I am an unabashed enthusiast of gay Drag culture and drag queens in general. Perhaps my fascination was inculcated by exposure to films such as Victor Victoria (in which Julie Andrews plays a woman pretending to be man pretending to be a woman) or the back seam of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon’s pantyhose in Billy Wilder’s romp, Some Like It Hot. Perhaps the clincher was Wesley Snipes’ intrepid orange lycra top in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar: a film– though not the typical cerebral-hemorrhage-inducing drama that I tend towards– that left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Whatever the origin of my enchantment, I am so taken by Drag and its elements, that I often facetiously refer to Tilda Swinton as “Pope John Tilda, La Divina, My Drag Mutha”, Cate Blanchette as ‘The Otha Drag Motha” and Audrey Hepburn as my “Original Drag Mother”.
Drag as performance art represents, to me, a religious-like devotion to self-expression through hyperbole, operatic in its timber, which thus necessitates the performer to at once be completely absorbed in his art and himself (especially as a canvas) and, paradoxically, not take himself too seriously; drama and comedy twirl in symbiotic unison in Draglandia. The term “drag queen” first appeared in print in 1941 and is often used to describe men (most often homosexual) who dress up in feminine regalia for entertainment or personal fulfillment, distinguishing them from transvestites, transexuals and the transgender variety of the masculine-into-feminine transposal spectrum. Drag has recently taken a turn for the mainstream with the introduction of the television show, Rupaul’s Drag Race, on Logo: a sort of America’s Next Top Model of Drag Queens, where the best of the drag world are faced each week with humourous and inventive challenges until America’s next drag superstar is crowned.
The television programme features many of the archetypical elements of Drag performance: lip syncing to the death, a catwalk of elaborate, garish costumes and high drama between contestants, all while poking astute fun at pop culture; there is no room in this haus for self-effacement. And then there is the mandatory element of “reading”. “Reading” is an incarnation of one of the aspects I most enjoy about the world of Drag. Like any culture, drag has it’s own jargon and not only does “reading” have its own meaning in their lexicon but it is, in and of itself, a representation of very the importance of language in the culture. The term reading refers to queens hurling sharper-than-a-german-made-blade witty insults at each other in a semi-tongue-in-cheek fashion. Reading is fundamental in the Drag world and it is reliant on both the reader’s ability to quickly observe the flaws of the “readee” and to transpose the observation into caustic words that carry a bit of bite and a lot of spunk. A read is, therefore, only good if it uses language dexterously and is usually a curtsey at the power of the pun. And then from reading comes “shade”: the subtle read, the indirect read that rests completely and acrobatic agility of mind and tongue. In the words of the late legendary Dorian Corey in the documentary about the black Drag scene of the 1980s, Paris is Burning, “Shade came from reading; reading came first…Shade is I don’t tell you you’re ugly but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly … and that’s shade” (click here to hear her say it for yourself).
On a recent episode of Drag Race, contestants had to design their own fragrance and act in advertisement for the scent. One of my favourite queens, Alaska, concocted a frangrance which she called “Red” with the tagline “For Filth”. The wordplay here is just delicious. There is, of course, the pun on the term “read to filth” or “read for filth” which means to read someone to utter smithereens; there is also the jocose jab at the perfume industry and how scents are often portrayed as being for the classy and sophisticated woman: Alaska’s fragrance is for the cheap and tawdry, the downright dirty, yes Gawd!, as can be an excess of the colour red. Her commercial for the fragrance combines facets that give drag life: mockery, exaggeration, wordplay, brazen feminine caricature, bold colour AND the ability to twirl in fierce heels!
In honour of Ms. Alaska, the 49th state, here are some shots of me rocking red to filth! with pieces curated from as nearby as J Crew and as far gone and away as my mother’s 1980s closet in Ghana. I’ve been read in red, asked “has anyone told you you look like a tomato today?” Like a good queen, I took it in my stride. I have no qualms about being compared to a drupe. You say Hail Mary, I say Bloody Mary!
Photo Credit: 4C Hair Chic and Leslie Reid
What I Wore: J Crew Double Cloth Cocoon coat in Vibrant Flame, Vintage red blazer with black piping from mum’s closet, Club Monaco silk Shirt, Club Monaco black “Tasha” legging, Stuart Weitzman “Seamstress” bootie, Céline Luggage Tote Mini in black lisse leather, Hermes Cavalcadour Carré, Dior Mohotani sunglasses, Hermes and Kenneth Jay Lane Bracelets