Flights of Fancy in Drag City

Drag City: Curated by Robert Sauvey
September 6 – October 15, 1996

a response to the exhibition by Cathy Collins

Once my mother convinced my Dad to wear her Aunt’s black cut velvet and silk flapper dress to a Hallowe’en party. This was a significant accomplishment in light of my Dad’s origins in Presbyterian and Tory rural Ontario. Underneath his silky, cut velvet, black dress, Dad wore the usual Stanfields. It was a safe masquerade, the way Milton Berle played comic female roles as the host of Texaco Star Theater in the early days of television. Existing gender stereotypes were reinforced. Dad’s cross-dressing wasn’t drag because he wasn’t creating a new identity either in his mind or in his behavior. Clearly drag is a state of mind driven by fantasy and desire. How else would a muscled, tattooed boy with a badly fitting blonde wig manage to look thoughtfully girlish in a photo-portrait by David Rasmus?


In Drag City, we step through Mark Beard’s painted archway of ignudi, out into a midway of gay and lesbian culture. The midway freak show, with its natural and created oddities, the cabinet of curiousities, and the museum all have the same lineage and Drag City reinforces this history. At first glance, there is a mop of black hair, a sort of shrunken head, that turns out to be the black wig and rhinestone tiara belonging to “Diana”, a boy from Transcona, voted Miss Happening of 1992. Not far away, on the wall, are five photos in the series Man Enough by Hamish Buchanan which reveal how an artificial half man/half woman could create the appropriate female pubis by tying back his penis. Evidently, drag and S & M are queerly related. Nearby, a queen sized mannequin sports the multicoloured, frilly, Mexican-inspired gown of the abundant ‘actress’ Divine, from her role in Lust in the Dust. The pre-eminent display of this gown is reminiscent of the series of First Ladies’ gowns in the Smithsonian: Divine, in Mondo Trasho (1970), was definitely First Lady of drag in the mainstream cinema. From the 60’s pop world of Warhol, there is a Cleopatra outfit worn by postal-worker-by-day, underground filmstar Mario Montez. Near the front of the installation is the midway gorilla act: from the ceiling hangs a huge pair of large nylon breasts and a shaggy red wig suspended above a mauve gown and cape. These are relics of the late Ethyl Eichelberg’s 1987 performance of Klytemnestra, one of the many female characters that he/she played from literature, mythology and history. Close by, is a foam rubber banana costume with a rudely erect stem, a “big fruit” relic of Josephine Baker, the handiwork of the artist Eugene Fortin, alias Madame Simone. Irony, humour and sarcasm add an edge to the cheap thrill of the midway.

Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey’s photo essay, A Day in the Life of a Bull Dyke-Portrait of a Modern Sex Deviant, works on several levels. First there is the immediate and nostalgic response of remembering the smell of leafing through Life Magazine on rainy Sunday afternoons at Grandma’s house. In those days everything in Life was true and it reflected the “wholesome”, nuclear family era of Father Knows Best . The large format of the piece, the monochromatic halftone photographs and white text on red are a perfect imitation of Life’s archaic style. Millan and Dempsey’s essay makes you realize how artificial photo journalism really was and continues to be. Photography has always been manipulated; digital imaging has blown apart for all time the whole idea of truth in the photo image. In spite of this debunking of Life and its lack of objectivity, there is still poignancy and humour in A Day in The Life of the Bull Dyke. The halftone images of various models of canvas shoes on the back cover continue the tongue-in-cheek ethnology of the lesbian and parody the mail order catalogs that we also studied as children.

