How drag hit the big time

Grace Piercy explores the history of drag and how it's transitioned from underground to mainstream.

Grace Piercy
22nd October 2020

It’s been said that drag as we know it began in the ballroom scene.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the underground LGBTQ+ community began to organise masquerade balls known as "drags" in defiance of laws banning people from wearing clothes associated with the opposite gender

Juilian Eltinge performing in drag in the musical The Fascinating Widow (1911) Credit: Wikipedia

Ballroom’s most famous heyday is that of New York in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. This community was made up of young Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people who formed ‘Houses’, new families who would walk together in balls. Balls involved people competing for trophies in dancing, modeling, etc.

The New York scene gained short-term exposure through Madonna’s hit song ‘Vogue’ (1990), named for a style of dance done in balls, as well as the documentary ‘Paris is Burning’ (1990). But drag had to wait another 20 years before it hit the public conscious.

We can’t speak about drag’s move to mainstream without centring the role of Drag Race. Ru Paul’s Drag Race, airing 11 years ago, brought drag to the world stage; allowing for those outside the community to appreciate drag as an art. I like to describe Drag Race as Top Model meets Britain’s Got Talent meets Project Runway etc. But Drag Race is also just objectively good reality TV, combining interpersonal drama and competition with personal growth.

Paris is Burning (1990) Credit: IMDb

And it’s success cannot be understated; winning 34 awards in 11 years, including 19 Primetime Emmys. It has also garnered international adaptations that showcase that state’s drag culture.

Drag’s transition from underground to ‘mainstream’ can also be accredited to our modern acceptance of the complexity of gender and sexuality. The popularity of Drag Race has a fairly direct correlation with how much we as a society ‘accept’ gay people, as can be seen with today’s obsession with the culture created by the LBGTQ+ community.

Mainstream culture is always ‘borrowing’ from LGBTQ+ culture, with “yaas”, “tea”, “shade” and “okurrr” being among common Millennial and Gen Z vernacular; often popularised and appropriated by those not part of the community (see the Kardashians and Cardi B). It should not be overlooked that most of these phrases were originated by transgender people in ballroom, such as ‘werk’ and ‘realness’. 

Drag has made its way from underground to mainstream because the mainstream culture loves gawping at what’s ‘different’, and in doing so has shown just how talented drag queens can be. Now they have an international platform to showcase their art.

Featured Image: IMDb

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