International Drag Day is this Saturday, July 16, and we’re celebrating by taking a trip down memory lane.
The act of males dressing and performing in female attire dates back to Ancient Greece, in burlesque (circa 1600s) and during Shakespearian times.
“There’s always been someone crossdressing for work,” said Frank DeCaro, author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business in an NPR interview.
For those unaware of the more detailed definition of what drag is, you’re about to be enlightened.
Drag queens, per 2017 study A Natural History of the Drag Queen Phenomenon by Michael Moncrieff and Pierre Lienard, are defined as “gay individuals who don female clothing with the explicit goal of performing in front of audiences. The main reasons mentioned in the literature for becoming a drag queen include the desire of raising one’s social standing, getting more involved in the gay community, and starting a career in entertainment.
“Their apparel is not intended to depict ordinary female attires like that of transgender women but portray purposefully outlandish, often vulgar and exaggerated stereotypes of womanhood. Female impersonators progressively build reputation and, for some, local fame, through patronizing and performing at bars and nightclubs.”
Similarly, drag kings are essentially the same as drag queens but performed by usually women, transgender men or nonbinary people dressed in male drag attire.
“Lesser known than their drag queen counterparts, drag kings often tackle problematic male stereotypes, such as toxic masculinity, with the aim of challenging the patriarchy through singing, comedy and dance,” a History Extra post reads. “Their history can be traced back hundreds of years, their beginnings stemming from the legacies of male impersonators in the 1600s onwards. Even before this, there are records of female cross-dressers dating back thousands of years, such as women who performed in male roles during the Tang Dynasty (618–907AD) in China.”
Drag king pioneers in the 1800s include Annie Hindle, Vesta Tilley and Ella Wesner, and “by the early 1900s, black performers like Gladys Bentley and Stormé DeLarverie were becoming drag pioneers [of their generation],” this Vox article reads. “By the 1990s, there was a thriving drag king scene in cities like New York City, San Francisco and London.”
Hindle began performing in New York in 1867 and is considered to be the first popular “male impersonator” in the U.S.
Though historically more marginalized than their drag queen counterparts, drag kings are equally as much as activists and artists, and have been making a powerful comeback in recent years on several media outlets.
A Natural History of the Drag Queen Phenomenon cites literary descriptions of drag queens to have emerged in England in the early 1700s, where at the time, “gay sexual activities were illegal, systematically prosecuted and could result in capital punishment.
“Performances were strictly restricted to audiences of gay men in meeting places called ‘molly houses.’”
Though popular among the LGBTQ+ community, drag queens experienced common harassment from the community and what the study calls “outsiders.”
“Most people, including the impersonators themselves, seemed to view the drag queen attitude as extreme and particular,” the study reads. “Despite this stigmatization, participation in the drag subculture appeared to have afforded jobless, young and poor gays some opportunity to distinguish themselves from lower status individuals such as hustlers or ‘freaks,’ and, for the most successful drag queens, a chance to develop celebrity-like status and social might in the gay community.”
The earliest appearances of drag queens in the U.S. are said to be in the early 20th century in New York City, sometimes allowing attendees to connect and engage in same-sex relations “without being directly exposed to social sanctions.”
Conversely, an article from The Nation cites William Dorsey Swann as the first person known to describe himself as “the queen of drag.” He was born enslaved in Maryland and began hosting drag balls in D.C., attended by other formerly enslaved men.
Some other notable drag queens/”female impersonators” include Julian Eltinge, who made his way to Broadway being casted as female roles. On the west coast, Bothwell Browne was among the most popular. He appeared in the 1919 film “Yankee Doodle in Berlin,” produced by Mack Sennett.
In recent times, drag has appeared all over TV and the internet. Most notably among these is RuPaul’s Drag Race, which debuted in 2009. The art form’s often exaggerated makeup looks have been taking over mainstream media, spurring new trends and methods of applying it.
Furthermore, the bright, reflective garb drag performers often don have a modern message to young people worldwide to stand out from the crowd.
But what may be among the more interesting cultural influences drag performers have provided to us is new slang, terms and catch phrases, such as “yas” and “tea.”
How has drag affected you? Tell us about your experiences! Happy International Drag Day from your friends at Come (Out) as You Are.