A Brief History of Drag: From Stella and Fanny to Ru Paul’s Drag Race

Watching Tandi Iman Dupree drop from the ceiling is quite something, and there’s nothing like it. One of the many things that made Ru Paul’s Drag Race so famous is the televised drag queen competition in which queens death-drop, lip-synch, and stomp the runaway. However, this success wasn’t earned overnight. It’s a history of racism and resistance, queer cowardice and courage, marginalization, and community.

1981: Drag queens pose in elaborate costumes at the reopening of Studio 54, New York City.
The Deep Roots of Drag

Back in the day, women weren’t allowed to act, and men used to cross-dress to perform female roles. This practice has ancient roots: from the Japanese onnagata, through the Chinese tan, to Shakespeare’s female characters.

However, men dressing as women isn’t enough. The artists we now call drag queens were chiefly forged in the 18th century when gender roles became increasingly rigid, and cross-dressing started acquiring a distinctly provocative identity.

Boulton and Park as Fanny and StellaFor example, Stella Clinton and Fanny Park shocked Victorian England by dressing as women at parties, leading to the infamous 1871 trial. The charges were later dropped, but cross-dressing was not ready for the masses.

The All-American Backlash

San Francisco and New York had popular drag scenes as early as the late 19th century, when prohibition banned the sale of adult beverages. The speakeasy bars and semi-hidden clubs became ideal spaces for social norms to waver.

Three drag queens pose for a photo at a ball in New York City, c1991However, by the mid-1930s with prohibition being repealed, queer life became policed and stigmatized, leading to the 1935 ban of female impersonation in New York. However, there was still San Francisco…

In the late 1950s, many activities lobbied for gay rights to make straight America embrace gay and cross-dressers as fellow citizens. However, the gay community wanted everyone to understand that homosexuals were no sissies, and rather prove they can be potent and muscular enough to topple the established order. In this context, cooperation between these gay movements and drag queens became extremely rare.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Beyond

It’s safe to say that drag has gone mainstream these days. But reaching that mass appreciation wasn’t easy. The drag scene had its racist conflicts. When a major drag beauty pageant passed over African-American Crystal LaBeija for coquettish white blonde Harlow, LaBeija stormed offstage and passionately denounced the drag scene’s perverse habit of rewarding white queens at the expense of queens of color.

Drag queen RuPaul poses for a portrait in Times Square, New York.
It all changed when the critically acclaimed drama series Pose took ballroom culture and the delightful competition reality show Dragula emerged as RuPaul’s first major competitor by celebrating, filthy, gory drag.