A Brief History of Drag from Stage to American Mainstream Culture

by Jacob Chauvin

Female impersonation is known as “drag,” a slang term originating from male performers in the seventeenth century referring to the “drag of the dress,” has an undoubtedly long and storied history (Baker 17). One can track the metamorphosis of the drag queen from the days of Shakespearean “Player Queens” to RuPaul at 8 pm on Friday nights on the VH1 network, but society’s relationship to drag performance also has a history of its own. Powerful figures have emerged out of the art and have demanded respect in recent years, whether it is Divine, Danny La Rue, or RuPaul.

To give a proper history of drag and its journey into mainstream American culture, one must dive into the early days of the art and where it originated. This essay will outline the early beginnings of female impersonation, then focus on the pioneering artists who cultivated the art of drag to bring it to mainstream attention.

Drag performance dates back as far as theatre itself. As Britain moved out of the Dark Ages, traveling acting troupes became an integral part of the Catholic Church’s efforts in the late 16th Century to share the Gospel with an illiterate population. “Women played no active part in the services and offices of the church” though, “so the original acting was done exclusively by men” (Baker 26). The origins of drag can also be traced back to the 1700s with Kabuki, a type of Japanese theatre, though most scholars prefer to locate the earlier work of English traveling troupes. As theatre developed into acting out formal scripts of secularity and not just bible retellings, females still had no place in the traveling theatre troupes for social as well as religious purposes. Displaying the female form on stage remained scandalous until the 20th Century; until then, drag shows were “extremely popular entertainments” as the purpose of theatre drifted away from Biblical retellings and religious purposes (30). The plays written in the late 1500s were gripping dramas, not just simple stories meant to gloss over biblical episodes. Therefore, the drag queens of this time or as they were referred to, “male actresses,” became leading ladies. In parallel, the Japanese art of Kabuki began with exclusively female performs on stage. It was known as Onna Kabuki (“women’s Kabuki”) and quickly became one of Japan’s most popular art forms. Perhaps because of the public display of the female body as well as cultural and political changes during the Reformation and the resulting “waves” of global activity (re: colonization and upheaval), women on stage were “associated with prostitution and political immorality” (67). Therefore, Onna Kabuki received a ban in 1628 for being too sexually erotic. This created an opportunity for all-male troupes to perform onstage, resembling the Dark Ages of England. “Homosexuality was the chief offender with too many Samurai falling for the charms of the female impersonators.” (67). Perhaps this is the first time drag would be associated with homosexuality, and other forms of gender and sexual expression. Curiously, the changes did not affect the demand for shows, but expanded it and created new opportunities. As the male actress begins to disappear, or at least go underground with secret shows, an observer of cultural history notices that young men, and especially pre-pubescent boys begin to portray females on stage. Both in the Asiatic Rim with their presentations of Kabuki as well as the English traveling troupes, these young boys were required to sing complicated and skillful arias in the presentation of Italian opera. This added layer of skill for men to have while playing women, had a quite scary and painful solution: the castrati.

“St. Paul’s injection that women were to remain silent in church was, in the West, responsible for all-male drama. In Italy, it meant that women were not allowed to sing church music and so, in medieval times, castration was seen as a solution” (Baker 110). As operas became more popular in Italy, women were still not allowed to sing or perform in them. Castrati were male opera performers who were castrated at a very young age to ensure that they would keep their high register and could sing voice parts for women. This was the Italian solution for women not being allowed to sing on stage. According to Roger Baker, “It has been suggested that in the Eighteenth Century, no less than seventy percent of all opera singers in Italy were castrati” (111). These singers made large salaries because of the popularity of the shows, establishing a relationship between the men playing women on stage and the viewers of the show. This is perhaps the first time European society had seen real stars made of men playing women. “Some castrati lived as women off-stage, though contemporary reports suggest that this was not so much in dedication to their art, but rather to delight in the sheer fun of being a drag queen” (112).

