbian social histories and practices with those of gay men. ‘Some drag king performances may well contain a camp element’, she writes, ‘but the kinging effect… depends on several different strategies to render masculinity visible and theatrical.’
Drag is a theatrical performance whose beginnings were first recorded in the drag balls of the nineteenth century, which attracted audiences that wanted to experience the forbidden pleasures of decadent urban nightlife. Female impersonators have always performed in pantomimes, vaudeville shows and cabarets. Some simulated feminine glamour, passing at times as glamorous divas and dames (the pantomime term for female roles played by men), while others created the illusion of femininity by lowering their voices, then taking off their wigs in the performance finale. Peter Ackroyd has written that the female impersonators evoked fears of female aggression and overt sexuality as well as fears about homosexuality. By subtly and humorously representing such fears, the dames would diffuse them with laughter. In England, female impersonation was not so much part of the pantomime but the music hall, which grew out of the song and supper clubs at all-male taverns where the host would persuade the clientele to get up and do a bit, which many did as female impersonators. In the United States, minstrel shows and vaudeville acts were the first venues to bill female impersonators as stars in shows. One such star, Francis Leon, told a reporter during his appearance in New York in 1870 that he wore ‘genuine women’s clothing, not costumes, and that his wardrobe included some three hundred dresses’.
With the gradual decline of vaudeville and the development and growth of cinema, female impersonation moved to the cabaret and the nightclub. Such a club is described in one of Christopher Isherwood’s book of short stories, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), from which the musical Cabaret, which features a female impersonator, was developed. Although female impersonators appeared in gay bars and nightclubs in America as early as 1871, it was not until Stonewall in 1969 that drag queens were made visible and politicized as part of the queer community, and gender-bending was given public expression. As lesbian cross-dressers and drag queens fought with police during a raid on 27 June, photographs of their arrest were made public on news broadcasts and in the public media, galvanizing the drag queen as a political identity.
It was not until after Stonewall and well into the 1970s that mainstream cinema began to feature drag and female impersonators in major productions. The 1978 film version of La Cage aux Folles, based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, tells the story of a gay couple: Renato Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi), the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub that features drag entertainment, and his partner, Albin Mougeotte (Michel Serrault), a female impersonator dressed in sequins and feathers. The popularity of drag queens and their parodies of femininity have given rise to drag celebrities such as Dame Edna Everidge, a female impersonator created and played by Australian performer and comedian Barry Humphries. Famous for her lilac-coloured or wisteria hue hair and cat glasses, Edna was originally styled as a drab Australian housewife, satirizing the conservatism of Australian suburbia. Later in her career, Edna adopted an increasingly outlandish 1960s wardrobe and satirized the cult of celebrity, class snobbery and prudishness as part of her drag performance. American actor and songwriter RuPaul, considered the world’s first drag supermodel, also parodies femininity, often appearing wearing an afro wig and a tight-fitting kaftan or knee-high stiletto boots and hot pants. After signing a contract with MAC cosmetics, advertising billboards featured him in full drag, often with the text ‘I am the MAC girl’.
Giving popular expression to gender identities, drag queens in the 1970s took on costumes and camp pastiches from popular culture for radical effects, particularly from glam rock music with its glittering outfits and cosmetics. In particular were David Bowie and his gender-bending, androgynous allure embodied in his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, and Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen. In the music video for ‘I Want to Break Free’, Freddie and the other band members are dressed in full drag, complete with hair rollers, pink earrings and lipstick, imitating suburban British housewives. The order of queer nuns The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence engaged in political activism through parodying traditional drag by mixing beards and hairy chests with fake, long eyelashes, net stockings and nun’s habits. In the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Tim Curry plays the hero, Dr Frank-N-Furter, whose character is a mad scientist. Although dressed in a corset, black lingerie, fishnet stockings, garters, stilettos and a pearl necklace, he is still recognizable as a male. In The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), an Australian comedy-drama film written and directed by Stephan Elliott, two drag queens and a transsexual woman travel across the Australian outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus that they have named Priscilla. Containing elements of comedy, the film’s title is a pun on the word queen, a slang term for a male homosexual. Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner were inspired by gay musical icons Shirley Bassey, Gloria Gaynor and Carlotta from the Australian all-male revue Les Girls, which began in the 1960s and continues today. Les Girls was responsible for introducing drag performances to mainstream audiences and was inspired by Miami’s The Jewel Box, which opened its doors in 1938 and was one of the first clubs in the United States to offer revues of female impersonators. Equally famous were Finocchio’s in San Francisco, The Club 83 in New York, Oh-My-My in New Orleans, The Purple Onion and Chez Ivy in Sydney.
