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Drag (clothing)

Related: androgyny - homosexuality - transvestism - travesty - clothing

Rrose Sélavy, female persona of Marcel Duchamp [image link]

Related films: Glen or Glenda? (1953) - Pink Flamingos (1972) - Outrageous (1977)

Famous transvestites: Ed Wood jr. - Marcel Duchamp


Drag in its broadest sense means a costume or outfit that carries symbolic significance, but is never entirely free of its cross-dressing associations. Tallulah Bankhead was using "drag" in this broad sense and these associations when she apocryphally murmured, during some particularly vigorous censing in the processional before a High Mass, "I love your drag, darling, but your purse is on fire." Nevertheless drag usually refers to the clothing associated with with one gender role when worn by a person of the other gender. The term originated either in gay theater slang in the 1870s or in Polari, a gay street argot in England in the early part of the last century, or perhaps in both; unlike "threads," "drag" never simply meant "clothes."

Someone wearing drag is said to be "in drag." "drag queen" appeared in print in 1941. The verb form is to "do drag." Another theory (or usage) is that "drag" would be an abbreviation of "dressed as girl" in description of male-to-female transvestism, sometimes used together with the opposite "drab" for "dressed as boy". Drag is practiced by people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

The official theater term for "cross-dressing" on-stage was travesti (French, "cross-dressed," giving rise to travesty which took on further connotations as a genre of critical vocabulary). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drag_%28clothing%29 [Oct 2004]


Cross-dressing is the act of wearing the clothing of another gender for any reason. The usage of the term, the types of cross-dressing both in modern times and throughout history, an analysis of the behaviour, and historical examples are discussed in the article below.

Contrary to widespread societal views and prejudices associated with cross-dressing, many people who cross-dress do not do so for sexual or fetishist reasons. Similarly, although cross-dressing is one type of transgender behavior, not all cross-dressing is caused by transgender feelings or identity. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-dressing [Dec 2004]


Transgender is a very complex topic, where definitions are often still shifting. Usually, the only way to find out how exactly a person identifies is to ask them, and sometimes, transgender people either cannot or will not define themselves any more narrowly than transgender, queer, or genderqueer.

Books and articles written about transgender people or culture are often outdated by the time they are published, if they were not already, due to inappropriate and/or outdated questions or premises. Not only psychology and medicine, but also social sciences deal with transgender people, and both start from very different points of view, and offer very different perspectives and use a different nomenclature. The difference is mirrored by the attitude of transgendered people towards transgender issues. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_transgender-related_topics [Dec 2004]

Drag: Word origin

Dear Evan: There appears to be a resurgence in drag movies: "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" are the most recent manifestations, and the remarkable staying power of Ru Paul bears further witness to popular culture's current infatuation with men dressed up as women. The tale I've heard is that "drag" is an acronym for "DRessed As a Girl"and harkens back to the Elizabethan stage when only males acted, thus requiring boys and occasionally men to fill what are now women's roles. "DRAG" would be noted in the play's marginalia to indicate this. Is this even remotely correct? -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.

I'm glad that someone else has noticed the weird current popular fixation on transvestism. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who found it odd. The whole thing reminds me of the day a few years ago when I woke up to discover that everyone was wearing baseball caps turned backwards. After the first few negative reactions to my courteous observation, "Hey, yoyo, your hat's on backwards," I decided to just get used to it. This too shall pass.

The explanation you heard of the origin of this meaning of "drag" is not correct, but it isn't really that far off the mark. As far as we know, "drag" isn't an acronym for anything, and the use of the word in this sense dates only to the late 19th century, long after Elizabethan times. But the origin of "drag" to mean men dressing in women's clothing does indeed come from the theater. The explanation, given that we are talking about a phenomenon that often involves significant amounts of rhinestones and mascara, is remarkably prosaic. A male actor required by his role (or the lack of a female actor) to wear women's clothes on stage quickly discovers what women have known for centuries -- that long skirts and dresses often drag on the floor. Such roles became known as "drag" roles, and when cross-dressing became popular off-stage, the theatrical term was adopted for the practice. --Evan Morris , http://www.word-detective.com/back-p.html

Transgendered movies

Before 1960 film commedies that present men dressed as women fall into two broad categories: the open treatment that expands our sense of possibilities, creating more questions than answers; and the closed vehicle that establishes identifiable boundaries and resolves ambiguity.

