100 Years of Drag Queen Fashion in 4 Minutes: An Aesthetic Journey Moving from the 1920s Through Today

Drag superstar RuPaul’s Drag Race program can be credited with bringing his subculture to a much wider audience.

For ten seasons, viewers outside the major metropolitan areas and select holiday destinations where drag has flourished have tuned in to root for their favorite competitors.

As a result, mainstream America has developed a much more nuanced appreciation for the labor and artistry behind successful drag performance and personae.




Vanity Fair’s "100 Years of Drag Queen Fashion," above, is not so much an evolutionary history of the form as a salute to some of its pioneers, practitioners, and patron saints.

Each decade opens with a Drag Race alum facing the makeup mirror in a relatively naked state.  Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Raja, and Detox all appear sans fard. Kim Chi’s heavily made up eyes are eyelash-free.

The 70’s spin on the late, great Divine is more reminiscent of cis-gender disco queen Donna Summer than the outrageous plus-sized muse director John Waters referred to as “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.”

As portrayed in the video below, there’s a strong echo of 1930’s Pansy Performer Jean Malin in RuPaul’s glamorous presentation.

In reality, the resemblance is not quite so strong. Although Malin got dolled up in Mae West drag in 1933’s Arizona to Broadway, above, left to his own devices his stage presence was that of an openly effeminate gay man, or “pansy.” As Professor George Chauncey, director of Columbia University’s Research Initiative on the Global History of Sexualities observes in his book, Gay New York:

 His very presence on the club floor elicited the catcalls of many men in the club, but he responded to their abuse by ripping them to shreds with the drag queen's best weapon: his wit. 'He had a lisp, and an attitude, but he also had a sharp tongue,' according to one columnist. 'The wise cracks and inquiries of the men who hooted at his act found ready answer.' And if hostile spectators tried to use brute force to take him on after he had defeated them with his wit, he was prepared to humble them on those terms as well. 'He was a huge youth,' one paper reported, 'weighing 200, and a six footer. Not a few professional pugilists sighed because Jean seemed to prefer dinner rings to boxing rings.' Although Malin's act remained tame enough to safeguard its wide appeal, it nonetheless embodied the complicated relationship between pansies and 'normal' men. His behavior was consistent with their demeaning stereotype of how a pansy should behave, but he demanded their respect; he fascinated and entertained them, but he also threatened and infuriated them.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Other legendary figures honored by Vanity Fair include Francis Renault (1893-1955), Lavern Cummings (1925-1991), and Danny LaRue (1927-2009).

Also some gender bending lad by the name David Bowie, though if Vanity Fair’s skinny Divine causes a slight sense of unease, the hideous vinyl raincoat sported by its snarling, whip-wielding Bowie facsimile may send fans scuttling for torches and pitchforks.

As to the future, Joan Jetson collars and pink wedding cake wigs appear to be part of drag’s fashion forecast.

Cis-male skeletal structures may not always lend themselves to period-appropriate female silhouettes, but the towering heels on display are faithful to the art of the drag queen, above all else.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In pointing out the clear and present dangers posed by out-of-control consumerism, there is no need for Marxism 101 terms like “commodity fetishism.” Simply state in plain terms that we revere cheaply-mass-produced goods, made for the sake of endless growth and consumption, for no particular reason other than perpetual novelty and the creation of wealth for a few. Everyone nods in agreement, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inboxes, convincing themselves, as I convince myself, that targeted advertising in digital networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behavior-modification regimes”—could not possibly have any effect on me!

While 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way predicted (as Lanier largely did) the mass behavior-modification schemes of the internet, he understood something critically important about human behavior and the nascent commodity culture taking shape around him, a culture of anxious disquiet and games of one-upmanship, played, if not with others, then with oneself. Renowned, among other things, for co-founding the Encyclopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a reputation for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” which inspired the concept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This principle states that modern consumption requires us to “identify ourselves using our possessions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when persuaded by naked lust or the enticements of advertising to purchase something new and shiny, we immediately notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves” by upgrading things that worked perfectly well, in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are in relation to the first new purchase.

