Drag Culture and Fashion - Featured - Studio Magazine

The Long-Lasting Love Story Between Drag And Fashion

The fashion industry and drag culture have been trading inspiration and influences since time immemorial. But, until recent years, the relationship has largely gone undocumented. Here, Jake Hall provides a brief history into the long-lasting love story

By Jake Hall

It’s April 1992. Hollywood’s most glamorous stars have teamed up with couturier Thierry Mugler for an AIDS Benefit fashion show to remember. The likes of Sharon Stone and Darryl Hannah clamour to walk for the designer, who duly transforms them into bona fide glamazons. But it’s a kooky, charismatic strip-tease by drag queen Lypsinka that truly steals the show. 

After strutting onto the runway, the campy red-head peels back the layers of a sculptural skirt suit, all the while wrapping her lips around the lyrics of an Ethel Waters classic. There’s an eruption of applause as she strips down to an embellished, corseted body-suit – a couture interpretation of the age-old drag ‘reveal’. Drag culture and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand, trading influences and inspiration, but the surviving, grainy footage of Lypsinka’s performance is still the stuff of legend, almost two decades later.

Moments of queer excellence like this often survive only through oral histories, the true extent of their brilliance remaining undocumented. Even now, the most salacious highlights of fashion’s long-lasting love affair with drag are confined to the memories of designers, club kids and drag artists, who soaked up inspiration on the dance floors of fabled queer clubs. But dig deeper, and you’ll find a creative affinity which dates back centuries, an underrepresented, intertwined lineage which deserves to be illuminated throughout LGBTQ+ History Month and beyond.

A Long tradition

The roots of drag stretch far and wide: from the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River, where Izumo no Okuni’s all-women troupe pioneered the art of Kabuki in the early 17th century, to the plays of Shakespearean Britain, which required men to ‘drag up’ for female roles as women were barred from playing theatre roles. The origins of drag as a queer art-form are traced back to various sources, the earliest being William Dorsey Swann, a former slave and self-described ‘queen of drag’ arrested for female impersonation back in 1888.

Meanwhile, the fashion industry was slowly shape-shifting into the global powerhouse it is today. French King Louis XIV had been sending out his ‘fashion dolls’, dressed in the latest styles, throughout the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that couturiers began staging private presentations of new looks for clients – a blueprint for the modern ‘fashion show’. Change accelerated rapidly throughout the 20th century, spawning the ready-to-wear industry and, alongside it, the kind of fabulous, fashion spectacles breathlessly anticipated by fans.

Embraced by high fashion

These fashion shows still give us the most visible examples of designers taking inspiration from drag. Mugler was known not only for his mind-blowing creations, but also for his ability to transform models into superhuman, hyper-feminine deities. This is what drag does best: it plays with extremes of masculinity and femininity to show that they’re just a series of rituals, attributes and aesthetics which can be performed by anyone, regardless of sex. It disrupts the idea that we’re born into a body which then determines our gender, throwing rules aside to indulge in  the idea of gender as a visual playground of performance.

Mugler latched on to this subversive potential of drag throughout the 1990s in particular, making the controversial choice to cast RuPaul as one of his supermodels. His star-studded line-ups were just as likely to feature drag royalty as they were to showcase anonymous female bodybuilders, who strutted like studs in latex dresses, their biceps bulging beneath.

Jean Paul Gaultier was another pioneer. His experimental collections throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s threw out the notion that some clothes are ‘feminine’ and others are ‘masculine’. In his world, anything goes. This adventurous, queer spirit bled into his editorial efforts too, spawning one of the most iconic fashion images of all-time: Tanel Bedrossiantz staring seductively at Paolo Roversi’s camera in a ruched velvet dress, his chest covered by Gaultier’s signature cone bra.

Age-Old influences

Drag and fashion were still taking cues from one another decades before runways were the industry norm. When flapper dresses and finger-waves were the height of glamour in the ‘Jazz Age’ of the 1920s, drag performers like Norwegian duo The Rocky Twins emulated the short bobs and pristine makeup to perfection. When the short-lived Pansy Craze of the early 1930s kicked in, drag artists were at the forefront of glitzy, seditious cabaret scenes in Paris and Berlin, which are still regular fixtures on designers’ mood-boards.

The Harlem Renaissance was similarly influential, spawning a cult icon in the form of Gladys Alberta Bentley. A blues singer and pianist shamed for her childhood tendency to dress up in masculine clothes, Bentley found success with her mixture of exaggerated masculine performance and wardrobe of tuxedos and top hats, which laid the visual foundations for countless ‘androgynous’ fashion spreads. The industry is forever indebted to the queer, gender-bending pioneers that populated these smoky, clandestine clubs, whose art and creativity shaped the exuberant subcultures still referenced in lookbooks today.

Today’s eagle-eyed designers may also dig deep into art history for inspiration, looking for forgotten trailblazers. Man Ray’s drag alter-ego Rrose Sélavy is one of the Dada movement’s best-kept secrets, but an even lesser-known name is Claude Cahun, a Surrealist artist whose self-portraits were a queer take on characters including vampires, puppets and dandies. “Shuffle the cards,” Cahun wrote in Disavowals, a 1930 memoir. “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

Cahun’s art used drag as a tool to explore identity, inspiring Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri so much that her entire Pre-Fall 2018 collection became a tribute. Forward-thinking fashion icons like Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada have also been openly inspired by the Surrealist movement, indicating that queer artists have informed their design vocabularies, too.

