The History Of Drag And Drag Culture



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What is drag?

Historically, men dressing in women's clothing - or women dressing in clothing traditionally worn by men - has been associated with entertainment and expression. This remains true in contemporary society, although the word “drag” is often used to describe it. 

From historical practices called “drag” by modern observers to fictional drag queens in popular culture, drag is complicated. But, with the long history of clothes-swapping come many more social and cultural phenomena. Drag, albeit a term with debated origins, has always been about expressing a belief, a fear, or - perhaps most of all - about expressing one's self. 

  • Religious Rituals And Mythology Have Included Cross-Dressing And Gender Transformation For Millennia
    Photo: Carl Larsson / Gunnar Forssell / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Religious Rituals And Mythology Have Included Cross-Dressing And Gender Transformation For Millennia

    Religious and mythological traditions associated with Greek, Norse, and Hindu deities include various forms of cross-dressing and gender-switching.

    In Greek myth, Herakles, enslaved by Omphale, was said to have donned women's clothing while carrying out women's work, while Achilles's mother, Thetis, dressed him in women's clothing to hide him from taking part in the Trojan War. Tiresias was transformed into a woman either after seeing Athena undressed or interrupting a pair of mating snakes, depending on the version. He is later transformed back into a man and is blinded by Hera for siding with Zeus in the debate over who enjoyed sex more - the man or the woman. Tiresias agreed with Zeus that the woman did, asserting

    Of 10 parts a man enjoys one only; but a woman enjoys the full 10 parts in her heart.

    Not all ancient Greek myths feature cross-dressing as a form of punishment or trickery, however. Aphroditus was presented as a female but also had a phallus. Followers of the cult of Aphroditus (regarded as a male version of Aphrodite), as a result, wore clothing of the opposite sex. Philostratus wrote that, at festivals, women “act the part of men, and men… put on women's clothing and play the women."

    With respect to Norse myth, in “Thrym's Poem” from the Poetic Edda, Thor dressed as Freyja to retrieve his stolen hammer, Mjollinr. Loki accompanies Thor, and together the two sons of Odin, dressed like a bridesmaid and bride, respectively, slay the giant Thrym and successfully put Mjollinr back into the hands of its rightful possessor. Odin, for his part, was known to wear women's clothing when prophesizing.

    The Hindu god Krishna and his relationship with Radha present yet another example of cross-dressing in myth and religion. Male followers of Krishna were known to show their devotion to the deity by wearing female clothing to acknowledge the clothes-swapping of Krishna and Radha. During the early 16th century, Bengali religious reformer Chaitanya taught that Krishna and Radha were of one soul but two bodies, a tradition was perpetuated by Ramakrishna during the 19th century.

    Cross-dressing is also found in veneration of the goddess Yellamma and Lord Rama, with a festival held annually for the latter. The celebration brings together men as well as transgender women. In the words of one follower, the event lets them demonstrate “faith in the goddess” and serves as “an opportunity to dress up, because many of our parents are not aware of our real identity. At least, in the name of God, I can openly wear a saree.” 

  • Ancient Plays Were Performed By All-Male Casts, Meaning Men Wore Female Garb
    Photo: Furtwangler and Reinhold / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ancient Plays Were Performed By All-Male Casts, Meaning Men Wore Female Garb

    In the words of oratory scholar Laurence Senelick

    From the dawn of time, women’s presence in the theater has been the exception rather than the rule… The theater is grounded in religion, and having women on stage was not considered decorous. Their realm is the home.

    This is why ancient Greek comedies, tragedies, and satyr plays featured all-male casts. There were three forms of theater in ancient Greece, each with a specific purpose. Comedy was offered as satire on political and social goings-on, while tragedy addressed matters of love, morality, and relationships between humans and the gods. Satyr plays were short presentations in between acts of tragedies, usually as a way of mocking the characters of the tragic play. 

    In all plays, women were depicted, but women couldn't actually take any roles (and might not have been allowed to watch performances). As a result, men in women's clothing weren't shunned or frowned upon - they were necessary and expected. 