The phenomenon, “part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation,” drives heedless shopping and creates needless waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms consistent with the tastes and prejudices of an educated gentleman of his time. He does so with perspicacious self-awareness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyperbole of its rhetoric. Beginning with a comparison between his old bathrobe, which “molded all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apocalyptic scenario illustrating the “ravages of luxury.”

The purchase of a new dressing gown spoiled his sense of himself as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jarring, dissociative note. “I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am…. All now is discordant,” he writes, “No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” Rather than get rid of the new purchase, he feels compelled to become the kind of person who wears such a thing, by means of further purchases which he could only newly afford, after receiving an endowment from Catherine the Great. Before this windfall, points out James Clear, he had “lived nearly his entire life in poverty.”

Clear gives several examples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th century aesthetics and into our modern big-box/Amazon reality. “We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify,” he writes, “Our natural inclination is always to accumulate.” To counter the tendency, he recommends corrective behaviors such as making sure new purchases fit in with our current possessions; setting self-imposed limits on spending; and reducing exposure to “habit triggers.” This may require admitting that we are susceptible to the ads that clutter both our physical and digital environments, and that limiting time spent on ad-driven platforms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and environmental care as well. Algorithms now perform Diderot effects for us constantly.

Is the Diderot effect universally bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one’s sense of self through aesthetic choices” or craving a unified look for our physical spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take responsibility for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hardly a “screed,” but a light-hearted, yet candid self examination. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been corrupted…. But who knows what will happen with time?”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Doc Martens Boots Adorned with Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”

As in cuisine, where peasant food can become trendy and expensive overnight, so it is in fashion: how else to explain the way a humble working-class boot went from the factory floor to stylistic statement.

The original 1960’s Dr. Martens boot, the one with the cushioned sole, fancy tread, and yellow stitching, was designed to be affordable. That’s why the punks loved it, that’s why the ska/Two Tone guys and gals loved it, and that’s why rich rockers like Pete Townshend showed his solidarity by wearing them along with his boiler suit.




But that was then, and this is...the Tate Gallery of London’s specially commissioned series of arty Docs. The “1460” boot above shows details from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hellish third panel), which you have to admit is pretty cool. For the lover not the fighter among us, you can also go for the more debauched second panel from "Garden" printed on a “1461” style shoe.

If Bosch isn’t your style, the Tate Gallery also commissioned ones featuring Giannicola Di PaoloWilliam Hogarth, and Biagio Di Antonio. Trouble is, all of these have already sold out, though you can still get versions sporting art by William Blake and JMW Turner. I guess you might want to bookmark Dr. Martens Artist Series’ page. We’re here to expand your cultural knowledge on Open Culture, not to provide daily deals!

So, yes, these limited edition boots are just slightly more than the original “smooth” style and not exactly cheap. But, on the other hand, this new phase of the company is a celebration of skirting complete obsolescence. While marketers love to say these brands “never go out of style,” they in fact did. According to their own website, Dr. Martens had such declining sales at the turn of the millennium that all but one factory closed. It was by commissioning artists to rebrand the boot in similar ways as the Tate Gallery that the company was able to turn things around and, best of all, keep manufacturing the boots in Britain.

Whether you should wear your high culture so low to the ground is for you to figure out once you get your hands on a pair. Again, there are still versions by William Blake and JMW Turner in steady supply.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

An Archive of 8,000 Benjamin Franklin Papers Now Digitized & Put Online

Let me quickly pass along some good news from the Library of Congress: "The papers of American scientist, statesman and diplomat Benjamin Franklin have been digitized and are now available online for the first time.... The Franklin papers consist of approximately 8,000 items mostly dating from the 1770s and 1780s. These include the petition that the First Continental Congress sent to Franklin, then a colonial diplomat in London, to deliver to King George III; letterbooks Franklin kept as he negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War; drafts of the treaty; notes documenting his scientific observations, and correspondence with fellow scientists." Find the digitized collection of papers here.