As we jump ahead into the late 17th century, labels developed to distinguish between the castrati, men who wore women’s clothing, and traditional male performers. Labels like “male actress” or “female impersonator” began to appear on playbills, posters, and advertisements in news sheets, while “the word homosexual was coined in 1810 and became current in England in 1890” (156). Society began to use strict labels to define and contain, an obsession that can be traced back to the beginnings of modern-day medicine, when remedy bottles were labeled with the body part where an individual experienced pain or infection. This caused the people of the 17th century to seek a specific answer or “cure” for everything that was “wrong” in their society, to define themselves locally and specifically in the expanding map of the world in an effort to understand themselves and their orientation in it. The origins of labeling the difference between men and women overtly gave the drag queen an entirely odd power, residing in a liminal state. Queens could provide a release from the labels society placed on itself and that release was often provided through comedy, if not broader forms of entertainment. Therefore, drag artists developed a reputation for being the comedic punchline through this transgression, even as they made a return to center stage as starring roles. Even during the early 1920s through World War II, vaudeville featured acts such as burlesque, comedy, and song and dance, experiencing “a significant increase in female impersonators” (188). Women were obviously not allowed to be in the military, so the shows put on by the military during the war consisted of the men but still persisted and even flourished as vaudeville remained popular in America, even producing one of the first undeniable drag stars after the war, Julian Eltinge.

“Eltinge’s drag, it should be noted was very different from the 19th-century ‘dame’ performers, such as Dan Leno, who excelled at creating a character that was in full possession of his masculinity” (Landis 1). At one point in time, Charlie Chaplin who is widely considered the most successful vaudeville actor received less than Eltinge in terms of sales. The highest-paid actor was Julian Eltinge, whose drag performances were different from previous forms of drag. “Illusion was not the goal, as the cross-dressing dame did not assume a woman’s behavior; indeed, the Dame’s hardly veiled masculinity was a major part of the fun” (1). This is what made him stand out as a performer and earn his pay. While some might have kept their skills under wraps during the puritanical first few decades of the 20th century, Eltinge quickly found a way to capitalize on his skill. According to Henry Giardina,

He made his name in Boston starring in an American play based on “Charley’s Aunt,” a British sensation which had been making the rounds in London due to its juicy lead role for a male comedian. The plot of “Charley” hinges on a college man who must – for convoluted, nonsensical reasons – impersonate his friend’s elderly aunt. The role, played by Charlie’s older brother Syd Chaplin in the 1925 filmed version, was a perfect fit for Eltinge, whose ability to “pass” was applauded by critics early on. Though the American political climate in the early 20th century was decidedly conservative, the entertainment world had free license to let its freak flag fly during the 1920s and early 30s, up until the passage of the Hays Code, which would prohibit queer visibility in films almost until the end of the studio system, unless queer characters were soundly punished by the final curtain. Though Eltinge was primarily a stage performer, the same social mores that changed Hollywood from a giddy free-for-all to a prudish hit machine in those years affected him just as much during his time on stage, whether he was playing a matronly aunt in “Charley” or a coquettish seductress in “The Fascinating Widow.” Dubbed “Mr. Lillian Russell” for the glamour he was able to channel during his performances, Eltinge soon had L.A. hooked on his act.

Eltinge did drag as an elevated art and brought attention to it, admittedly not taking it seriously but still bringing attention and a degree of respect and respectability to the art for the first time. “His impersonations were so convincing that audiences might have forgotten for the time being, they were watching a biological male” (3). Julian Eltinge not only performed drag in America through the most popular form of entertainment but also brought a magical quality to the art that resembles modern-day drag.

