A Flight Through the History of Drag
From Léon Hendrickx’ ‘Kings and Queens’
This week’s Photogenie theme is titled "Loving Pride".
Through visual stories, our curators explore the meanings of pride.
Since RuPaul’s takeover of American television, drag queens have become part of mainstream showbiz culture. Even though the acceptance of drag queens into mainstream media is quite recent, dressing up as the ‘other sex’ as performance goes far back. Where did this artistic phenomenon come from? Time for a flight through the history of drag!
The expression Drag Queen first came to ears in the early 20th century. It’s a combination of the English word drag, which refers to the dragging of long skirts over the ground, and the word queen, which was mostly used as a denigrating insult towards homosexuals during the late 19th century. Drag queens and kings dress up as what is viewed as their ‘opposite’ gender, that is, they cross-dress.
Cross-dressing is immemorial. In old religious documentation, like the Deuteronomium (fifth book of the Christian Old Testament) and the Qur'an, there are notes and strict descriptions of sex-specific clothing: the act of cross-dressing is prohibited. These first notations of cross-dressing indicate that it was forbidden, but this also means that it happened. Because, why would anyone forbid something that hasn’t occurred?
In ancient Greek theatre, men would play the roles of women by using masks and dressing up, as women themselves weren’t allowed to perform. In the Roman empire, castrated men sang female parts because they had a higher voice (castration prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by puberty). These men would dress up as women and became a target of hatred and ridicule, partly because the appearance (even of a likeness) of women in the theatre was disapproved of by the church. After the beginning of the 5th century, then emperor Justinian I decided to close all Roman theatres.
It was Christian priests that put the theatre back on the map in the 13thcentury. At this time, it was mostly to teach the illiterate about biblical stories. The religious performances, in which priests would play male roles as well as female roles, grew so popular that they had to be moved to areas outside the church. This resulted in the reopening of theatres.
Up until the seventeenth century, female parts were played by male actors. The first playwrights that insisted their female roles should be played by women were the French Molière, Corneille and Racine. Women practicing theatre was hereafter picked up by other countries as well.
In the eighteenth century, the role of Queen of the Night, in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte was played by a male actor that would dress up extensively, wearing a lot of make-up. Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would become one of the composers’ most famous plays and one of the first examples of a performance by a drag queen.
Hintmagazine released a series of photos of 19th century drag queens (avant-la-lettre) in 2014. It is not entirely clear if all of these photos are authentic, but they give an idea of what the 19th century ‘drag queen’ looked like.
In the early 1920s the term Drag Queen became a common descriptor for the act of men dressing up as women for entertainment purposes. The performance of drag queens became attached to homo-culture and entertainment in gay bars and events. Because cross-dressing was (and still is) highly associated with the gay community, drag queens became frequent victims of assault and were often arrested on the grounds of buggery and prostitution.
A little further into the 1920s, drag balls were organized in underground gay clubs in New York. These balls were a safe space for homosexual people to go out and for drag queens to perform their acts. During the prohibition in the 1930s, these parties became more extravagant and earned the name ‘Pansy Craze’. Because of the slinky use of alcohol, the Pansy Craze became popular to all kinds of publics that were willing to accept the gay community in order to get their hands on some booze.
In the 60s, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village became an important cornerstone for drag culture. The extravagant shows that developed in this New York club increased in popularity and allowed drag culture to transition into a more mainstream form of popular culture. The shows and the blossoming homo-culture in the Stonewall Inn made this bar the place where LGBTQIA+ activism found its roots.
RuPaul’s Drag Queen skyrocketed visibility and the acceptance of drag queens in popular culture. Nowadays we can’t think of New York or Amsterdam nightlife without queens owning the stage.
Léon Hendrickx has made a beautiful series of drag queens posing with their male alter egos, to show the juxtaposition and compliance of their two personalities. Seeing the two versions of themselves portrayed as if two different individuals, made many models feel as if they were finally a whole. You can check this series out on our Instagram or on Hendrickx’s website at https://kingsqueensofficial.squarespace.com/
Let us know what you think in the comments! Our weekly themes always include three photo series by different photographers. Are you interested and do you want to stay posted? Make sure to follow us on Instagram @wearecurators.
Written by: Myrthe Peek
Further Reading: Philipsen, L. Een duik in de boeiende geschiedenis van dragqueens & travestie. KnackWeekend.be. (dutch)