The History of Drag and its Modern-Day Influence
By Kaylin Tran
In recent years, the surge of appreciation for drag has changed the way we talk and the way we look and dress. The rise in support for the drag and queer communities can be credited to social movements and the media. The majority of the younger generations has embraced drag queens and kings with open arms—but of course, the fight for recognition was far from easy. The dramatic, theatrical shows put on by drag performers used to be hidden in underground and private clubs. In fact, crossdressing used to be outlawed. So, how did something once considered to be a shameful type of entertainment, blossom into the revered art form that it is today?
In order to understand the importance of drag culture, it’s helpful to first know what it is. Drag is a theatrical form, according to Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian and professor of theater studies at New York University, states in an interview with TIME. It’s whenever someone puts “on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance.” By Jeffreys’ definition, drag can be traced back to ancient Native American, indigenous South American, Egyptian ceremonies, and Japanese theater.
Jonathan David, author of the book “Drag Diaries,” wrote that religious and spiritual occasions from past civilizations called for drag clothing. In Japanese theater, men were made up and dressed to look like female characters when performing folk dances. The practice of men playing female roles can also be seen in ancient Greek and Shakespearian theater. The term “drag” originated in Britain. It was first used as a subset of English theater slang in the 1870s to refer to the long skirts that men wore on stage; men continued to wear exaggerated makeup and clothing to play female roles until it finally became legal for women to perform in 1660.
Soon, men started impersonating females and performing in vaudeville shows, which are a type of entertainment featuring specialty acts like burlesque comedy and song and dance. William Dorsey Swann, the first person to call himself a “queen of drag,” began to host drag balls in the 1880s. Drag was never associated with homosexuality until sexology (the study of sex and sexual practices among different cultures) developed ideas about a third sex in an attempt to rationalize why drag queens exist.
“The third sex was discussed as a feminine man or a masculine woman who desires members of the same sex,” said Jeffreys to Popsugar. “By the 1930s this scientific conversation had worked its way into the popular culture and linked drag with homosexuality.”
As a result, drag became nearly shunned. “Masquerade laws” punished those who cross dressed in public. Gay bars had to operate underground, though they were constantly raided by police. This continued until the Stonewall Riots in 1969, when patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back against the authorities.
When the first gay pride parade was held a year later, gradual acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community grew. Though drag queens and transgender individuals were still marginalized more than their queer peers, drag icons began to emerge. The culture slowly began to re-enter mainstream society. Signs of the acceptance of drag can be seen in films like actor Tim Curry’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and celebrities like musician David Bowie’s dramatic style.
Divine, aka the “Drag Queen of the Century” as People Magazine named her, inspired the design of Ursula in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” “Paris is Burning,” a popular seven-year documentary about drag balls in New York City, and “The Birdcage,” a comedy about a gay couple who run a drag cabaret, shifted attention to drag and helped it grow in American culture. The list of role models and influences certainly goes on.
One of whom, RuPaul Charles, has become one of the most well-known drag queens in the community. Her 1993 song, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” launched the success of her performance career. Her competitive reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” premiered in 2009 and created a platform for other performers to feel included. Since then, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has opened a space for drag voices to be seen, heard, and accepted. Its popularity rose through media and social apps and is 12 seasons strong.
Even though most of drag history addresses men who perform as women, drag kings also make up a large part of the community. Kings like Murray Hill perform as masculine personas and also work in the entertainment sector. The first International Drag King Extravaganza was held in 1999, where drag kings gathered in a non-competitive environment with their fans.
Beauty & Fashion
Many makeup trends that are now popular amongst beauty gurus and makeup fanatics, come from the drag community. Cut creases, contouring, and baking are used by drag queens to transform their faces into the characters they are embodying. The signature heavy and dramatic application is used for several reasons. As men who are playing feminine roles, they need to completely change their masculine features to be more dainty and feminine. Additionally, drag queens perform on stage under bright lights, which means that their makeup needs to be bullet-proof.
Kim Kardashian is known for her use of contouring and Kylie Jenner is famous for her plump, overlined lips—these techniques came from the drag community. Former Kardashian makeup artist, Joyce Bonelli, has previously stated that her techniques are inspired by “drag anything and everything.”
“I don’t think that the drag community gets the credit they deserve for the trends that are happening with makeup—so many trends started within the drag community,” said celebrity makeup artist Renny Vasquez to Elle. “I would love to see drag get more recognition for it. I think that we’re moving into a moment where people are digging in a little bit deeper and they’re like, ‘Where does it come from?’ [Drag queens] are starting to get some of the recognition. But, I do feel like it’s long overdue.”
Additionally, fashion has also been an area impacted by drag. As a form of entertainment that often involves dressing up in elaborate, fantastical outfits, it’s natural that fashion would be influenced. The queens on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are challenged to make and style their own outfits to walk down the runway. It’s a test of creativity and skill when it comes to creating garments.
“A lot of people go into fashion—a lot of designers, certainly—because they love clothing, they love makeup and hair and beauty,” said designer Joseph Altuzarra to the New York Times. “And I think ‘Drag Race’ is such an extreme version of it that it only makes sense that people in this industry can appreciate it and latch on.”
After their successful seasons, drag queens like Pearl, Miss Fame, and Milk have been invited to high fashion shows and appear in magazines and ad campaigns. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season seven winner Violet Chachki has walked for designers such as Marco Marco, Moschino, and Christian Cowan.
“Fashion people understand drag,” said Season six winner Bianca Del Rio to the New York Times. “It’s a process, and you get to create absolutely anything you want. The only difference with a fashion show is it’s 15 minutes. For us, it’s usually two hours.”
Drag simply started off as cross-dressing in ancient practices and theater programs, but it’s evolved to become a nuanced and completely unique culture. Phrases from the community have trickled into mainstream society. Terms like “Bye Felicia” from the film “Friday” and “tea” have circulated amongst younger generations in particular at one point in time. The origin of the saying “yas” comes from “Paris is Burning.”
“I think that people are attracted to the freedom of it,” said Jeremy Calder, drag performer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado’s department of linguistics, to Wired. “A lot of people may be embracing gender nonconformity because of the freedom it represents. One of the manifestations of that is the drag queen, and language is definitely a part of it.”
While the appropriation of drag language may symbolize the acceptance of the community, it also threatens the erasure of significance behind the words. These phrases are sometimes adopted by younger generations because they sound cool or catchy, but there’s a history of politics, race, and marginalization that goes behind each saying.
“It can erase the origin,” said Calder. “Misappropriation comes when people lose sight of its history, and when it becomes a commodity that the originators don’t benefit from.”
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.