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Braille Neue: A New Version of Braille That Can Be Simultaneously Read by the Sighted and the Blind

Photo via Kosuke Takahashi

To those of us who've never had reason to learn it, the Braille alphabet can have an appealingly retro-futuristic look, not least because Braille signage in America seems most often installed in pre-2000s public buildings. But it must smack of the past to many of the visually impaired as well, who these days have a host of ever higher-tech reading devices available to them (thanks to which, of course, they can read sites like this one). And though public support for producing materials in Braille exists, the educational programs needed to spread Braille literacy in the first place have fewer champions. Braille itself, perhaps, needs an upgrade for the 21st century.

Kosuke Takahashi may be just the graphic designer to provide that upgrade. He's come up with Braille Neue, "a universal typeface that combines braille with existing characters. This typeface communicates to both the sighted and blind people in the same space." He has, in other words, designed a readable alphabet that allows for the overlaying of English with the corresponding raised Braille dots, keeping both legible at a glance — or at a touch, as the case may be. Other designers have tried their hand at the same project, but unlike Takahashi, none of their alphabets support phonetic Japanese characters as well. "Our aim is to use this universal typeset for [the] Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics 2020 to create a truly universal space where anyone can access information," says Takahashi's Braille Neue page.

Photo via Kosuke Takahashi

Based on the existing Helvetica Neue font, Braille Neue — whose designer, according to My Modern Met, "is still experimenting with cost-effective printing and is refining the font prior to final release" — has the potential to spread not just awareness but literacy of Braille, given that it essentially shows sighted non-Braille readers a key every time they read it. As any non-Japanese person who has lived in Takahashi's native land knows, even if you start with no idea of how to read a character in an unknown writing system, you'll start to get a sense of it almost automatically if you see it often enough in context with your own. They'll also know that if any country can implement retrofuturistic design in a way that fascinates the world, it's Japan.

via Colossal/My Modern Met

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Cinematic Journey Through Paris, As Seen Through the Lens of Legendary Filmmaker Éric Rohmer: Watch Rohmer in Paris


Note: The film starts around the 30 second mark.

Site of so many historic screenings, cradle of so many innovative auteurs, setting of so many memorable scenes: does any city have a more central place in the cinephile's consciousness than Paris? Filmmaker-professor Richard Misek calls it "the city where cinephilia itself began." It certainly has a place in his own cinephilic journey, beginning with a chance encounter, 24 years ago in the district of Montmartre, with one of the luminaries of French New Wave film: Éric Rohmer, who was then in the middle of shooting his picture Rendezvous in Paris. "I only realized this fourteen years later, when I saw the film late one night on television," Misek says. "It was the first Rohmer film I'd ever seen — and I was in it."

He tells this story early in Rohmer in Paris, his hour-long video essay on all the ways the auteur used the city in the course of his prolific, more than fifty-year-long filmmaking career. Misek describes Rohmer's characters, "always glancing at each other: on trains, on streets, in parks, in the two-way shop windows of cafes where they can see and be seen," as flâneurs, those observant strollers through the city whose type has its origins in the Paris of the 19th century. "But their walks are restricted to lunch hours and evenings out. They form detours from less leisurely trajectories: the lines of a daily commute." With ever-increasing rigor, the director "traces every step of his characters' journeys through the city with topographic precision. His characters follow actual paths through Paris, paths that can be drawn as lines on the city's map."




Though Rohmer did have his differences, aesthetically as well as politically, with his colleagues in the French New Wave, "in one way, at least, he always stayed faithful to the spirit of the nouvelle vague: throughout his life, Rohmer didn't just film Paris, he documented it." Cutting up and deliberately re-arranging thousands of pieces of image and sound in Rohmer's dozens of shorts and features, placing side-by-side shots of the same Parisian spaces years and even decades apart, Misek shows us how Rohmer cinematically illustrates "one of the basic truths about urban existence: in cities, humans' lives intersect every day. But most of these intersections are transitory, crossed paths between two people following different trajectories."

Rohmer didn't always film in Paris. As his career went on, he told more stories that depart from the city, but then, those stories also usually return to it: ultimately, almost all of his characters find that "Paris cannot be transcended." Watch just one of Rohmer's films, and you'll see how little interest he has in romanticizing the City of Light, yet the words of one character in Full Moon in Paris might also be his own: "The air is foul, but I can breathe," he declares. "I need to be at the center, in the center of a country, in a city center that's almost the center of the world."

