The art of drag has long danced along the line of gender and sexuality, being one of the first open shows of gender fluidity in recent history. Because drag is defined as “whenever someone puts on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance”, it can actually be traced back to plays in the early 1800s, where men would dress as women in plays.1 This was more so due to the fact that the theatre had close ties with the church, so women could not perform in plays, but this still was the most recent known act of men dressing and performing as women.
When it comes to modern history, it is the vaudeville shows (a form of entertainment that features acts such as burlesque, comedy, song, and dance) that began the new era of drag.2 Specifically, Julian Eltinge was the first person to sing as a femme mimic (female impersonator) in the vaudeville shows.3 From here, many other performers began to perform in drag shows, with its popularity starting to take off in the 1930s and 40s.
At its beginnings, taking note from Etlinge, performers would go to their furthest extents in emphasizing their masculinity off stage.4 This is partially because the science of sexology developed ideas about a third sex in order to rationalize the existence of drag queens, giving it a close link to homosexuality.5 During this time period, most drag performers did not want to be linked to the queer community, either because it was so heavily frowned upon or because they were heterosexual and cis gender.
In the 1950s and 60s, after drag had gained some foothold in the performance community, some performers began to tour around the United States. However, due to masquerade laws stating that it was illegal to cross dress in public, they had to be very careful about where they performed and how they presented themselves.6 This could mean anything from wearing clothing that was not able to be assigned to a gender to only performing at underground bars. Furthermore, as drag became more popular on TV during this time, the whole idea became to “take the straightest, hairiest, ugliest guy, put him in a dress, and a straight guy will fall in love with him".7 This further separated drag from the idea of homosexuality, as the men dressing in female clothing were being portrayed as heterosexual and having male defining characteristics.
The 1980s marked a turning point for drag shows and performers. This is when drag became more “edgy, playful, and vulgar”, an alternative vibe from drag in the past and more similar to the drag in today’s pop culture. This is also when drag became more willingly associated with the queer community, which is interesting considering the AIDS crisis began in the early 80s and gays at this time were being ostracized from the community.
The 21st century drag scene has been monopolized by RuPaul’s Drag Race, which premiered in 2009. At this point, drag, while maintaining its roots in males dressing as females, has taken on a much more individualized and expressive life of its own. The point now being to defy and deconstruct expectations of normal, which can be seen in how drag is now portrayed in pop culture.8
This photo journal will take a look at advertisements for drag shows over the years and how the images align with the views and ideas of drag throughout history.
These advertisements from the 1940s emphasize the masculinity of the performers by italicizing the “Mr.” in 1942 (left) and by showing a man’s face holding female masks in 1946 (right).
The 1950s advertisements appear to show the performers as more feminine, but tend to keep them from being incriminating. The ad from Finnochio’s (right) avoids using any faces of actual people, and the one from Blue Dahlia’s (left) passes the performers up as being in a costume or a “doll” and emphasizes that the performers are “guys”.
The 1960s ads show some more normalization of drag, as we can see the concept has been made into a move “The Queen”. Both ads still emphasize the masculinity of the performers. This is more so on the left as advertisement still includes the “Mr.” when presenting the drag queen and describes the show as “The world’s most beautiful boys in women’s attire”. The ad on the right is more progressive, showing the main character doing his own makeup, an act considered to be feminine, and describes him as the “queen”, a feminine noun.
The advertisements in the ‘80s reflect the new way drag has been embraced and moved more towards being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, as neither of these advertisements discuss gender or overemphasize the masculinity of the performers.
These last advertisements from the 21st century are all from RuPaul’s Drag Race. These advertisements accentuate the individuality and the barrier breaking done by RuPaul and all the drag queens involved as it relates to both gender and sexuality.
Helena is from Simsbury, Connecticut and is a senior at Wake Forest University majoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. In the future she hopes to go into the medical field.