I’d like to share with you a story I wrote for my Writing Across Cultures class! I realize that this will be a pretty long blog post, but I’m proud of the story and wanted to post it here! Hope you enjoy!
Drag Fashion: A Work of Art
“Clothes make the woman, clothes make the man: the costume is of the essence.” —William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Drag queens have been around at least since the Elizabethan era. Although at the time they might not have been known as “drag queens,” in Shakespearean theatre, men took on female roles due to the fact that women were banned from the stage.
According to an article titled “Costuming the Shakespearean Stage,” the audience would be able to tell from the costuming whether an actor was portraying a male or female character. Because Shakespeare’s plays were originally written for the professional stages of London, the apparel reflected items that were commonly worn in England. The article states that the basic apparel frequently seen on Shakespearean stages for men included “the shirt, doublet, breeches, nether hose, jerkin, cape, robe or gown, ruff or band, hat, and footwear.” Common costume for women included “the chemise, dress or kirtle, farthingale, gown, ruff or band, headdress, and footwear.”
Today, many famous actors still take on female roles.
Loyce Arthur, associate professor of design in the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department, mentioned some familiar faces that have cross-dressed for their roles.
“Jaime Fox and Jim Carrey played women on the show In Living Color,” said Arthur. “Robin Williams played Mrs. Doubtfire. Jared Leto was the latest serious character. On the Key and Peele show they play women from time to time.”
While the stage remains a repetitive factor when it comes to female impersonation, Barbara Croy, costume tailor for the University of Iowa Theatre Arts Department, noted that there may be differences in concept and approach when cross-dressing for a performance in a play or for a performance in a drag show.
“Most cross-dressing for the theatre is inherent in the script and is used as a vehicle for comedy or social comment within a plot,” said Croy. “Sometimes a director chooses to use gender switching to express or provoke certain thoughts.”
What could be considered as early forms of traditional drag began appearing in the late 1800s and early 20th century. Once again, the stage was the place of female impersonation. It was around this time that Julian Eltinge, known as the “leading female impersonator of all time,” began performing in Broadway shows appearing as a woman.
According to “Effeminacy or Art? The Performativity of Julian Eltinge,” female impersonation was especially popular during this time period, and, in the late 1800s, what is known as “prima donna” impersonation or “glamour drag,” became the main form of female impersonation. This type of female impersonation typically featured glamorous costumes depicting beautiful women.
Gina (pronounced “jahy-nuh”) Belle, a drag queen who performs at Studio 13, a nightclub in Iowa City, Iowa, described her personal style as “tacky, gaudy, old-school drag.” Her style relates to “glamour drag” as she mentioned rhinestones, sequins, feathers, and beads as must-haves in the costumes she puts together.
While some drag queens today draw inspiration from “old-school, glamour drag” many modern drag queens try to emulate a specific celebrity in their performances or simply attempt to look how a woman today might present herself.
Quentin Hill, a University of Iowa student who has performed in drag, discussed his choice of wigs for his performances. While Hill generally picks a wig that will fit his drag persona, Ann Franklee, if he knows what numbers he is going to perform that week he will try to find one that resembles the performer or the artist.
Often times, drag queens will change their outfits, including their wigs, for each number they perform. Hill generally performs two to three numbers per show as Ann Franklee.
“Ann is very classy and modest,” said Hill. “I always describe her as your cute, little Jewish girl. She likes to wear a lot of dresses and her hair is always well dressed and her makeup is always clean.”
The process of transforming into Ann takes about three hours on average for Hill.
After showering, shaving, and organizing his variety of products for his performance, Hill will sit down and start his transformation ritual. First, he glues down his eyebrows using an Elmer’s Glue Stick.
“It takes a couple layers of glue to make your eyebrows lay completely flat,” said Hill. “Then you comb all the clumps because if you don’t get the clumps of glue out when you cover your eyebrows you’re going to see the chunks in it.”
Next Hill moves onto the process of applying facial makeup, a practice that many drag queens refer to as “painting.”
“It’s very much an art,” said Hill. “You really are transforming yourself and it’s like working on a piece of art. That’s why we call it painting your face.”
Hill begins by blending foundation into his hair line, over his ears, and down his neckline. After the foundation is set, he can start drawing on eyebrows, applying eyeliner, resetting the creases of his eyes, and applying false eyelashes. The eyes are followed by the contouring and highlighting of his nose, cheeks, and forehead, and filling out his lips with a combination of lip liner, lip stick, and lip gloss.
If you want to look good, Hill’s advice is to put in the money for decent makeup.
“You really can’t get away with using just regular makeup,” said Hill. You need to use theatrical makeup and stage makeup. When we transform our faces we literally redraw almost all of our facial structure.”
