Drag is used for any clothing carrying symbolic significance but usually referring to the clothing associated with one gender role when worn by a person of the other gender. The term originated either in gay or theatre slang in the 1870s, where the official long-established theatre term for "cross-dressing" on-stage was travesti (French, "cross-dressed," giving rise to "travesty" which took on further connotations as a genre of critical vocabulary). The term "drag" may have been given a wider circulation in Polari, a gay street argot in England in the early part of the 20th century. Unlike "threads" and "rags", "drag" never simply meant "clothes."
"Drag queen" appeared in print in 1941. The verb is to "do drag." A folk etymology whose acronym basis reveals the late 20th-century bias, would make "drag" an abbreviation of "dressed as girl" in description of male transvestism. The other, "drab" for "dressed as boy," is unrecorded. Drag is practiced by people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Drag in the performing arts
There is a long history of drag in the performing arts, spanning a wide range of cultural as well as artistic traditions.
Drag in the theatre arts manifests two kinds of phenomenon. One is cross-dressing in the performance, which is part of the social history of theatre. The other is cross-dressing within the theatrical fiction (i.e. the character is a cross-dresser), which is part of literary history.
Drag is usually played for comic effect. Whether the Monty Python Women or as a character such as Joe and Jerry (Curtis and Lemmon) in Some Like It Hot.
Cross-dressing elements of performance traditions are widespread cultural phenomena. In England, actors in Shakespearean plays, and indeed in all Elizabethan theatre, tragedy as well as comedy, were all male; female parts were played by young men in drag. During the practices and performances, notations were frequently made on the manuscripts when a male was to play a female part dressed as a female. Shakespeare used the conventions to enrich the gender confusions of As You Like It, and Ben Jonson manipulated the same conventions in Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, (1609) an elaborate vindictive and misogynist sight gag that builds up to the Wedding from Hell. The plot device of the film Shakespeare in Love (1998) turns upon this Elizabethan convention. By the reign of Charles II, actresses were allowed on the London stage in the French fashion, and serious travesti roles disappeared.
Within the dramatic fiction, a double standard historically affected the uses of drag. In male-dominated societies where active roles were reserved to men, a woman might dress as a man under the pressures of her dramatic predicament. A man's position was above a woman's, causing a rising action that suited itself to tragedy, sentimental melodrama and comedies of manners that involved confused identities. A man dressed as a woman was thought to be a falling action only suited to broad low comedy and burlesque. These conventions were unbroken before the 20th century, when rigid gender roles were undermined and begun to dissolve. This evolving changed drag in the last decades of the 20th century, now unfolding. With the theatrical drag queen presented not as a "female impersonator" but as a drag queen (as, for example, RuPaul), drag changed conventions, meaning and audience.
In Baroque opera, where soprano roles for men were sung by castrati, Handel's heroine Bradamante, in the opera Alcina, disguises herself as a man to save her lover, played by a male soprano: contemporary audiences were not the least confused. In Romantic opera, certain roles of young boys were written for alto and soprano voices and acted by women en travestie (in English, in "trouser roles".) The most familiar trouser role in pre-Romantic opera is Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (1786). Romantic opera continued the convention: there are trouser roles for women in drag in Rossini's Semiramide (Arsace), Donizetti's Rosamonda d'Inghilterra and Anna Bolena, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, even a page in Verdi's Don Carlo. The convention was beginning to die out with Siebel, the ingenuous youth in Charles Gounod's Faust (1859) and the gypsy boy Beppe in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, so that Offenbach gave the role of Cupid to a real boy in Orphée aux Enfers. But Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in tights, giving French audiences a glimpse of Leg (the other in fact being a prosthesis) and Prince Orlovsky, who gives the ball in Die Fledermaus, is a mezzo-soprano, to somewhat androgynous effect. The use of travesti in Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier (1912) is a special case, unusually subtle and evocative of its 18th century setting, and should be discussed in detail at Der Rosenkavalier.
Film and television
The self-consciously risqué bourgeois high jinks of Brandon Thomas' Charley's Aunt (London, 1892) were still viable theatre material in La Cage aux Folles 1978, (remade, as The Birdcage, as late as 1996). In the 1890s the slapstick drag traditions of undergraduate productions (notably Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard College, annually since 1891 and at other Ivy League schools like Princeton University's Triangle Club or the University of Pennsylvania's Mask and Wig Club) were permissible fare to the same middle-class American audiences that were scandalized to hear that in New York, rouged young men in skirts were standing on tables to dance the Can-Can in Bowery dives like The Slide. Drag shows were popular night club entertainment in New York in the 20s, then were forced underground, until the "Jewel Box Revue" played Harlem's Apollo Theater in the 1950s: "49 men and a girl." The girl received a roar of applause, when she was revealed as the same smart young man in dinner clothes who had been introducing each of the evening's acts. Drag as a last-resort tactic in situational farce (its only permissible format at the time) made a big Hollywood splash in Some Like It Hot (1959).
