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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) Presents a Free Online Class on Fash­ion: Enroll in Fash­ion as Design Today

Google Cre­ates a Dig­i­tal Archive of World Fash­ion: Fea­tures 30,000 Images, Cov­er­ing 3,000 Years of Fash­ion His­to­ry

Dif­fer­ent From the Oth­ers (1919): The First Gay Rights Movie Ever … Lat­er Destroyed by the Nazis

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

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