Costume is a critical part of personal and cultural identity, the thing that defines ethnicity, gender, occupation and hierarchy. Getting dressed means playing a part, even if it is done unconsciously. In the past, occupational clothing was a lot more obvious; in the mid-nineteenth century the laborer and peasant were easily distinguished by their dress. Today, vestiges of occupational clothing remain symbolically in the chef’s hat, the lawyer’s black robes and bifurcated white tie, the English judge’s wig and so on. There are ‘blacktie’ formal affairs, weddings and funerals, occasions where clothing is an important part of the occasion. Fashion rules once dictated the precise outfits to be worn by respectable men and women for every occasion and every time of day. Fashion history and ritual dress offer ample matter for inspiration. Drag is going just one step beyond the limits of the customary, the straightjacket of gender, employment, era and place. Drag is fun, drag is silly, drag is like trying to die laughing. Drag can be serious and hard work.

Cross-dressing is an ancient tradition within the theatre. A cavalcade of famous females from history were played by persons of the XY persuasion: Medea, Lysistrata and other characters in Greek theatre, Shakespeare’s Juliet, Ophelia, etc. English drama, in the seventeenth century, had many roles in which actresses donned male clothing, usually for military roles. In The Importance of Being Ernest Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell is a sought-after comic role to be played by an older male actor. The tragic geisha of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a figure out of kabuki, a form of theatre in which women were prohibited from playing the female roles. In China there were famous actors such as Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) who played the women’s roles in Peking Opera. In the sixteenth century, after the Pope forbade women to sing in church, the castrato singer was created for the Sistine chapel choir. This practice spread quickly to the Italian opera: the high, crystal-voiced casatrati stars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as Farinelli and Caffarelli were like rock stars, more famous in their time than Callas and Pavarotti are today.

Vogueing (to vogue): to dress, pose and dance in imitation of high fashion pictures; derived from one category of the fashion contests held by New York’s black and latino gay ball societies as depicted in the Jennie Livingston documentary Paris is Burning and appropriated by Madonna in the song Vogue, 1990.

RuPaul, in his autobiography Lettin It All Hang Out, lists his favorite designers including: Gianni Versace, Thierry Mugler, Christian LaCroix and Valentino. Except for Bob Mackie (“Cher! Cher! Cher!”), the list is nearly all Europeans. Unlike their American counterparts, the Europeans don’t worry about everyday office clothes; their customers aren’t working women, unless the work is a casino callgirl in Monte Carlo. Europeans still understand that clothes are costume. Interestingly, it is the designers’ names that some of the gay ball “houses” adopt for their pseudo family units. Even as a teenager I felt that something was curious in the world of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; it appeared that models and designers seemed to go out of their way to make the women look like drag queens or adolescent boys. Genuinely womanly bodies were not seen. It’s not surprising to discover that RuPaul’s tip to aspiring queens is that they study the above mentioned magazines for posing ideas, or that in his opinion the superstar model wouldn’t be recognized without her makeup, walk and attitude. The world of fashion is a world of fantasy.

Drag queen RuPaul’s recipe for transformation into the Goddess entails a long list of essentials. It starts with a good hot bath, a deep loofah scrubbing, a very close shave and lots of moisturizing. The first important ingredient is full coverage pancake makeup, a heavy makeup and lots and lots of powder. This is followed by careful facial contouring then eye and brow makeup. Flat-chested girls can learn a secret from RuPaul about shaping the cleavage with contouring and highlighting colours. Next comes the ritual known as ‘tucking’ to get the look of the smooth female pubis. This painful sounding process of lifting and separating gives the queen her special grace while seated because she is literally ‘sitting on a secret.’ Imperfections of the legs can be covered with opaque support hose or several layers of regular pantihose. As RuPaul likes a wasp waist, this requires a special corset or waist cincher with built in ‘foam tits’ and the assistance of another set of hands for tight lacing. The dress, an appropriate queenly confection, always comes before the wig but after the makeup. The prestyled wig of a mesh type is the best and held on with a little glue at the sides near the sideburn area. After wigtime, it’s shoetime, with the added tips from RuPaul: Fredericks of Hollywood sells size 13 in bulk and that plastic toe mules can make the legs look longer. To give birth to this Goddess of glamour takes three hours and a friend with strong hands. RuPaul’s metamorphosis recalls the clothing styles of previous centuries, in which the desired outer shape of female, and sometimes even male fashions, were built from complex, tightly laced undergarments. At the end of the nineteenth century, some women even underwent the surgical removal of their bottom ribs to achieve the hourglass silhouette with its eighteen inch waist.

