Vintage Drag Queen Photographs

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Because of our forefathers, the LGBTQ community are fortunate enough to live in a more tolerant world. "Queens," or men who defy gender norms and dress as women, have always been present in the LGBTQ community and pop culture: Straight men like Flip Wilson and Milton Berle used them as punch lines in their humor; Divine created a media sensation when she burst onto the scene; and RuPaul began to break down barriers with her mainstream pop hit, "Supermodel (Of the World)," and a cheeky VH1 talk show. RuPaul's popular reality competition show RuPaul's Drag Race helped bring drag queens further into the mainstream consciousness.



Broadway's Kinky Boots


Starbucks recently released its first LGBTQ-driven commercial featuring drag queens; the Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots, about a factory that manufactures shoes for drag queens, is a popular Broadway show; and even Ru herself calls drag "mainstream" now. We acknowledge that not every person in the photos below is a "drag queen," and that there's a big difference between a transgender person, a transvestite, and a drag queen: A transgender person is someone who does not identify with their assigned sex and would most likely not want to be referred to as a "drag queen." A transvestite is a cisgender male who enjoys wearing women's clothing. A drag queen tends to be someone who dresses in women's clothing more so for performance or entertainment purposes. We can't tell you how most of the subjects in the following photos identify, but we can say with certainty that these people took a major risk by dressing this way during less tolerant times. The images start in the 1800s and continue through the pre-Stonewall 1960s.



Late 1800s: The etymology of the phrase "drag queen" is debatable, but many scholars believe that the phrase was coined in the 1800s as a reference to the hoop skirt. As seen in this photo, hoop skirts would "drag" along the ground.



1800s: The term "queen" was used as a derogatory slur towards homosexuals.



1800s: Brigham Young's son, Brigham Morris Young, made a career in drag performing as Madam Pattrini. Supposedly, his falsetto was so convincing that many audiences did not know he was a man. It's hard to believe early LDS audiences responded so positively to such a concept, but it was quite popular at the time.



1800s: A man and woman in switched outfits. One can presume this was more for a lark than any other purpose.



1800s: In the 1800s, the term "drag queen" becomes more specific, referring to any man who dresses as a woman in a theatrical and professional setting.



1800s: Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton shocked Victorian London when they dared to leave their home as "Fanny and Stella." They were the first men to openly walk through the streets in women's clothing and shocked society so much that the police launched investigations that were normally reserved for extreme criminals.



1800s: Because no law specifically forbade "cross-dressing," men found in women's clothing were usually arrested for "the abominable crime of buggery" or for prostitution.



1883: Drag was perfectly acceptable as a theatrical device. In fact, it was still more respectable for a man to play a woman in drag (such as these three Yale students) than for a woman to pursue a career as an actress.



1800s: This photo features a 19th-century student dressed in drag for pure amusement. You may think that he'd have been punished for such behavior, but this man went on to become a well-respected Estonian judge and held rank in the Livonian Knighthood.



1800s: This photo shows that drag was not always as taboo as it would eventually become.



1915: Around the turn of the century, drag performance became its own phenomenon with the likes of vaudeville performer Julian Eltinge.



1900s: Julian began on the Broadway stage as a comedic performer in a few flops but found that audiences really latched onto his gender-bending shows in smaller houses.



1900s: It was a mainstream lark for a straight man to put on a dress and "play act" as a woman. It was not always associated with "sexual deviancy."



1900s: Eltinge was even so popular that he launched his own magazine full of wardrobe and makeup advice for biological women.



1900s: Florin, pictured here, was another well renowned "female impersonator" in Paris, where there was also a flourishing drag scene.



1916: There is not much evidence of "drag kings," but this photo does feature a woman in a gender-bending outfit, obviously poking fun at gender norms with her upturned pinky finger.



1916: Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald performed in drag during a college performance of a musical he co-wrote.



1920: Drag becomes more closely aligned with the LGBT community with the advent of "drag balls," which were enormous LGBT parties where most men dressed in drag.



1920: As the 1920s progressed, the drag balls gained more and more cultural attention, eventually starting a period called the "Pansy Craze."