Another important aspect in female impersonation is clothing and the presentation of the body. While many of the drag queens who perform at Studio 13 have cited stores such as Express, Forever 21, Plato’s Closet, and Ragstock as their main sources for costumes, some drag queens have enlisted the help of Croy to design, make, and alter their clothing.
Croy has done custom work for several past Miss Gay Iowa USofA participants.
Miss Gay Iowa USofA is a pageant that requires all contestants to be males. The participants are judged in three categories: Personal Interview, Talent, and Evening Gown.
According to Arthur, while shoes used to be a problem in regards to dressing female impersonators, you can now find size 12 and 13 shoes at stores such as Payless ShoeSource.
“It’s much easier in 2014,” said Arthur.
Before the clothing comes the task of acquiring a female figure. According to Croy, this can be done through various methods of binding with duct tape and purchasing ready-made foundation garments, including padding for the bust and hips as well as cinchers for the waist. There are places that manufacture especially for the cross-dressing community.
Hill also described his process for transforming his body into a feminine figure.
“You need to have at least five or six pairs of panty hose,” said Hill. “You also need to have hip pads. We get foam hip pads and we cut them out so we can look more curvy and natural. You need to have a bra and come up with a way to make boobs, so what a lot of drag queens do is take a couple pairs of panty hose and fill them with rice. Then you can measure out kind of how big you want your cup size to be.”
Along with creating a female figure through hips and breasts, Eltinge shared a few especially detailed tips and tricks for crafting more feminine hands with The Theatre:
“I usually wear a bracelet on each arm to shorten the length of the arms,” said Etlinge. “The size of the hands can apparently be decreased by the way in which they are held. The first rule is never to allow the breadth of the back of the hands to be seen, but to hold the hands so that the narrowest portion, for instance, the thumb and forefinger or little finger, will show. The hands are powdered very white, and then the fingers from the second knuckle to the tip are rouged very red. This gives the effect of tapering fingers no matter how blunt and square they may actually be.”
Many female impersonators today approach Croy with a vast knowledge that is handed down from one “sister” to another about the tricks of the trade.
These tips and tricks are often passed down through what are called drag families. According to Hill, these families occur when an older drag queens takes in a younger drag queen and makes her a daughter.
“Your drag mother can be one of the most influential people in your life and really supportive in both your drag life and outside it,” said Hill.
In Iowa City, many drag queens have the last name “Belle,” making them part of that specific family.
“With a family comes a resemblance and a kind of style,” said Hill. “You’ll notice a lot of resemblance amongst the Belles. They all kind of paint the same way.”
In Iowa City, the Belle family, Ann Franklee, and several other drag queens have found a home on the stage at Studio 13. Known as the “Corridor’s favorite GLBTQ Nightclub for over a decade,” the venue hosts drag-related events almost daily.
Currently, one of Studio 13’s most popular events is called Sasha Belle’s Drag Race. This event is inspired by RuPaul’s Drag Race, a drag competition show airing on Logo TV.
RuPaul is cited by Logo TV as the “most famous drag queen in the world” and is the “host, mentor, and inspiration” of their show.
At Studio 13, Sasha Belle’s Drag Race is currently in its third season. The competition starts at 10 p.m. every Sunday.
Each week, competitors are judged based off of their participation in a challenge as well as on a runway look. Usually, the competition will involve all kinds of different drag skills. In the first challenge of season two, competitors had to craft their own outfit out of duct tape. At the end of the show, the bottom two contestants have to lip sync a song for their life. Whoever performs the best lip sync gets to stay.
Drag culture has also made its way to Iowa City in the form of an annual Drag Ball.
In the fall of 2013, Spectrum UI, formerly known as GLBTAU, sponsored the ninth annual Drag Ball.
Hill, who served on the board of GLBTAU as president for two years, explained that a lot of time and money goes into planning the ball.
“We usually start planning in the spring semester so they have it ready for the fall,” said Hill. “It’s a really long, drawn out process. We usually hold it in the Second Floor Ballroom of the IMU so we have to make sure that we book that early enough in advance because we like to have the drag ball at the end of October, kind of around Halloween. And October is also LGBT History Month so it’s a good time to do that.”
Usually, a drag queen is hired to emcee the show and two to three professional drag queens are hired to perform at the event. Students can also perform as amateurs.
Last year, many people drew fashion inspiration from Lady Gaga.
“It was right when “Applause” came out by Lady Gaga so a lot of people kind of went with that theme,” said Hill.
Hill channeled Ann Franklee for the occasion and wore a grey dress with a black belt around the waist for one of his numbers and a bright, yellow skirt with a black, sequined tank top for another.
Although the fashion and style may change from year to year and from drag queen to drag queen, the stage continues to be a welcoming place for the transformation and performance of female impersonators.
“Everyone needs to go see a drag show at least once in their life,” said Hill. “For a lot of the drag queens, they’re entertainers and what they’re doing is entertainment. It’s expression and it’s art to them.”