  • A Woman (1915) dir: Charlie Chaplin.
    Charlie Chaplin

  • The Masquerader (1914) dir: Charlie Chaplin.
    Charlie Chaplin

  • Our Hospitality (1923) dir: Jack Blystone, Buster Keaton.
    Buster Keaton

  • The Unholy Three (1925, 1930) dir: Tod Browning
    Lon Chaney

  • Morocco (1930) dir: Josef von Sternberg.
    Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich

    This is one of films in which Dietrich wears a man's suit during a musical number.

  • Christopher Strong (1933) dir: Dorothy Arzner.
    Kathrine Hepburn

  • Devil Doll (1936) dir: Tod Browning

  • Charlie's Aunt (1941) dir: Archie Mayo.
    Jack Benny

  • A Song to Remember (1945) dir: Charles Vidor.
    Merle Oberon
    Oberon plays a glamorous, wicked George Sand.

  • Joan of Arc (1948) dir: ??

  • I Was a Male War Bride (1949) dir: Howard Hawks.
    Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan

  • Calamity Jane (1953) dir: ??.

  • Glen or Glenda (1953) dir: Edward D. Wood Jr.
    Bela Lugosi, Dolores Fuller, Edward D. Wood Jr. (as Danial Davis)

    --http://www.bcholmes.org/tg/tgmovies.html [Dec 2005]

    More films

    1. Paris Is Burning (1990) - Jennie Livingston [VHS, Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
      Paris Is Burning closes with two neon-lit boys holding each other on the streets of Harlem. One looks into the camera and asks, "So this is New York City and what the gay lifestyle is all about--right?" This documentary takes an honest, humorous, and surprisingly poignant peek into one of America's overlooked subcultures: the world of the urban drag queen. It's a parallel dimension of bizarre beauty, where "houses" vie like gangs for turf and reputation ... only instead of street-fighting, they vogue their way down makeshift catwalks in competitive "balls." The only rule of the ballroom: be real.
      In surprisingly candid interviews, you discover the grace, strength, and humor it takes to be gay, black, and poor in a straight, rich, white world. You'll meet young transsexual "cover girls," street hustlers saving up for the big operation, and aging drag divas reminiscing about the bygone days of sequins, feathers, and Marilyn Monroe.
      Made in the late 1980s, this fashion-conscious film shows its age less than you'd expect. It's still a great watch for anyone interested in the whole range of humanity, or anyone who's ever been an outsider, desperately wanting something the world hides out of reach. --Grant Balfour for amazon.com

    2. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) - Stephan Elliott [1 DVD, Amazon US]
      A surprise hit in America, this 1994 Australian comedy is anchored by Terence Stamp as a transsexual who, in the company of two drag queens, travels to a remote desert location to put on a lip- synch performance--to the amazement of the locals. Getting there on a pink bus named Priscilla, the trio stop and play for people all over the Outback, getting the same homophobic, bewildered responses. The weak link in the film is dialogue that seems to have been pulled from "Queer Movie Banter for Dummies," all bitchy and cliché-ridden but fortunately salvaged by strong acting. The most fun comes whenever the three are performing; fans of Abba will be particularly pleased. The DVD release has optional full-screen and widescreen presentations, cast and crew bios, optional French and Spanish subtitles. --Tom Keogh for amazon.com

    3. La Cage Aux Folles (1978) - Edouard Molinaro [Amazon US]
      A likable 1978 French farce (and the basis for the 1996 American remake, The Birdcage), this popular comedy was one of the most successful international films of all time, and even spawned a Broadway musical and two sequels. It tells the story of a gay couple who--when one man's son from a previous liaison brings home his fiancée--masquerade as husband and wife for their prospective in-laws. The film is saved from becoming an exercise in silliness by the heartfelt characterizations of the gay nightclub owners. La Cage aux Folles is one of the funniest imports from Europe and a great comedy in any venue. --Robert Lane for Amazon.com

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