A brief but glamorous history of drag

Photograph of Julian Eltinge
Photograph of Julian Eltinge in the Broadway production of the musical The Fascinating Widow, 1911 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Who was the first drag queen? Perhaps surprisingly, we do have a fairly good idea. According to groundbreaking research by historian Channing Gerard Joseph, a freed US slave named William Dorsey Swann was the first person to openly identify as a ‘queen of drag’. Swann’s remarkable life saw him survive the horrors of slavery and the American Civil War, then fearlessly subvert gender expectations in the seat of US power: Washington DC.

Within walking distance of the White House, Swann hosted flamboyant drag balls where other Black men, many former slaves, would party together. The inherent danger was highlighted when police raided one of the balls in 1888. As Channing Gerard Joseph writes in his book House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, the flabbergasted police officers ‘discovered dozens of Black men dancing together there, wearing silk and satin dresses made according to the latest fashions’.

Later jailed for allegedly running a brothel, Swann petitioned US President Grover Cleveland for a pardon – perhaps the first time an American citizen had taken legal action in defence of LGBTQ+ rights. Swann paved the way for the continuing countercultural phenomenon of drag balls in the US. These flourished in Harlem in the 1920s (where poet Langston Hughes wrote of watching ‘males in flowing gowns and feathered headdresses’ at one soiree) and the Black and Latino drag ball scene of the 70s and 80s, as depicted in recent TV drama Pose.

Of course, drag as a concept – that is, performing as another gender through the adoption of clothing and mannerisms – had been seen in Western culture long before the first self-identified ‘queens’ came to light. It’s well known that, in Shakespeare’s time, female roles were played by boys and young men in feminine attire, while the plays themselves played with themes of performative gender expression. Think of Twelfth Night, in which shipwrecked heroine Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, who promptly becomes the object of desire for the countess Olivia.

In London in the early 18th Century, gay men seeking refuge from repressive societal norms would congregate in taverns, coffeehouses and private residences known as molly houses. Here, they would often adopt female alter-egos, much like today’s drag artists, with names like Primrose Mary, Aunt England, Lady Godiva and Black-Eyed Leonora.

Historian Rictor Norton’s volume Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook quotes one prominent Londoner of the time, Jonathan Wild, who was taken to a molly house. Wild writes that the regulars would ‘dress themselves up in woman's apparel, and dance and romp about, and make such a hellish noise, that a man would swear they were a parcel of cats a catter-wauling.’

Wild also describes a raid on a molly house resulting in its guests being dragged in front of the Lord Mayor while dressed ‘in gowns, petticoats, head-cloths, fine-lac’d shoes… some were dressed like milk-maids, others like shepherdesses’. They were shamed by being “conducted thro” the streets in their female habits’.

The best-remembered member of this outlawed subculture was a valet named John Cooper, known to friends and acquaintances as Princess Seraphina. Remarkably, in a time when being gay could destroy your life, Cooper/Seraphina made no attempt to conceal things. As Rictor Norton says, ‘she was the first recognizable drag queen in English history, that is the first gay man for whom dragging it up was an integral part of his identity, and who was well known by all his neighbours as a drag queen or transvestite “princess”: everyone called him Princess Seraphina even when he was not wearing women's clothes.’

Known for her glamorous look – white gowns, scarlet cloaks, flamboyantly styled hair – Princess Seraphina particularly relished the masquerade balls that became popular in 18th Century London. Although these were mainstream festivities, they provided an opportunity for proto-drag queens to make merry while dressed as witches, maids and shepherdesses. It could be argued that such transgressive events were a direct predecessor of the drag balls that would later unfold in the US.

The fine art of gender impersonation took on new significance in the 19th Century, with the rise of vaudeville and variety theatre. One great pioneer was Julian Eltinge, an American actor who became known for playing women on stage. Beautiful and charismatic, he was one of the highest-paid theatrical stars of the early 20th Century, appearing in early Hollywood films and amassing an army of female fans. As the comedian WC Fields put it, ‘Women went into ecstasy about him. Men went into the smoking room.’

Eltinge died in 1941, having set a precedent for a new generation of female impersonators and drag artists who would find mainstream success in the mid-20th Century. Major examples included British performer Danny La Rue and Australian comedian Barry Humphries, the man behind Dame Edna Everage.

Encompassing 18th Century sexual outlaws, liberated slaves, early Hollywood stars, avant-garde urban performers and primetime light entertainers, the history of drag is a rich and textured one – and the story is far from over.