Shining Through Adversity: Evolution and Resilience of 20th century British Drag

Jack Dradey

20th century Britain was an incredibly transformative era for drag culture.

In this century we can see that there was more artistic expression, social change, and a dramatic growth in LGBTQIA+ rights movements. We will explore drag during World War Two and the post war period where there was an increase in drag revues. This article will take you through how drag became a vital part in LGBTQIA+ activism. Whilst also showing the hardships that drag performers had to experience especially towards the end of the century, such as the government’s response to the AIDs crisis and Section 28. World War Two is probably the last thing you think of when remembering 20th century drag, as this period of time was a time related to sadness, grief, and hardships. Drag also suffered during this period, as many public and paid drag events had to be paused due to war efforts. There are minimal sources and histography covering British drag queens during World War Two, this is for two reasons. First reason is that people weren’t interested in commenting on drag queens during this period due to the war and the second reason being that many of the men who were drag queens were conscripted to fight during the war. However, even being conscripted didn’t stop drag shows. Drag shows were quite popular with American and British troops. We can see its popularity with a series of photos taken by photographer John Topham in 1940 of soldiers in full women attire, in drag, ready for a Christmas charity event. However, as they were preparing for this event making sure their dresses were done up and their skirts laid flat an alert went off forcing them to run to their stations. These photographs were hidden from the public by the government for many years. The photographs represented a lot, on one hand they showed Britain’s determination to fight the Nazis in whatever circumstances. But the government viewed this as Britain’s weakness, they thought it portrayed the army as less manly and that Germany would have a ball if they got hold of these photos. But supporters of drag artists know that drag doesn’t make you less of a he, she, or they. Drag is simply artistic expression and if someone who identifies as male chooses to partake in drag it does not compromise their masculinity. As for drag kings during World War Two, they were impacted a lot less. This is because, obviously, women stayed in the country and weren’t allowed to fight in the war but were doing a considerable amount at home. Women were an integral part of Britain winning World War Two as they joined to help the war effort by working in factories or working as nurses, but this led to many women giving up their career prospects to help with the war. But there were still drag kings and male impersonators that still continued their career. Drag artist Hetty King is one example of this. Her drag career spanned both World War One and Two and was a huge success. However, by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 male impersonation was not looked on as favourably, which led Kings performances to be more of a nostalgia vibe rather than modern and new. King would often perform as a soldier or a sailor and was credited for her amazing mannerisms leading her to tour in many places including France and Belgium.
Shining Through Adversity: Evolution and Resilience of 20th century British Drag
Pre-War Drag

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Shining Through Adversity: Evolution and Resilience of 20th century British Drag
Section 28

Though drag culture suffered during the war, it was quite the opposite afterwards

After the war the baby boom wasn’t the boom Britain saw, there was a boom in drag revues. Revues are entertainment with songs and dances and short sketches often addressing recent events and often satirical. Ex-servicemen drag revues were hugely successful with the public and critics. Shows like ‘This was the army’ an American revue created in the 1940s shows the success of revues being widely popular in both America and Britain. Critics celebrated the visual art of drag and often commending the make-up and outfits of these performers. Surprisingly 1950s critics, whose judgement may have been clouded by the rife homophobia that was present in British society, weren’t affected by the artform of drag they enjoyed and celebrated the comedy that these revues brought. The ex-servicemen’s portrayal of women and talent in capturing femininity strayed audience members away from their displeasure in watching drag and the connections to homosexuality, which was a key priority for the showrunners of these revues. Now if we go to the 1980s and 1990s, drag found itself evolving more than ever with two legendary drag scenes influenced by the American drag scene, they are known as Ballroom and Club Kid. These two new areas of drag were vital in the evolution and survival of drag culture across the world these subcategories of drag showed everyone that there was more to drag than just male and female impersonation. Ballroom culture was definitely more popular across the pond in American and may not have been as extensive as it was in Harlem, New York (where it originated) but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have its impact on British drag culture. The ballroom scene was very inclusive where they accepted transgender queens and AFAB queens (assigned female at birth). This heavily impacted drag events and parties in cities such as London, which was a breeding ground for drag culture, which became more inclusive for drag artists and self-expression. Nightclubs in London such as Heaven and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London became key safe spaces in the 80s and 90s for drag artists and those looking to express themselves where they would host drag performances reminiscent and inspired by the American Ballroom scene. In the Ballroom scene categories was an imperative part such as best dressed and bizarre which impacted British drag fashion leading to more extravagant garments on the drag scene.
Ancestry UK

