A drag queen is a person, usually male, who dresses in the clothing of the opposite sex and often acts with exaggerated femininity for the purpose of entertainment or fashion. Throughout history, different countries and cultures had their own way of describing drag queens.
In the late 1800s, Travesti, meaning disguised in French, a theatrical portrayal of a character by a performer of the opposite sex, was a popular form of female impersonation in Europe. Pantomime dames, rather than the more serious Shakespearean tragedies, incorporated comedy into their performances.
The development of the drag queen in America started with the development of the blackface minstrel show as a racist portrayal of African American women.
It wasn’t until the mid-1900s did female impersonation become tied to the LGBT community. It diverged from the popular mainstream and was only something done in less reputable areas.
There are many reasons why people dress in drag including self-expression, comfort, transgender identification, or as a creative outlet or means of self-exploration. Drag has become a celebrated aspect to some in modern gay life with International Drag Day being celebrated on July 16.
While over time this form of self expression has become more accepted, there is still some controversy- even within the LGBT community. Drag queens are sometimes criticized by members of the transgender community because of fears that they themselves may be stereotyped as drag queens. A common criticism of drag queens is that they promote negative stereotypes of women, comparable to blackface. Following are images of drag queens throughout history which show that, while it has become a more outward celebration of self in modern times, it has been practiced for a very long time.
Late 1800s- The etymology of the phrase “drag queen” is debatable, but many scholars believe that the phrase was coined in the 1800s as a reference to the hoop skirt. As seen in this photo, hoop skirts would “drag” along the ground. littlethings 1800s- The term “queen” was used as a derogatory slur towards homosexuals. littlethings 1800s: Brigham Young’s son, Brigham Morris Young, made a career in drag performing as Madam Pattrini. Supposedly, his falsetto was so convincing that many audiences did not know he was a man. It’s hard to believe early LDS audiences responded so positively to such a concept, but it was quite popular at the time. littlethings 1800s- A man and woman in switched outfits. One can presume this was more for a lark than any other purpose. littlethings 1800s- In the 1800s, the term “drag queen” becomes more specific, referring to any man who dresses as a woman in a theatrical and professional setting. littlethings 1800s: Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton shocked Victorian London when they dared to leave their home as “Fanny and Stella.” They were the first men to openly walk through the streets in women’s clothing and shocked society so much that the police launched investigations that were normally reserved for extreme criminals. littlethings 1800s- Because no law specifically forbade “cross-dressing,” men found in women’s clothing were usually arrested for “the abominable crime of buggery” or for prostitution. Retronaut 1883- Drag was perfectly acceptable as a theatrical device. In fact, it was still more respectable for a man to play a woman in drag (such as these three Yale students) than for a woman to pursue a career as an actress. littlethings 1800s: This photo features a 19th-century student dressed in drag for pure amusement. You may think that he’d have been punished for such behavior, but this man went on to become a well-respected Estonian judge and held rank in the Livonian Knighthood. littlethings 1800s- This photo shows that drag was not always as taboo as it would eventually become. littlethings 1915- Around the turn of the century, drag performance became its own phenomenon with the likes of vaudeville performer Julian Eltinge. littlethings 1900s- Julian began on the Broadway stage as a comedic performer in a few flops but found that audiences really latched onto his gender-bending shows in smaller houses. littlethings 1900s- It was a mainstream lark for a straight man to put on a dress and “play act” as a woman. It was not always associated with sexual deviancy. Retronaut 1900s- Eltinge was even so popular that he launched his own magazine full of wardrobe and makeup advice for biological women. Retronaut 1900s- Florin, pictured here, was another well renowned “female impersonator” in Paris, where there was also a flourishing drag scene. littlethings 1916- There is not much evidence of “drag kings,” but this photo does feature a woman in a gender-bending outfit, obviously poking fun at gender norms with her upturned pinky finger. littlethings 1916- Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald performed in drag during a college performance of a musical he co-wrote. littlethings 1920- Drag becomes more closely aligned with the LGBT community with the advent of “drag balls,” which were enormous LGBT parties where most men dressed in drag. littlethings 1920- As the 1920s progressed, the drag balls gained more and more cultural attention, eventually starting a period called the “Pansy Craze.” littlethings 1927- New York, Berlin, Paris, and London embraced the Pansy Craze and performers like Rae Bourbon (pictured here). This period lasted from the 1920s through the end of prohibition. littlethings 1920s- Noted drag queen Harry S. Franklyn was another popular performer during the Pansy Craze of the 1920s. littlethings 1920s: Vander Clyde, or “Barbette,” was a vaudevillian sensation. She traveled around the States and Europe with her infamous aerial act, which featured death-defying trapeze stunts in full drag. At the end of her act she would remove her wig and strike a masculine pose. littlethings 1930s- This photograph shows the spread of the Harlem ball scene to urban Chicago. Chicago History Museum 1930s- Mainstream society was still enjoying comedic drag queens such as Frances and Lonas though balls were emphasizing more glamour and lifestyle. littlethings 1937- Female impersonators, such as Billy Richards, had to keep up their styles and trends as much as any other woman. It could be an expensive career. littlethings 1939- Drag’s place in society continued to evolve as the ’30s turned into the ’40s. This infamous photo of a drag queen being arrested shows how the mere act of cross-dressing could still be a punishable offense. littlethings 1940s- Though the perceived threat of homosexuals was becoming more and more taboo in society, female impersonators still had a place in entertainment. Queer Music Heritage 1940s- Drag balls went further and further underground to avoid police harassment. The days of the “Pansy Craze” were no more. Flickr 1941- However, as long as the cross-dressing was done for the purpose of entertainment, the public could handle men in dresses. Queer Music Heritage 1946- When men wore dresses for their own enjoyment, society pushed them to be more conservative. littlethings 1947- In the 1940s, leaders like J. Edgar Hoover pushed for the U.S. to adopt greater conservatism. These photos show that drag performance could still be mainstream, though. Ironically, J. Edgar Hoover was also accused of being a transvestite. Queer Music Heritage 1947- The Flamingo Club in Los Angeles was one of the hottest performance houses in town, attracting both gay and straight audiences. Queer Music Heritage 1947- And despite growing conservatism in the United States, a drag queen could still make a living and please hundreds of fans. littlethings