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.
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.
Leave a Reply