Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens

Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens

Jacob Miller - November 23, 2017

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.

Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1800s- The term “queen” was used as a derogatory slur towards homosexuals. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1800s- A man and woman in switched outfits. One can presume this was more for a lark than any other purpose. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1800s- This photo shows that drag was not always as taboo as it would eventually become. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1915- Around the turn of the century, drag performance became its own phenomenon with the likes of vaudeville performer Julian Eltinge. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1900s- Eltinge was even so popular that he launched his own magazine full of wardrobe and makeup advice for biological women. Retronaut
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1900s- Florin, pictured here, was another well renowned “female impersonator” in Paris, where there was also a flourishing drag scene. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1916- Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald performed in drag during a college performance of a musical he co-wrote. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1920- As the 1920s progressed, the drag balls gained more and more cultural attention, eventually starting a period called the “Pansy Craze.” littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1920s- Noted drag queen Harry S. Franklyn was another popular performer during the Pansy Craze of the 1920s. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1930s- This photograph shows the spread of the Harlem ball scene to urban Chicago. Chicago History Museum
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1930s- Mainstream society was still enjoying comedic drag queens such as Frances and Lonas though balls were emphasizing more glamour and lifestyle. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1940s- Drag balls went further and further underground to avoid police harassment. The days of the “Pansy Craze” were no more. Flickr
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1946- When men wore dresses for their own enjoyment, society pushed them to be more conservative. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
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
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1947- And despite growing conservatism in the United States, a drag queen could still make a living and please hundreds of fans. littlethings

Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1949- This San Antonio drag queen proves that traditional states like Texas could appreciate drag entertainment. UTSA General Photograph Collection
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1951- The 1950s were more “Leave it To Beaver” than drag-friendly, but queens like Kitt Russell still remained. Queer Music Heritage
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1950s- And continued to sell out houses night after night. Queer Music Heritage
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1952- Clubs like Madame Arthur’s French Fun House continued to delight audiences with nightly drag shows. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1955- Though neighbors might whisper if you were seen attending a show. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1952- The “Fun-Maker’s Ball” proves that drag balls continued to flourish in the 1950s. Qualia Folk
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1952- The art of “female impersonation” continued to evolve as quickly as the make-up quality. Professional drag queens were expected to be passable as actual women. Queer Music Heritage
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1956- Drag celebrity impersonations, like this one of Marilyn Monroe, began to appear in more and more drag acts. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1957- Here is a photo of 1950s drag queen Robbie Ross in drag. Queer Music Heritage
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
Robbie Ross not dressed in drag. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
Late 1950s- Casa Susanna, a resort-house in the Catskills of New York, was born. Time Magazine
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1959- Casa Susanna provided a safe retreat for heterosexual men who enjoyed dressing in women’s clothes. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1961- For many of Casa Susanna’s visitors, it was a welcome respite from having to adhere to the usual social norms. Time Magazine
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1962- Casa Susanna continued to grow through the early 1960s. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1960s- The 1960s were a time of great change and revolution, especially sexually. The era of McCarthyism and Eisenhower was over. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1960s- Drag queens began to gather more regularly and openly in some of the country’s first gay bars, such as the Stonewall Inn. Even this photo from Kansas City, MO, shows that drag entertainment had spread to the Midwest. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1960s- Drag continued to evolve from “female impersonators” and professional performers into a form of creative self-expression for gay men. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1960s- Drag became less about a making a living and more about finding a community. littlethings
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1960s- Though not emblematic of the “drag scene,” this unique photo shows a 1960s Los Angeles police troop in drag. There were frequent attacks on older women by muggers, so the police dressed in drag as a trap. Retronaut
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1969- This photo, taken the same year as the Stonewall Riots, shows a similar plan in NYC. This drag-wearing cop might actually have been part of the raids. Retronaut
Fascinating Vintage Photographs Uncover Glamorous History of Drag Queens
1967- This photo, taken a few years before Stonewall, is emblematic of some trailblazers that paved the way for LGBT rights. littlethings

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