Just as Rohmer demonstrates the inexhaustibility of Paris with his filmography, Misek demonstrates the inexhaustibility of that filmography with Rohmer in Paris, which he has recently released into the public domain and made free to watch online. It provides real insight into the work of Éric Rohmer, the city in which he became a cinephile and then a filmmaker, and how the two repeatedly intersect with one another over the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. But it also implies an answer, in the affirmative, to another, more general proposition that Misek raises early in the essay: "I can't help but wonder if cinephilia is a journey without end."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Igor Stravinsky Remembers the “Riotous” Premiere of His Rite of Spring in 1913: “They Were Very Shocked. They Were Naive and Stupid People.”

It can be a little hard to take the word “riot” seriously when applied to a contentious ballet performance, given how regularly we now see police with machine guns, shields, and tanks rolling down city streets to overpower protesting citizens. But that is the word that has come down to us for the fracas that greeted the debut of Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. The idea of a riot seems all the more incongruous, and funny, when considered in the light of Jean Cocteau’s description of the crowd:

The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.

This Parisian smart set came together on that evening of May 29th expecting “something potentially outrageous,” writes The Telegraph’s classical critic Ivan Hewett. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes had previously “entranced and shocked Paris.” Stravinsky was acquiring a reputation as a musical provocateur, having built his score for 1910’s The Firebird around the dissonant “Devil’s Interval.” Nonetheless, as the Rocketboom video below, “The Riot of Spring,” explains, audiences packed into the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had no preparation for what they would see, and hear, when the curtain arose.

And what was that? A “high, almost strangled bassoon melody,” Hewett writes, “soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds” set to “pulsating rhythms.” Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s dancers “seemed pulled down to earth. Their strange, jerky movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.” The audience reacted immediately, shouting and attacking one another: “canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.” Stravinsky himself remembers the theatergoers reactions with disdain in a short interview excerpt at the top.

“The storm broke,” he says, once the curtain opened on a group of “knock-kneed… Lolitas jumping up and down." The audience "came for Scheherazade or Cleopatra, and they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stupid people.” Did Stravinsky really not anticipate the degree of unrest his weird, dissonant ballet might provoke? It seems not. He hoped it would be a bigger hit than his widely-praised Petrushka of three years earlier. “From all indications,” he had written to set designer Nicholas Roerich, “I can see that this piece is bound to ‘emerge’ in a way that rarely happens.” This proved true, but not at all in the way he meant it.

For his part, writes Hewett, Diaghilev “was hoping for something more than an emergence. He wanted a scandal.” James Wolcott, in his account of the evening, Wild in the Seats, argues that the Russian impresario had “a genius for publicity that wouldn’t be matched until the advent of Andy Warhol and the pop cult of celebrity.” He knew he needed to rattle the “jaded elegants,” who “weren’t going to be stimulated by the same melting, yearning pantomime in pointe shoes.” The Rite of Spring premiere remains the most infamous scandal in the history of ballet to this day.

But while the sophisticates battled it out in the aisles, screaming over the orchestra, pulling down each other’s top hats, it’s said, and challenging each other to duels, a few spectators, Cocteau included, sat entranced by the performance. The work, he later wrote, “is, and will remain, a masterpiece: a symphony impregnated with wild pathos, with earth in the throes of birth, noises of farm and camp, little melodies that come to us out of the depths of the centuries, the panting of cattle, profound convulsions of nature, prehistoric georgics.”

See the opening movements performed above by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, and imagine yourself in the midst of Paris’s highest society convulsing in a riotous outcry. What was so upsetting? “Perhaps the riot was a sign of disquiet,” Hewett speculates, “a feeling that that the world had lost its moorings, and that barbarism was about to be let loose in the streets.” According to eyewitnesses, some disturbed spectators even called in the police. You can learn much more about this fascinating history at the free Harvard edX course, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: Modernism, Ballet, and Riots.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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