History of Drag: From Antic Greece to RuPaul’s Drag Race

The phenomenon of drag has existed for centuries. However, it seems that today, it is enjoying the biggest popularity and acceptance in Western culture. In itself, drag encompasses several different forms of art. 

Primarily a performative art form, drag uses fashion, accessories, flamboyant makeup and over-the-top wigs to transform a person into a performer, who rebels against fixed gender roles while playing with sexuality. Apart from larger-than-life outfits and makeovers, drag queens employ dancing, singing or lip-synching and pantomime to create awe-inspiring shows for the viewers. 

The performers can imitate different celebrities, or create their own unique look and stage persona. Most drag queens are men, although women, trans and non-binary individuals can participate in drag as well. Apart from drag queens, the shows also feature drag kings, a performative form that uses clothing and accessories to create exaggerated portrayals of men.

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The Most Powerful Drag Queens in America via Volture

The Origin of Drag

The origin of drag can be traced back to the days of antic theatre. Back then women weren’t allowed to play male roles, which is why men had to disguise themselves into female characters. It is believed that the term drag originated from the theatre as well. Allegedly, male actors complained that the clothing “dragged” across the floor. Other sources, however, state that the term drag is more recent. According to the Oxford African American Studies Center term developed as a short form of “grand rag,” an expression synonymous with the masquerade. 

The theatre practice continued to the modern era, with Shakespearean time being known for its outstanding female impersonators. With the development of vaudeville, (between the 1800s and 1930s), two types of drag queens appeared: wrench players and prima donnas. Wrench players first appeared in blackface minstrel shows, racist shows that mocked African American men and women. 

Wrench players would appear on stage in blackface, comedic skits and sing and dance to entertain the viewers. Vaudeville’s prima donnas, on the other hand, drew inspiration from the European tradition of Shakespeare plays. Prima donnas would perform singing and dancing routines with numerous changes of ravishing outfits.

Photo of drag
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Next talk focusing on ‘A Brief History if Drag‘ on Sept 15th, at 6pm (BST) @ LEVEL

Drag and LGBTQ+ Movement

As drag becomes increasingly linked to the LGBTQ+ movement, the performances become more and more secluded. Since homosexuality was criminalised at the time, drag theatre shows that previously took place on Broadway and other major stages, were now moved to underground clubs, with trans and gay people replacing straight men as main performers. Since police often raided these clubs, bullying and detaining those inside, drag queens organised a series of riots in 1969 known as Stonewall riots after the club where they started. Starting off as a spontaneous rebellion against frequent police raids, the riots escalated into a battle for civil rights. Led by drag queens, the Stonewall riots are considered a landmark event in the LGBTQ+ history.  

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As the LGBTQ community became more accepted in society, slowly but surely drag returned to the mainstream. Musicians like David Bowie made the cross-dressing, gender-bending aesthetic a focal point of their early videos. In the year of 2009 singer and actor, RuPaul Andre Charles produced his first drag reality show. 

In RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants compete for the title of the next American drag queen, under the watchful eye of the host, the jury and the viewers. The show has quickly become a smashing hit winning nineteen Emmy awards and legions of admirers around the world. Across the ocean, in Europe, an Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won the 2014 Eurovision song contest, the biggest music competition on the continent. It’s fair to say that drag is having momentum right now, and drag kings and queens are expecting a bright future ahead.

Drag race UK winners, BBC
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Drag race UK winner via BBC

The Evolution of Drag

Since the early days of antic Greek theatres, drag has evolved and transformed itself. Unlike the drag queens in the theatre shows that adapted their appearance and behaviour to make themselves as feminine as possible, the drag queens of today, feature a different look and social and political elements in their work. 

Rather than dressing as women, drag queens’ image represents the exaggeration of womanhood, adorned with big hair, flashy makeup, and sparkly gowns. Also, apart from performing on stage, the 20th and 21st century queens, use drag as a means of political liberation in a society where the LGBTQ community still has battles to be won.
It seems that the public is now willing more than ever to embrace the art of drag. But outside of drag competitions and club performances, how much do we really know about it? If you want to know more about how drag changed over the years, make sure to enrol into A Brief History of Drag, led by expert speaker Jordana Belaiche. An hour-long online lecture taking place on September 15th, 2021 (at 6 pm BST) will cover essential drag-related terms and topics including drag kings, queens, and things, but also bio queens and creature drag, to name a few.

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