The Club Kid scene was a hugely influential part in the evolution of British drag.

As mentioned, before it showed that there were more to drag than male or female impersonation. Club Kids were characterised by their flamboyant behaviour and bizarre costumes. The iconic Steve Strange was a famous individual in the British Club Kid scene as he hosted club events in the Blitz club where the infamous Blitz Kids formed. The Blitz kids were a group of people who frequently went to the nightclub in the late 70s and early 80s. Princess Julia, Gene October, and Boy George just to name a few were members of the group. The Blitz Kids rose to fame for their outrageous outfits and makeup, parallel of what America saw with Studio 54 and icons including Leigh Bowery and James St James. But the Club Kids of Britain didn’t just impact drag it impacted music, fashion…everything sparking the New Romanic movement. However, though drag evolved and flourished in 20th century Britain it still faced many hurdles. Britain was hit with the AIDs crisis in the early 80s and this impacted drag culture and the LGBTQIA+ community massively. Drag queen Marcia Bassey Jones describes the 80s as an ‘exciting and morbid time’. AIDs caused widespread fear across the nation and with that it took so many talented individuals. Jones was a Cardiff queen, and they would recognise how people were disappearing, ‘people were dropping like flies’. This caused stigma and hatred up and down the United Kingdom as AIDs was being labelled as ‘the gay plague’. With this many clubs and venues which were once safe spaces for drag artists were closed down because of the fear of catching the disease. The government at the time being led by Margaret Thatcher had quite a laissez-faire attitude as they thought it wasn’t a priority at the time despite the number of lives that were being lost at the time. Another hurdle that drag culture faced was the implementation of Section 28 in 1988. Section 28 was a piece of legislation passed by Margaret Thatcher that caused the ‘prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material’. Ultimately, this silenced queer voices. But the LGBTQIA+ community, including drag artists, did what they do best, they stood up and caused a series of protest across the country objecting this homophobic legislation. The late Paul O’Grady who sadly passed away earlier this year was a prominent drag figure in the late 20th century and was one of the many drag queens who spoke out against Section 28. O’Grady’s drag persona was Lily Savage and was a key activist often performing and hosting HIV and AIDs charity events and joined the 30,000 individuals in April 1988 protesting against Thatcher’s Section 28. Paul O’Grady and Lily Savage gave hope to many queer individuals during the rough times of the 80s and 90s and were icons and an asset to the queer community and will be greatly missed. As we can see 20th century drag culture evolved massively. We have a lot to thank to those drags kings and queens who were activists during hard times but also provided iconic looks and comedy. The next article will conclude my series of articles about drag culture in Britain and I will take you through 21st century drag and discuss how drag is today. Looking at the prominence of RuPaul and her television show RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, you’ll also be able to read about what drag artists think of drag in our modern society and why it is so important.
Shining Through Adversity: Evolution and Resilience of 20th century British Drag

Jack Dradey

Hello, my name is Jack and I’m currently studying History at Royal Holloway University of London. My interests include medieval history and fashion history. I am the writer of a historic fashion blog called Historic Fashionista. I enjoy investigating parts of history and the changes of continuities of certain periods. When I’m not up to my neck in essays and books I am normally found in museums finding out new information…or you’ll find me in the museum gift shop looking for a new tote bag.
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