Another performer that emerged out of the all-male revues during WWII was Danny La Rue. Born in Cork in 1927, Daniel Carroll, as he was christened, was only 18 months old when his father died of pneumonia. His mother moved to London’s Soho, where she worked as a seamstress to support the little boy and her four older children. A devout Roman Catholic all his life, he was an altar boy at St Patrick’s Church, Soho and even made his acting debut at the age of nine in the church hall, playing the title role in the Christmas pantomime, Cinderella.” (Roberts 4). As historian Glenys Roberts notes, La Rue had a long history performing as a woman in theatre and entertainment. It is he, LaRue, who is credited for making drag respectable with cabaret shows and serious performance. After performing in the all-male reviews in World War II, La Rue performed in cabaret clubs in the 1950s and was one of the first successful drag acts that came out of clubs in London’s West End. This inspired the modern-day drag performer and consistent demand for such shows. He was a prominent figure of London’s West End whose drag was comedic, while also convincingly womanly. La Rue developed artistic power in his performance and harnessed it differently then those before him, like Julian Eltinge. “After the 1966 musical Come Spy with Me with Barbara Windsor, Danny became the hottest ticket in London. Shows were written just for him and he packed one of London’s largest theatres, The Palace, for two years.” (Roger 5). La Rue peaked in the 1960s, when popular film transitioned to more highbrow and auteur cinema but he inspired many along the way as well as those who followed. Based in a nightclub and finding success brought attention to his experience. Many who aspired to serious consideration of their performance now took to the clubs, creating and developing similar shows in post-war Europe and abroad in America.

Another notable queen who picked up where La Rue left off, Divine, capitalized on the changes in cinema. Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead and found success on the silver screen working with famous gay director John Waters on films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988). Divine got her start on stage like Danny La Rue, but in America. “In the 1970s, Divine moved into off-Broadway stage plays that generally involved her as a grotesque dominatrix surrounded by men in swimwear. When the play ended, a glitter ball would descend, and everyone would have a disco dance,” similar to the comedies of Shakespeare which traditionally ended with a dance (Stanley 4). Divine was remarkable because she was more mainstream than previous drag queens had ever been. She appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman with John Waters. Divine presented a unique presentation with her makeup and vernacular that no other queen had before. Better yet she was doing it in movies, and she was owning it. She was grotesquely funny not because she was a drag queen but because she named and articulated the place of the camp performer in popular culture. Unlike other movies of the time, like Tootsie (1959), Divine was not the punchline, she was the one making the jokes. Offstage, Divine pressed the advantage of her popularity and brought attention to the LGBT community. Divine crafted an artform of filth where she put the audience in an uneasy spot not because she was a man but because she had perfectly crafted her art into something new and respectable. Even family-friendly Disney took notice, replicating Divine in the design and depiction of Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid (1989). Respected drag queens were few and far between, but Divine’s presence sent a clear message to fellow queens that they could be proud of what they offered and actively refuse to change.

Finally, in the timeline of queens who changed how audiences saw and now see drag, there is RuPaul Andre Charles. Following in the work of Divine, who pressed the limits of excess, the 1980s and 90s had an active drag community, admittedly as an underground mainstay of the LGBTQ community. Artists like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury of the band Queen established their own light drag performance where sexuality and drag were intertwined and they own their own performances and make them unique from other singers of the time. Drag was rebellious, harking back to Divine’s nasty attitude in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1989, the music video for The B-52’s “Love Shack” launched RuPaul into popular culture, as he appeared (in drag) as a dancer in the video” (Littleton 2). By this point, Ru Paul was already an established performer in the drag community. Capitalizing on the success, it wasn’t long before RuPaul would release music of his own as his drag alter ego. In 1993, his “Supermodel of the World” album was recorded and released, with “Supermodel (You Better Work)” hitting No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 Music Chart. RuPaul reached heights that no other queen had hit before, entertaining and being accepted by the mainstream. RuPaul would take on television, a medium that no queen had attempted before, to join the homes of modern America in her VH1 talk show The RuPaul Show. It was canceled after the first year, but her story was well-established and RuPaul became recognizable by most Americans. Appearances on other TV shows and a continued presence in fashion shows – both traditional and drag – helped re-establish the character. In 2004, RuPaul created his own music label, RuCo Inc., and released his fourth album, which mixed house, pop, dance and R&B numbers. The album peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s Electronic Albums chart, and proved that RuPaul would remain a fixed icon in American media (Littleton 2). It was time for her to take back the small screen in her own way, and in 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered on the specifically LGBT-friendly cable network, Logo TV and now runs in syndication as well as streaming.