For the San Francisco drag troupe, The Cockettes (1970-72), who performed with glitter eyeshadow and gilded mustaches and beards, the term "genderfuck" was coined. Drag broke out from underground theatre in the persona of "Divine" in John Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972): see also Charles Pierce. The crowd surrounding Andy Warhol's Factory scene of the '60s-'80s also included some drag queens who achieved a certain amount of fame, such as Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, both immortalized in the Lou Reed song "Walk on the Wild Side". The cult hit movie musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show has inspired several generations of young people to attend performances in drag, although many of these fans would deny that they are actually transvestites.
On American network television, only the broadest slapstick drag tradition was generally represented. Few American TV comedians consistently used drag as a comedy device, among them Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and Martin Lawrence, although drag characters have occasionally been popular on sketch TV shows like In Living Color (with Jim Carrey's grotesque female bodybuilder) and Saturday Night Live (with the Gap Girls, among others). The popular Canadian comedy group The Kids in the Hall also used drag in many of their skits. Dame Edna, the drag persona of Australian actor Barry Humphries, is the host of several specials, including the Dame Edna Experience. Dame Edna also tours internationally, playing to sell-out crowds, and has appeared on TV's Ally McBeal.
Dame Edna represents an anomalous example of the drag concept. Her earliest incarnation was unmistakably a man dressed (badly) as a suburban housewife. Edna's manner and appearance became so feminised and glamorised that even some of her TV show guests appear not to see that the Edna character is played by a man. The furor surrounding Dame Edna's 'advice' column in Vanity Fair magazine suggests that one of her harshest critics, actress Salma Hayek, was unaware Dame Edna was a female character played by a man.
In England, drag has been more common in comedy: Benny Hill portrayed several female characters, and the Monty Python troupe and The League of Gentlemen often played female parts in their skits. Alastair Sim plays the head mistress in St Trinian's.
These characters are played straight(ish). Within the conceit of the sketch/film they are women, it is we that are in on the joke. Monty Python women are random middle aged working/lower middle class typically wearing long brown coats that were common in the 1960s. When the Pythons wanted a "proper" woman they used Carol Cleveland. They speak with falsetto voices.
The joke is reversed in Life of Brian where "they" are pretending to be men, including obviously false beards, so that they can go to the stoning. When someone throws the first stone too early the Pharisee asks "who threw that", and they answer "she did, she did,..." in high voices. "Are there any women here today?" he says, "No no no" they say in gruff voices.
Alastair Sim plays the head mistress straight in St Trinian's. No direct joke to the actor's true gender is made. However she is quite non-feminine in her pursuits of betting, drinking and smoking. Her school sends out girls into a merciless world where it is the world that need beware.
Kenny Everett dragged up in his TV show as an OTT screen star. Kenny was particularly unconvincing as a woman because he had a beard to which a lot of flesh-tone makeup was applied. However she says "all in the best possible taste" as she exposed her knickers as she re-crossed her legs. She is in more of the Dame Edna genre.
David Walliams and (especially) Matt Lucas often play female roles in the British television comedy Little Britain. Walliams also notably plays the part of Emily Howard - a "rubbish transvestite," who makes an unconvincing woman.
The world of popular music has a venerable history of drag. Marlene Dietrich was a popular actress and singer who sometimes performed dressed as a man, such as in the films Blue Angel and Morocco. In the glam rock era many male performers (such as David Bowie and The New York Dolls) donned partial or full drag. This tradition waned somewhat in the late '70s but was revived in the New Wave era of the '80s, as pop singers Boy George (of Culture Club), Pete Burns (of Dead or Alive), and Philip Oakey (of The Human League), frequently appeared in a sort of semi-drag, while female musicians of the era dabbled in their own form of androgyny, with performers like Annie Lennox, Phranc and The Bloods sometimes performing as drag kings. The male grunge musicians of the '90s sometimes performed wearing deliberately ugly drag - that is, wearing dresses but making no attempt to look feminine, not wearing makeup and often not even shaving their beards. (Nirvana did this several times, notably in the In Bloom video.) However, possibly the most famous drag artist in music in the 90s was RuPaul. In Japan there are several popular singers (such as Mana of Visual Kei bands "Moi Dix Mois" and "Malice Mizer) who always or usually appear in full or semi-drag.
Drag kings and queens
In gay slang, a "queen" is an effeminate gay man, or a gay man with a specializied quality (e.g. "rice queen," for a non-Asian gay man who prefers Asian men; "potato queen" for a non-caucasian man who likes caucasian men; and "bean queen," for a gay man who prefers Hispanic men). Along with "drag," the term "drag queen" has entered the general lexicon.
Drag queens (first use in print, 1941) are stereotypically viewed to be gay men that dress in drag, either as part of a performance or for personal fulfillment. Though some who wear women's clothing are straight men, the term drag queen distinguishes them from transvestites, transsexuals or transgender people. Doing drag here often includes wearing dramatically heavy makeup, wigs and prosthetic devices as part of the costume. Females (many of whom do not identify as women) are called drag kings; however, drag king also has a much wider range of meanings. It is currently most often used to describe entertainment (singing or lip-synching) in which there is no necessarily firm correlation between a performer's deliberately-macho onstage persona and offstage gender identity or sexual orientation, just as biological males who do female drag for the stage may or may not identify as being either gay or female in personal identity. A faux queen is usually a woman doing traditional female drag in the same spirit as men have done.
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