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Get To Know The Art Of Drag And The History Behind It

Drag is a beautiful art form and an amazing way of expression. Its history goes back centuries, to the Shakespearean Era. Drag has a theatrical background: Shakespeare’s plays, that took place in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, featured both male and female roles. However, the church didn’t allow women to participate. For that reason, men dressed as members of the opposite sex to keep the story line. The word drag also has a theatrical background. The dresses men wore to play the female characters would supposedly drag along the floor.

As time passed by, it became a way for men to express a different side of themselves. They would turn over-exaggerated feminine looks using wigs, pads and makeup to create a persona. As the famous drag queen RuPaul says, drag is more than impersonating a woman: “I don’t dress like a woman, I dress like a drag queen!”. Another popular way to do drag is when female performers adopt an exaggerated male persona. They are called drag kings.

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Rupaul

One of the most remarkable figures of this art form is Princess Seraphina, who is considered to be England’s first drag queen. His performances enlightened all around him in the 18th century. Drag came to the United States with the genre Vaudeville, that combined music, comedy, dance and burlesque to entertain. Julian Eltinge played an essential role in drag history, being considered one of the biggest stars of the 20th century in the USA.

However, in the 1920s, the American society became more reactionary and acted against the LGBTQ+ people, which had a negative impact on the way drag was perceived. The Prohibition Era abolished alcohol production, but drag queens continued to attend underground clubs. These underground parties gained popularity, there was a tolerance and even a celebration of drag. This period when drag was welcomed in the USA during the Prohibition became known as the Pansy Craze, from 1930 to 1933.

Meanwhile, the state continued to criminalize gay culture and police cracked down on those bars. That led to the Stonewall Riot of 1969, when drag queens, among them Marsha P Johnson, remarkable American activist, protested against police brutality on gay bars in New York City. Thanks to this riot, the Gay Liberation Front was created. The fight for equal rights and acceptance grew over the 1970s and 1980s, and so did the drag queens’ popularity.

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Octavia St. Laurent, in Paris is Burning (1990)

An important event that was originated in the 1970s is the drag ball. The contestants went on the runway in their finest drag to impress the judges and win the prize. This was when the concept of drag mother took hold. Experienced queens would take up-and-coming drag artists and taught them to work the stage and helped them with their looks. It was also common that the drag mothers provided a home for young LGBTQ+ people that were going through a difficult time in their lives, and not just intending to enter the drag community. Drag mothers would become the head of their House, which meant they were responsible for an entire drag family. In the documentary Paris Is Burning, by Jennie Livingston, many drag families are featured.

Also during the 70s, a drag icon gained the spotlight: Divine. She appeared in many movies by the director John Waters and became a huge success, inspiring queens everywhere. Divine is most known for her role as Edna Turnblad in the original version of the movie Hairspray.

By the early 1990s, RuPaul reached global fame, blending his drag persona with a recording career. He met many incredible celebrities and even recorded a duet of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Elton John. In 2009, he created the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, in which the contestants must compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. The show has been on the air for 11 years and it is a huge platform for drag queens. Nowadays, these artists are seen regularly on TV, magazine covers, podcasts and gained an enormous fan base. Drag is an extraordinary art form that is filled with beauty and social history. 

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The article above was edited by Karen Oliveira.

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Amanda Moraes

Casper Libero '23

majoring in journalism
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