The first season, in 2009, became affectionately known as The Lost Season among devotees as the show found its pattern and consistency.  The Lost Season began re-airing in 2013 in syndication, where it began collecting new fans outside of cable subscription. Many shows that were considered edgy but had developed a strong fan following also lapsed during this period, like Family Guy, or took longer hiatuses between seasons, like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. to capitalize on the show’s later success but RuPaul’s Drag Race has consistently run for 11 years and has been awarded three Emmys, further proof of mainstream acceptance of the drag community.

RuPaul would soon capitalize on his success and release another show, All-Stars, which would pit the fiercest competitors of her reality program to compete in becoming the next drag superstar. The success does not come without criticism, however – especially within the LGBT community. Early seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race were criticized for appearing to favor ‘glamorous’ drag queens over comedic or camp queens. For example, Drag Race has been accused numerous times of keeping some of the more unpleasant but ‘feminine’ queens in the competition for the sake of drama. Additionally, while performers of any sexual orientation and gender identity are technically eligible to audition, most contestants have been gay men. Transgender competitors have become more common as seasons have progressed; Sonique, a season two contestant, became the first openly trans contestant when she came out as a woman during the reunion special. Monica Beverly Hillz, from season five, became the first contestant to come out as a trans woman during the competition. Peppermint, from season 9, is the first contestant who was out as a trans woman prior to the airing of her season. And other trans contestants have come out as women after their elimination, including Carmen Carrera, Kenya Michaels, Stacy Layne Matthews, Jiggly Caliente and Gia Gunn. There have also been a number of past contestants who identified as non-binary, genderqueer or genderfluid, including Jinkx Monsoon, Courtney Act, Violet Chachki, Aja, Valentina, Adore Delano and Sasha Velour.

The performer additionally came under fire for comments made in an interview with The Guardian, in which he stated he would “probably not” allow a transgender contestant to compete on Drag Race (Aitkenhead). That same month in March of 2018, RuPaul went even further in explaining his reasons for not wanting transgender contestants by comparing transgender drag performers to doping athletes on his Twitter. He has since apologized, but season nine winner Sasha Velour, expressed her disagreement with RuPaul via Twitter and in interviews, stating “My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag. That’s the real world of drag, like it or not. I think it’s fabulous and I will fight my entire life to protect and uplift it.”

Undeniably, a show like Drag Race could not have happened without the work of someone like RuPaul, who remained relevant and familiar for decades. Even a family-values site Common Sense Media summarizes RuPaul’s contributions well, noting “RuPaul’s Drag Race combines the fashion design drama of Project Runway with the modeling excitement of America’s Next Top Model to create an entertainingly voyeuristic glimpse into the performance art world of drag queens. There’s plenty of over-the-top stuff, but rather than simply treating drag performers as people to be laughed at and/or scorned, the show also focuses on the hard work and talent that goes into drag performances” (Camacho).

Drag has come from perhaps a questionable past and now it is developing into a global phenomenon. The few pioneers of drag have helped manifest it into something more like a social movement for gender expression. RuPaul, Danny La Rue, and Divine all played a part in establishing drag performance in different mediums and used each other, at times stumbling to benefit the state of drag. Their efforts transformed drag into empowering and developed art.

Work Cited

  • Aitkenhead, Decca. “RuPaul: ‘Drag is a big f-you to male-dominated culture.” The Guardian, 3 March 2018.
  • Baker, Roger. Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts, New York University Press, 1994.
  • Camacho, Melissa. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Common Sense Media, 26 November 2019.
  • Giardina, Henry. “Crossdressing Tales of the ‘Ambisextrous’ Julian Eltinge” The Pride L.A., 17 Feb. 2019
  • Littleton, Cynthia. “Style Icon Hits TV Pinnacle.” Variety, Vol. 345. No. 13. 8 Oct. 2019.
  • Robert, Glenys. “From Drags to Riches and the Tragedy of How Danny La Rue – the Man Who Made Drag Respectable – Then Lost Everything and Died Destitute.” Daily Mail, 2 June 2009.
  • Stanley, Tim. “Divine: The Drag Queen Punk Who Happily Turned the World’s Stomach.” The Telegraph, 2014.

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Jacob Chauvin is a college freshman from Lutcher Louisiana. He currently attends Southeastern Louisiana University, where he studies Music Education.

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