Right from the beginning, Madonna recognized the creative energy of the drag queen ‘female’ and used this archetype in her persona. In a taped interview from 1993, Glennda and Camille Do Downtown, the scholarly provocateur and ‘dubious advocate of otherness’, Camille Paglia, insisted she learned how to be a woman from drag queens because, “the drag queen philosophy is based on the idea of woman as the dominatrix of the universe.”

Drag mimics a woman at the height of her sexual power: the geisha girl, the vixen, the supermodel, the old-fashioned movie idol played so well by female impersonators like Craig Russell. Other variations include the steely dominatrix like Julie Newmar’s Cat Woman and the flip side, the sweet schoolgirl type like Nana Mouskouri. Success depends on having something to imitate, either overtly female, an aspect of popular culture or something that is evocative of a name or object: ergo, the characters Noxema Jackson and Vita Boheme in To Wong Foo, With Best Wishes, Julie Newmar or RuPaul’s Wonder Woman costume worn in his video Back to My Roots. Liberace is a curious deviation from the queenly mold; the pianist played a decidedly female character in men’s clothing to a clearly female audience. His fans just loved his outfits and looked forward with anticipation to seeing how many more rhinestones could be sewn on. Nevertheless, Liberace had a domestic familiarity, a voice like manicurist Madge of Palmolive, a woman with whom you could share a heart-to-heart chat about men. How many men, however, would go so far in their worship of the Goddess to offer the ultimate gift? It is thought that in pre-historic times, the act of castration replaced the actual death of a temporary or seasonal king, undertaken to invoke continued fertility. Priests of the ancient cult of the Great Mother Goddess of Asia Minor became the handmaidens of Cybele through ritual castraton. The worshippers of Cybele, the galli, appeared in Rome in 204 BC where their extravagant clothing, jewelry and frenzied behavior disturbed many. In Hesoid’s Theogony, the goddess Aphrodite is born from the seafoam which arises when Uranus is castrated by his son, Chronus, and drops of his blood rained down upon the earth and sea. The worship of other Roman and Greek gods, particularly Dionysus and Bacchus, involved the orgy, sacred rites celebrated with drunkeness, licentiousness, wild dancing and complete disorder. The Greek orgy and the Roman saturnalia involved the wearing of clothes of the opposite sex as a call to the primeval state of chaos. This chaos could be evoked by the inversion of the usual social patterns, including dress. Chaos is still present in drag and is evident in the words of Francisco Ibanez, a.k.a Clarita Cruz-Montt:

Drag insolently interrupts the flow of normality; look what the cat dragged in! It reminds us that hell on earth is just around the corner:outbreaks, violences, viruses. Drag queens seem to be the catalysts for a volatile alchemy because we step over racial, class and sexual boundaries.

-Francisco Ibanez, Artesania, On High Heels, Art That Heels
Border/Lines, No. 40, April 1996

Drag clearly has an exorcistic, shamanistic and possibly even a sacred aspect; a definite celebration of “joie de vivre” in the era of HIV. In the novel, Son Of A Circus, author John Irving allows a brief contemporary glimpse into the world of the “hijras,” a Hindu sect of eunuchs and transvestites. The hijras are devotees of the Mother Goddess Bahuchara Mata who achieve their power to either bless or curse by being neither male nor female but a third sex. Traditionally, they earn a living by begging, but they also perform songs at weddings and festivals and give their blessings at births. The mannerisms of hijras are ultra feminine. They dress and flirt outrageously in a manner that is inappropriate for women in Indian society.