The influence of popular culture, music and cinema also found expression in the dance craze of voguing, which grew out of the drag queen ritual of ‘throwing shade’. Inspired by breakdancing, the angular movements and aesthetics of kung fu and Egyptian hieroglyphics, voguing started to make inroads in the music industry in 1989 with Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra’s ‘Deep in Vogue’ music chart hit. In 1990, voguing and drag ball culture made its screen debut in Madonna’s hit single ‘Vogue’ and Jennie Livingston’s documentary film Paris is Burning (1990). Filmed between 1986 and 1989, the documentary explores the elaborately structured drag ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must walk (much like a fashion model’s runway) and subsequently be judged on criteria such as the realness of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their ability to dance.
The culture of drag ball and voguing can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century. The Hamilton Lodge in Harlem staged its first queer masquerade ball in 1869, followed by one at the Walhalla Lodge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1889. By the end of the decade, masquerade balls were being held at Madison Square Garden, the Astor Hotel and the Hamilton Lodge. Harlem Renaissance activist Langston Hughes proclaimed the drag balls to be ‘the strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem’s spectacles in the 1920s’, describing them as ‘spectacles of colour’. Noting the presence of ‘distinguished white celebrities’, Hughes wrote that ‘Harlem was in vogue’ and that ‘the Negro was in vogue’. Held annually, the balls featured a procession known as ‘the parade of the fairies’, which involved drag queen contestants in a costume competition.
Prior to the 1960s, drag ball culture was a mix of African American, Latino and Caucasian participants. Competition was tough, and ideals of beauty were governed by dominant ideology. African American drag queens were expected to ‘whiten-up’ their faces if they wanted to stand a chance of winning a contest. By the early 1960s, drag ball culture began to divide along racial lines, with the first ‘Black Ball’ recorded in 1962. As Michael Cunningham describes, ‘It was Vegas comes to Harlem. It was the queen’s most baroque fantasies of glamour and stardom, all run on Singer sewing machines in tiny apartments.’ The House of Labeija was the first ‘house’ to be established in 1972 by the drag queen Crystal ‘Pepper’ Labeija. Referencing the glamour of Parisian fashion houses, others soon followed: the House of Corey, the House of Dior, the House of Dupree, the House of Chanel and the House of Wong. Houses continued to multiply and diversify well into the 1980s.
As Barbara Vinken writes, ‘Fashion is a disguise, a disguise that operates not according to fancy, but following a determinate code. The code pretends merely to represent reality; one clothes oneself “appropriately”, when one dresses oneself as a man or a woman… Here, fashion disguises the fact that it disguises.’ Vinken is referring to Livingston’s Paris is Burning and alluding to the displacement that characterizes the entire film. She writes, ‘Paris, the city of cities, city of luxury, of fashion and beautiful women, is the phantom pursued in Harlem, the New York ghetto and slum, the district of poverty, fear and homosexuality. The connection is forged between Paris.’ Set in the fashion houses in Harlem, the film chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the gay and transgender African American and Latino men that participate. The film depicts drag performers in a variety of stage roles parading down the catwalk: hip-swinging runway models dressed in haute couture fashion, Vegas showgirls with feathers and sequins, cardigan-wearing college students chewing on gum, and aristocrats. Time Magazine described the film as
an attitudinal affectation that mixes model-like poses with the athleticism of break-dancing and the wry sophistication of gay male humour. Voguing began in the 1960s in Harlem, where transvestites parodied Seventh Avenue by calling their social clubs houses and holding annual balls that featured the dance style.
