Before there was Divine or RuPaul, Paris is Burning or Some Like It Hot (“Well, nobody’s perfect!”), drag queens, or ‘queens’ as they were derogatorily known at the time, commanded enormous attention in the 18th- and early 19th-centuries.
Many, including Brigham Morris Young as Madam Pattirini and actor Julian Eltinge, enjoyed enormous success in an age where dressing as a woman for entertainment purposes was fully acceptable.
In fact, by the mid-to-late 1920s, a Pansy Craze swept New York, London, Berlin and other major cities where gay men dressed in drag and went to – you guessed it – drag balls. (Lili Elbe is widely considered to be the world’s first known male-to-female transsexual. Her story is the subject of the Academy Award-nominated picture The Danish Girl.)
The word ‘drag,’ most scholars agree, refers the drag that came with hoop skirts, a popular lady’s style back in the day. But, as these images will attest, nothing was too over the top for these crossdressing trailblazers. (Matador anyone?)
A line, however, was drawn when it came to public demonstrations of drag. When Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton shocked London society by daring to walk out in public as “Fanny and Stella,” there were still no laws preventing them from doing so. As a result, they, and others, were frequently charged with “the abominable crime of buggery.” Almost immediately, homosexuality would be firmly planted in the minds of people of that era as synonymous with drag.
After the Roaring Twenties, drag began its fairly quick descent underground but would soon see their fortunes revived by the 1970s when the Sexual Revolution was in full swing. And despite forty years of conservative cultural norms since the early 1980s, drag has enjoyed a renaissance that Fanny and Stella could be proud of.
(For a more thorough appreciation of the history of drag, be sure to check LittleThings.com.)