Martha Canary, alias Calamity Jane, was one tough woman. If she wore the clothing of the Old West frontiersman, it was because these were the most practical clothes for the things she had to do as scout and teamster in the Army. She is a little out of place in Drag City, but she has plenty of company in the history of women who dressed like men to escape the confines of a woman’s expected role. Canary did have something in common with the other cross-dressers in Drag City, the idea of playing a role. She was said to be a natural entertainer in her appearances in the Wild West Show , where she got to play Calamity Jane on horseback, not Martha Canary, mother, wife and sometime whore. Nina Levitt’s manipulation of the seated photograph of Calamity Jane from the series Critical Details, highlights three things: her left hand holding a rifle, her booted right foot and her legs crossed legs at the thighs. The last detail tells the viewer that Canary is definitely a woman. Just in case you haven’t noticed, men generally cross their legs (when they cross them) at the ankle and pull their T-shirts off from behind. Canary’s image in Drag City is there to question the sketchy history of women who dressed as men: was she really enamoured of Wild Bill Hickok as the legend goes, or did her romantic tastes roam towards other cowgirls?

At a time when most women in western cultures can freely wear trousers, it is easy to overlook the fact that, until quite recently, women’s clothing was physically confining and limiting, in accordance with women’s roles and prescribed sexual behavior.

Trousers made a wonderful difference on the outlook on life. I know that dressed as a man I did not, as I do now (sic) I am wearing skirts again, feel hopeless and helpless… I want to up and do those things that men do to earn a living rather than spend my days as a friendless woman.

Valerie Arkell-Smith, alias Colonel Barker, in 1929 from Amazons and Military Maids, Julie Wainwright

As Colonel Barker, Valerie Arkell-Smith was able, first to escape a brutal husband, then to find respectable work as a retired war hero. Later she married Elfrida Hayward and lived with her until brought to trial in 1929, on a bankruptcy charge. While on remand at Brixton Prison, the true sex of Colonel Barker was discovered and she was charged with perjury in connection with her marriage to Elfrida Haward. After her release from prison, she lived out her public life as a man and pursued interests such as farming and boxing. Although there is ever growing evidence of women in history who disguised themselves as men to enter a wide range of occupations, the best-documented cases involve women soldiers and sailors. A local example is Isabelle Gunn who spent two years freighting goods with the Hudson’s Bay Company while disguised as John Fubbister. Before her true identity was discovered in 1807, she canoed 1,800 miles to the fur trading post at Pembina, where on December 29th she took ill and, much to everyone’s surprise, was delivered of a healthy baby boy. For many women the only liberation from their domestic responsibilities was experienced during wartime; the military gave them a new identity and an understandable motive for rejecting hearth and home. The only other way to secure sexual independence was through prostitution. Disguised as men, however, they could obtain privileges, travel more freely, exercise new skills, find companionship and have sexual relationships with other women.

Owing to ongoing re-definitions and the blending of gender in our current culture, the drag act has lost its minor ability to shock. The freakish and fetishistic veneer has worn thin. In 1993, Paglia called the nineties the “decade of drag.” In fact, drag has found its way into mainstream entertainment. Otherwise, the American motion picture industry wouldn’t have re-fashioned La Cage Aux Folles as The Birdcage, or put three “multicultural” straight guys into dresses in the silly and vacuous film To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. In his article about drag, Francisco Ibanez even complains about the increase in kisses that butch guys are giving each other on camera, i.e. straight guys are co-opting “sensitive” behavior. However, he still wonders where the baseball bat is hidden. Once a professional sports figure like Chicago Bulls Dennis Rodman dresses in a white wedding gown and appears in Sports Illustrated, it would seem that drag is dead as underground culture or a political statement – at least for the time being. Drag is eternal, however, and will be re-invented.

Quiet rumination of a gowned young man in a Newcastle bar: “I guess if you’re a real woman you don’t have to overdress.” Admiring the silky, bronzed skin, small feet and painted toenails of an attractive and ample-figured woman in harem pants at the opening of Drag City, I tend to agree, but I’m missing the point. Drag isn’t about trying to be a woman at all.


Cathy Collins is a Winnipeg artist who usually works with paint or video. This is her first experiment in writing about art.