‘“Realness” is indeed the issue here,’ writes Majorie Garber. ‘Realness not only in the drag world but also in the world that it mirrors and critiques.’ Or, as Vinken quite aptly argues,
what the drag queen brings to light and on to the catwalk is ‘woman’ as disguise… The world which is here imitated is the world of the television, of the models, of the fashion magazine. It is the world of appearance, which produces the effect of the real, the real as effect.
Referencing the glamour of fashion houses (i.e., House of Chanel), the contestants vying for trophies are representatives of drag houses (House of LaBeija) headed by a mother and sometimes a father who serve as intentional families, social groups and performance teams. Houses and ball contestants that consistently win eventually earned a legendary status. While Pepper Labeija declares, ‘I’ve been a man, and I’ve been a man who emulated a woman. I’ve never been a woman,’ Venus Xtravaganza, a younger drag performer, contends, ‘I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl living in the suburbs.’
It is in the phantasmatic excess via the performative space of the ball that the world of glamour and privilege, afforded to high fashion and celebrity culture, is imitated. A lifestyle closed to the disenfranchized African American and Latino men, ‘their dream is Vogue [the magazine]; the object of their desire is the Other exhibited therein’, writes Vinken, ‘another skin colour, another class, above all another sex: at last, to be something from what they are themselves’. In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler undertakes a reading of drag balls in New York City and asserts that the balls illustrate the nature of performativity—the repetition and ultimately the displacement of dominant discourse of race, gender and sexuality. According to Butler, the ball ‘involves the phantasmatic attempt to approximate realness, but it also exposes the norms that regulate realness as themselves phantasmatically instituted and sustained’. By disrupting the assumed correspondence between a ‘real’ interior and surface markers (clothes, walk, hairstyle, accessories, etc.), drag balls make explicit the way in which all gender and sexual identifications are ritually performed in daily life.
Club culture was a dynamic site for performances of drag in the 1990s, as representations of drag king contents, venues and events became popular forms entertainment amongst queer communities in New York, San Francisco, London, Adelaide and Sydney. Whilst drag queens had been visible in gay circuits for over fifty years, drag kings were still a minority until the 1990s, which saw the emergence of clubs such London’s Drag King Club, Club Casanova in New York, Kinselas nightclub in Sydney and Club Geezer in San Francisco. Although women have had a long and rich history of wearing male attire and passing as men, and much has been written about butch and femme dress codes and relationships, little attention has been paid to the emerging drag king phenomenon of the mid-1990s. Drag king contests and events such as Gender-Blender (part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras), the International Drag King Community Extravaganza (IDKE), the first of which was held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999, and Drag King Rebellion in Wisconsin provided spaces where lesbians could act out diverse gender roles and sexual desires.
Scholars have located the cross-dressing drag tradition among women on stage as early as 1840 with performers such American Charlotte Cushman, who played male roles in Shakespearean theatre, and British vaudeville star and male impersonator Vesta Tilley. And since the mid-1600s in England, women appeared in what were known as ‘breeches roles’ (tight-fitting knee-length pants), where an actress wore male clothing. The operatic concept of the breeches role assumes that the character is male, and the audience accepts him as such, even knowing that the actor is not. Out of some 375 plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700, it has been calculated that 89, nearly a quarter, contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothes.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women often appeared on stage impersonating men. Perhaps the most citable and extraordinary example of a woman dressing as a man in social circles in the nineteenth century is the French novelist Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (1804–76). She argued that she found dressing as a man more comfortable—and cheaper. But there was much more to her dressing than mere utility. What is certainly true is that she was able to manoeuvre her way around Paris and enter places forbidden to women. Sand also smoked in public, which was considered outré for women until the 1920s. What Sand was to literature, her contemporary Rosa Bonheur (1822–99) was to painting. Bonheur dressed in men’s clothing throughout her life (more than Sand), smoked freely and consorted with women. She too argued that men’s clothing afforded her easier movement, and since she specialized in painting animals, it was more sympathetic than women’s clothing to the places she frequented for finding subjects and inspiration.