    Women in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are outspoken and boisterous. Some scholars believe men wrote about women as they saw them, or how they feared women might behave. This patriarchal presentation of women with men in drag was perhaps a way men sought to control their female counterparts.

    Male actors wore masks, robes, tunics, and boots. Based on images from ancient pottery, depicting a female meant a man donned long, white sleeves (probably an undergarment meant to indicate light skin), stockings, or even a progastreda - a chest garment with fake breasts. 

    For female roles, men would speak in a higher pitch, take a feminine gait, and make gestures considered to be more womanly. With this in mind, as scholar David Wiles said, “Men playing women… were not engaged in anything like modern drag because the anatomical distinction was not conceived in such clear-cut terms as it is today.” 

    Whether or not men dressed as women in public entertainment were as pervasive during the Middle Ages isn't entirely clear. In more private settings, specifically in convents, women performed in plays, but men likely would have dressed as women to perform their parts outside of the cloisters in many instances.

  • The term “drag” is often used in discussions of William Shakespeare's plays, said to reference the “dragging” of long robes worn by male actors in female roles. Whether or not “drag” has its origins with Shakespeare remains unclear, but just like his playwright predecessors, he penned roles for women that were presented by men in women's clothing. 

    As had been true for centuries, women were not allowed to perform on stage in 16th century England. Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethan playwrights incorporated gender conventions into their works as a reaction to this Puritanical pushback against men dressed as women, notably in As You Like It. Written around 1600 CE, the comedy by Shakespeare features a male actor playing a female character, Rosalind, who disguises herself as a man. 

    A few decades later, King Charles II of England encouraged women to appear on stage, influenced by the fact that women were already performing in other parts of Europe, as well as by his attempts to impart moral reforms:

    [F]or as much as many plays formerly acted do contain several profane, obscene, and scurrilous passages, and the womenʼs parts therein have been acted by men in the habit of women, at which some have taken offence… And we do likewise permit and give leave that all the womenʼs parts to be acted in either of the said two companies for the time to come may be performed by women so long as their re-creations… may.. be esteemed not only harmless delight, but useful and instructive representations of human life...

    Although Shakespeare didn't invent “drag,” there was a more recognizable connection between cross-dressing, gender, and sexuality in his work, at least one that received more attention from observers. 

  • Kabuki Looks Like Drag, But In Japan They're Both About Much More Than Appearances
    Photo: Jorge Cristóbal Fernández-Trevejo Portuondo / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Kabuki Looks Like Drag, But In Japan They're Both About Much More Than Appearances

    For a time, kabuki theater was performed by all-male casts, which is reminiscent of ancient performances. But the gendered aspects of kabuki - especially cross-dressing - are on the opposite timeline from those in the Western tradition.

    While women on the stage became more and more mainstream from the 17th century forward in Europe, Japan banned women from performing in the 1600s. Prior to this, kabuki theater was presented exclusively with women performers. Women were banned from the stage by the shogunate in 1629 out of fear that kabuki was a threat to morality in Japan, perhaps because of the salacious content of many plays.

    So men took on all roles, with young male actors who appeared as female characters called wakashu-kabuki. These, too, were banned out of fear for moral integrity, replaced by adult men who played women or onnagata

    The best onnagata with the highest esteem among their peers and from audiences lived, acted, and performed as women on and off the stage. Attention heaped on kabuki theater and performers by governmental authorities gave the genre a unique place in Japanese culture. Women were allowed back on stage in 1888, but they still perform in the same style as their male counterparts. In fact, most kabuki performers are still male. 

    According to scholar Alan Cummings, this is why kabuki and drag performances are perceived to be “very different type[s] of art - the art of the onnagata is to create an emotional reaction in theater audiences, and to embody the drama faced by the female characters in the plays, rather than simply to entertain with the gendered performance itself.”

    Still, kabuki and drag performances have a lot in common, said scholar Emerald L. King

    In kabuki, as in… drag, an all-male cast alters their appearance, stance, voice, and physiology to create hyperfeminine characters. Indeed, there is a more commonly held maxim that kabuki onnagata (actresses) are “more feminine than any woman"… Drag [and] kabuki… are a perfected fantasy, staging idealized performances of femininity and masculinity. 