1927: New York, Berlin, Paris, and London embraced the Pansy Craze and performers like Rae Bourbon (pictured here). This period lasted from the 1920s through the end of prohibition.



1920s: Noted drag queen Harry S. Franklyn was another popular performer during the Pansy Craze of the 1920s.



1920s: Vander Clyde, or "Barbette," was a vaudevillian sensation. She traveled around the States and Europe with her infamous aerial act, which featured death-defying trapeze stunts in full drag. At the end of her act she would remove her wig and strike a masculine pose.



1930s: This photograph shows the spread of the Harlem ball scene to urban Chicago.



1930s: Mainstream society was still enjoying comedic drag queens such as Frances and Lonas though balls were emphasizing more glamour and lifestyle.



1937: Female impersonators, such as Billy Richards, had to keep up their styles and trends as much as any other woman. It could be an expensive career.



1939: Drag's place in society continued to evolve as the '30s turned into the '40s. This infamous photo of a drag queen being arrested shows how the mere act of cross-dressing could still be a punishable offense.



1940s: Though the perceived threat of homosexuals was becoming more and more taboo in society, female impersonators still had a place in entertainment.



1940s: Drag balls went further and further underground to avoid police harassment. The days of the "Pansy Craze" were no more.



1941: However, as long as the cross-dressing was done for the purpose of entertainment, the public could handle men in dresses.



1946: When men wore dresses for their own enjoyment, society pushed them to be more conservative.



1947: In the 1940s, leaders like J. Edgar Hoover pushed for the U.S. to adopt greater conservatism. These photos show that drag performance could still be mainstream, though. Ironically, J. Edgar Hoover was also accused of being a transvestite.



1947: The Flamingo Club in Los Angeles was one of the hottest performance houses in town, attracting both gay and straight audiences.



1947: And despite growing conservatism in the United States, a drag queen could still make a living and please hundreds of fans.



1949: This San Antonio drag queen proves that traditional states like Texas could appreciate drag entertainment.



1951: The 1950s were more "Leave it To Beaver" than drag-friendly, but queens like Kitt Russell still remained.



1950s: And continued to sell out houses night after night.



1952: Clubs like Madame Arthur's French Fun House continued to delight audiences with nightly drag shows.



1955: Though neighbors might whisper if you were seen attending a show.



1955: Though neighbors might whisper if you were seen attending a show.



1952: The "Fun-Maker's Ball" proves that drag balls continued to flourish in the 1950s



1952: The art of "female impersonation" continued to evolve as quickly as the make-up quality. Professional drag queens were expected to be "passable" as actual women.



1956: Drag celebrity impersonations, like this one of Marilyn Monroe, began to appear in more and more drag acts.



1957: Here is a photo of 1950s drag queen Robbie Ross.



Late 1950s: Casa Susanna, a resort-house in the Catskills of New York, was born.



1959: Casa Susanna provided a safe retreat for heterosexual men who enjoyed dressing in women's clothes.



1961: For many of Casa Susanna's visitors, it was a welcome respite from having to adhere to the usual social norms.



1962: Casa Susanna continued to grow through the early 1960s.



1960s: The 1960s were a time of great change and revolution, especially sexually. The era of McCarthyism and Eisenhower was over.



1960s: Drag queens began to gather more regularly and openly in some of the country's first gay bars, such as the Stonewall Inn. Even this photo from Kansas City, MO, shows that drag entertainment had spread to the Midwest.



1960s: Drag continued to evolve from "female impersonators" and professional performers into a form of creative self-expression for gay men.



1960s: Drag became less about a making a living and more about finding a community.



1960s: Though not emblematic of the "drag scene," this unique photo shows a 1960s Los Angeles police troop in drag. There were frequent attacks on older women by muggers, so the police dressed in drag as a trap.



1969: This photo, taken the same year as the Stonewall Riots, shows a similar plan in NYC. This drag-wearing cop might actually have been part of the raids.



1967: This photo, taken a few years before Stonewall, is emblematic of some trailblazers that paved the way for LGBT rights.


Related:-Photographer Captures Drag Queens Half Men Half Women


0 #1 Michael 2017-02-26 16:56
Great article. Nice to read it all in context. Thank you!