From the 1930s to the early 1970s, the Jewel Box Revue, a company of twenty-five female impersonators and one male impersonator, Stormé DeLarverié, toured the United States and performed to sell out audiences. DeLarverié began wearing men’s clothes on and off stage shortly after joining the company. According to Elizabeth Drorbaugh, ‘Male [and female] impersonation enjoyed what has been called its golden age as family entertainment during the first twenty years of the twentieth century.’ When the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code (1930) banned all performances that were deemed ‘perverted’, drag shows went underground. However, most scholars agree that no extensive drag king culture developed in lesbian bars and social clubs to fill the void left by male impersonators in the theatre tradition.
In queer subcultures, drag is considered a temporary performance and representation of gender. In Female Masculinity, Halberstam writes of the drag king as ‘a female (usually) who dresses up in recognizable male costumes and performs theatrically in that costume’. Halberstam divides female masculinity into three distinct categories: the drag king, the male impersonator and the drag butch. She contends that while ‘male impersonation has been a theatrical genre for at least three hundred years, the drag king is a recent phenomenon’. Whereas the male impersonator attempts to produce a plausible performance of maleness as the whole of her act, the drag king performs masculinity (often periodically) and makes the exposure of the theatricality of masculinity into the mainstream of her act. Both the male impersonator and the drag king are different from the drag butch, a masculine woman who wears masculine attire as part of her quotidian gender statement. Moreover, ‘whereas the male impersonator and the drag king are not necessarily lesbian roles, the drag butch most definitely is’.
For some kings, performances of masculinity are about decentring and deconstructing dominant paradigms of masculinity, whilst for other drag kings, masculinity is about expressing an aspect of their own identity. Drag kinging is more than the visual and stylistic presentation of the performance; it is also about the act of revealing the instability of gender roles—in this case masculinity, what it is and how it is produced. As Halberstam has argued, drag kinging is one mode of making ‘assaults upon dominant gender regimes’. It is about rearticulating representations of masculinity and male agency and as such destabilizes femininity as conceived by popular convention. In doing so, the drag performance calls into question butch/femme subjectivities and their complexities: bull dyke, stone butch, diesel butch, soft butch, top and bottom butch, lipstick, neo-femme and so forth. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself. It also calls into question issues of ethnicity and race as signifiers of otherness and marginality, as cross-ethnic performances draw attention to the disempowerment produced by racial discourses.
In her study of drag king culture and performances in New York and San Francisco in the mid-1990s, Halberstam identified four modes of kinging: impersonation, understatement, hyperbole and layering. All four modes represent the inauthenticity between acting and being, as drag kings ‘perform their own queerness, whilst simultaneously exposing the artificiality of conventional gender roles’. A drag king incorporates dancing and singing or lip-synching in her performance and often performs as über or exaggerated male personas from a taxonomy of masculinities. These characters range from the popular white trash trucker to the suave gentleman crooner and the macho Latino lover and attempt to reproduce the stereotype with or without a twist. Like the drag queen, the drag king adopts a stage name which tends to evoke sexual innuendoes such as those by well-known Australian drag kings Jonnie Swift, Sexy Galaxy, Rocco D’Amore and Mo B. Dick, and Buck Naked and Buster Hyman from the United States.
Drag kings produce an acceptable masculine aesthetic via the use of props (suits, ties, greased hair, facial hair) and through role-playing and mimicry. They generally tape down their breasts, add the illusion of male genitalia by wearing a prosthetic penis and erase some, if not all, forms of feminine features to appear more masculine and to create gender illusion in their performances. Kings walk with a swagger and drink beer from a bottle, and their legs are always, in stereotypical male style, spread comfortably when seated.
Scholars of female masculinities have argued that drag king culture is more than the visual and stylistic presentation of men, but rather that these representations are about dissolving associations of masculinity with men. The performances of drag kings, writes Jennifer Patterson, ‘provide forums in which lesbians can act out and interact with fantastic masculinities, examine their responses to different female masculinities and experience… different gender roles and sexual desires’. Kinging is about performance, excess and politics. It is about exploding the normative gender system, and stretching sexual codes to open a space to redefine masculinities and femininities. Drag kinging produces new erotics, new genders and new modes of power.