In the US, particularly in major cities, Drag Culture, a subset of the gay culture where (typically) men dress as exaggerated forms of women as a play on gender identity and for entertainment, has grown rapidly in popularity within the last decade. Boosted by the success of Rupaul’s Drag Race, drag culture has faced a resurgence in popularity in pop culture, putting names such as Bianca Del Rio, Chad Michaels, and Latrice Royale alongside Rupaul and Lady Bunny. However, this current rise does not mean that Drag Culture is a new thing. Drag Culture extends far back, much farther than the 1980’s and 1990’s, providing a rich insight into the cultural history of performances.
While the official rise in drag began in the 1870’s, you can look even further back to the times of Greece and Rome, where women were not allowed to act in mainstream performances. Young boys were chosen to play the roles, a factor that continued through the Shakespearean period of performance. This didn’t just exist in Europe, either. In Japan, the famous Kabuki theater historically did not allow women to perform, with the role of those who take the female character being known as the onnagata. They did not have to be young boys, either: they could be all the way into their middle ages, performing the role of a young girl.
The real start for drag culture though did begin, as I said earlier, in the 1870’s. However, they weren’t the iconic LGBT+ performances that we see today. Rather, they were merely men who, wanting to mock women, would dress in exaggerated forms and act as though they were women, representing femininity. The use of drag in LGBT+ communities doesn’t begin until the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the first “gay bars” were established. Members of the queer community could meet there and watch performances, drag included.
Drag Culture would take a hit in the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, as public policy and law began cracking down on the LGBT+ community. In order for a man in drag to not get arrested, he had to wear no less than three articles of male clothing. As a form of protection and activism, the “Imperial Court System” founded by Jose Julio Sarria, came to be. In this system, there was the creation of Drag Balls, a fraternity-type system where “Mother” Drag Queens formed a “house”, taking other drag queens under their wing. These would continue into the modern era, being mentioned by some of the younger queens on Rupaul’s Drag Race.
In the 1980’s, Drag Culture began getting recognized by the general public again (following the LGBT+ Right’s Movement following the events at Stonewall), with prominent queens going on TV shows, movies, and musicals, most notably the role of the Tracy’s Mom in Hairspray being taken by drag queen Divine in the original film. We also start to see the rise of Lady Bunny, being most known for her comedy and DJ skills.
And of course, in the 1990’s, we see the rise of Rupaul. With the release of the hit “Supermodel”, Rupaul changed the Drag game permanently. This would only be added when in 2009 he released the first season of the hit show Rupaul’s Drag Race, which continues to shape the Drag Queen game and allow up-and-coming queens to promote themselves to a massive audience.