Naturally, no history of drag and fashion would be complete without mention of club kids. With their unbridled hedonism, DIY ethos and ability to turn alien-like looks, the creative rebels of New York, London and beyond inspired everyone from John Galliano to Alexander McQueen. Few names crop up more frequently than Leigh Bowery, the performance artist who famously ‘gave birth’ to his wife and fashioned umbilical cords from strings of sausages. In a 2017 interview with Dazed, creative director and Lady Gaga’s frequent collaborator Nicola Formichetti credits Bowery as a transformative influence: “I saw this gigantic, amazing, glamorous monster,” he recalls of seeing Bowery in a London club for the first time. “I was dying! You were seeing the most insane stuff.”

A step towards the mainstream

The rise of the internet has also opened up the vaults of queer history, exposing fledgling designers to the high-octane drag ballroom culture of 1980s Harlem and the trans, queer and gender non-conforming people of colour whose legacies risked being erased. These balls have since been immortalised on shows like Pose, which delved deep into the nuances of drag ‘houses’, as well as the political importance of young, disenfranchised minorities creating high fashion fantasies on their own terms. From discussions of appropriation to joyous celebrations of community, these fabled ballrooms added a new perspective to the storied relationship between drag and fashion.

RuPaul’s Drag Race continued drag’s ascent to worldwide stardom, and now, queens are no longer just features on mood-boards or reference sheets. Past contestants like Milk and Valentina have landed high-profile campaigns for Benito Santos, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs, and designers regularly return the favour by appearing as guest judges on the show. The success of the franchise has opened up divisive debates around the mainstreaming of drag, fuelled further by RuPaul’s past transphobic comments, but Drag Race still deserves credit for opening the floodgates and validating the high-fashion credentials of what was once seen solely as a queer, underground art form.

Yet there are still queer, underground artists evolving drag on their own terms. Some are trans or gender non-conforming, like London-based performance artist Victoria Sin, New York’s Imp Kid and Berlin’s Godx Noirphiles. Some are cisgender women, like London’s Georgie Bee, Los Angeles’ Creme Fatale and Birmingham’s Amber Cadaverous. A small handful are almost post-human in aesthetic, like Manchester’s Dr. Cheddar Gorgeous and Rick Owens’ gloriously filthy muse, New York-based Christeene. Not all of them have been officially recognised by the fashion industry, but it’s only a matter of time until designers scrolling Instagram for inspiration stumble upon their grids.

The rise of the internet has also opened up the vaults of queer history, exposing fledgling designers to the high-octane drag ballroom culture of 1980s Harlem and the trans, queer and gender non-conforming people of colour whose legacies risked being erased. These balls have since been immortalised on shows like Pose, which delved deep into the nuances of drag ‘houses’, as well as the political importance of young, disenfranchised minorities creating high fashion fantasies on their own terms. From discussions of appropriation to joyous celebrations of community, these fabled ballrooms added a new perspective to the storied relationship between drag and fashion.

RuPaul’s Drag Race continued drag’s ascent to worldwide stardom, and now, queens are no longer just features on mood-boards or reference sheets. Past contestants like Milk and Valentina have landed high-profile campaigns for Benito Santos, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs, and designers regularly return the favour by appearing as guest judges on the show. The success of the franchise has opened up divisive debates around the mainstreaming of drag, fuelled further by RuPaul’s past transphobic comments, but Drag Race still deserves credit for opening the floodgates and validating the high-fashion credentials of what was once seen solely as a queer, underground art form.

Yet there are still queer, underground artists evolving drag on their own terms. Some are trans or gender non-conforming, like London-based performance artist Victoria Sin, New York’s Imp Kid and Berlin’s Godx Noirphiles. Some are cisgender women, like London’s Georgie Bee, Los Angeles’ Creme Fatale and Birmingham’s Amber Cadaverous. A small handful are almost post-human in aesthetic, like Manchester’s Dr. Cheddar Gorgeous and Rick Owens’ gloriously filthy muse, New York-based Christeene. Not all of them have been officially recognised by the fashion industry, but it’s only a matter of time until designers scrolling Instagram for inspiration stumble upon their grids.

In fact, it’s more difficult than ever to draw a line between drag and fashion: with Drag Race contestants becoming modelling talented, emerging designers on the show’s runway and new-school creatives like Charles Jeffrey blurring fashion, drag and nightlife, the parallel industries have merged into a shared smorgasbord of visual fantasy.

Queer pioneers have long toyed with gender, laying the blueprint for designers to push their aesthetics into new realms. The difference is that the evolution of the internet, the mainstreaming of drag and the gradual, hard-fought acceptance of queer communities mean that some of these trailblazers are now given new platforms, becoming visible drivers of culture as opposed to collaged references on industry mood-boards. Drag has always inspired fashion, but it’s only now that this influence is being openly celebrated.

In fact, it’s more difficult than ever to draw a line between drag and fashion: with Drag Race contestants becoming modelling talented, emerging designers on the show’s runway and new-school creatives like Charles Jeffrey blurring fashion, drag and nightlife, the parallel industries have merged into a shared smorgasbord of visual fantasy.

Queer pioneers have long toyed with gender, laying the blueprint for designers to push their aesthetics into new realms. The difference is that the evolution of the internet, the mainstreaming of drag and the gradual, hard-fought acceptance of queer communities mean that some of these trailblazers are now given new platforms, becoming visible drivers of culture as opposed to collaged references on industry mood-boards. Drag has always inspired fashion, but it’s only now that this influence is being openly celebrated.