    Some drag queens in modern Japan distinguish themselves from onnagata with their clothes, dancing, and other aspects of life. That said, draq queen Miss Leading told Tokyo Weekender in 2022:

    The drag scene here is tiny really, compared with other places… Most of the queens in Tokyo are gay men. And very guarded, despite the importance of female icons in the culture.

  • 'Molly Houses' Were Safe Places For The First Drag Queens In England To Interact
    Photo: Unidentified / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    'Molly Houses' Were Safe Places For The First Drag Queens In England To Interact

    In England during the 1700s, "Molly houses" were places where subcultures of men met, socialized, and took part in various sexual activities ("molly" was a slur for a gay man). One of the most famous molly houses, run by Mother Clap (Margaret Clap) was raided in 1726 in response to the licentious - and illicit - goings-on. In 1718, Jonathan Wild, an 18th century crook and police informant, offered insight about cross-dressing at the establishment when talking about a previous raid there:

    Several of the sporting Youngsters were seized in Women's Apparel, and convey'd to the Compter [small prison]. Next Morning they were carried before the Lord-Mayor in the same Dress they were taken in. Some were compleatly rigg'd in Gowns, Petticoats, Head-cloths, fine lac'd Shoes, furbelow'd Scarves and Marks; some had Riding-hoods; some were dressed like Milk-Maids, others like Shepheardesses with green Hats, Waistcoats and Petticoats; and others had their Faces patch'd and painted, and wore very extensive Hoop-petticoats, which had been very lately introduced.

    Trial transcripts from 1732 when Princess Seraphina (also known as John Cooper) brought Tom Gordon up on charges of taking clothing attest to the presence of the first drag queen in England. Princess Seraphina was well-regarded and served as a messenger of sorts for gay men in England at the time. Descriptions of Princess Seraphina by witnesses describe white gowns, scarlet cloaks, and “Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead.” Princess Seraphina would:

    So flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always [chooses] to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfaction of dancing with fine Gentlemen.

    Molly houses, men in female dress, and concerns about sexual impropriety were all conflated in this context, but the establishments offered a sense of community to men who frequented them. Mock births and marriages, the use of female pronouns, and terms like “sisters” and “children” not only created a heteronormative environment, but also foretold many of the same practices and behaviors undertaken by drag queens in subsequent centuries. 

    Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, molly houses coexisted with legislation aimed at eliminating the practice of sodomy. Even though anti-sodomy laws were in place, enforcement of them by law enforcement was erratic. There was, however, fear and contempt aimed at gay men that could lead to public acts of violence.

  • Pantomime Dames And Slapstick Performances Appealed To Audiences Of All Kinds
    Photo: Rotary Photographic Co. / The Daily Mirror / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Pantomime Dames And Slapstick Performances Appealed To Audiences Of All Kinds

    The word “drag” first appears in print during the peak of British pantomime. “Drag” had likely been used earlier in wider circles, and when applied to the theater specifically referenced skirts and petticoats worn by male actors like those in pantomime.

    Pantomime dames, as men dressed as women became known, were males who specifically dressed like females for the purpose of entertaining. Intentionally over-the-top, pantomime dames wore elaborate makeup, donned jewels and feathers, and performed in sexually suggestive ways. Famous pantomime dames include Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell, both active during the 1880s and 1890s. 

    Leno (born George Wild Galvin) and Campbell often worked together, with Leno taking on a male role opposite Campbell as the dame. Leno stood out as a pantomime dame in his own right, however. In pantomime performances like Jack and the Beanstalk, he appeared as Dame Durden, and was also known for his portrayal of Mother Goose as he found more and more fame in the genre.

    Many pantomime productions included a principal boy - a young male character played by a female performer. In this case, drag might be applicable to both men and women who impersonated the other sex on stage.

    While pantomime characterized entertainment in England, men wearing women's clothes also found new life in the United States through shows put on by undergraduate students at schools like Harvard and Princeton. Wealthy young men dressed as women in slapstick shows, an interesting juxtaposition to clubs like The Slide in New York City - considered a depraved “establishment where male homosexuals dressed as women and solicited men.”