Underground to Mainstream: How drag trends are dismantling the gender binary

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[Written by Jemma Clearie]

[Image Credits: Jemma Clearie]

Drag has always been an outlet for self-exploration, artistry, style and resistance. Queens as we know them today challenge societal norms on hit TV shows and beat their faces on our favourite social media platforms, all while sharing their all-important creative roots with those who planted the seed. In the Elizabethan era, women did not have the right to the stage. This meant that the hole left by the lack of a woman had to be filled by a man, and that man would be dressed in drag. Originally, that is all drag meant – to dress in another gender’s assigned clothing in a time when a gender binary was most definitely prominent. When drag spread to the United States, Vaudeville actors paved the way of the popular modern queens, winning over audiences and laughs.

In the 30s the LGBT+ community found themselves marginalized by the illegalisation of homosexuality – or anything in the slightest bit not cis-gendered or heterosexual. The laws against the gays and the drink led to a stunning partnership, where underground clubs would provide queer folks with a safe space for endless amounts of expression and gender-bending. Queens found their place in society and began rising to the top.

What is incredibly important to note is that the resistance the drag community (and in turn the LGBT+ community) have demonstrated through their insistence on challenging boundaries within their societies. Drag is not just throwing on a wig and frilly frock. It is designing and embellishing grand gowns, blending seamless hairlines, sacrificing eyebrows to glue, and laborious make up transformations. Queens don’t just play with their looks. Most specialise in of lip-syncing, voguing and other performances that require stamina and pure confidence. For many it’s a method of escaping the confines of society, and has encourage true self-discovery for decades, strikingly performing gender as a multi-faceted concept.

Ru Paul, drag queen of all drag queens has become a house hold name. Gaining fame for her jaw-dropping physique, performances and hit tunes, she has become a key player in underground becoming mainstream. Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which aired a decade ago, has completely blown up to say the least. A culture which was once a long-kept queer secret has become accessible and therefore significant for the eccentrics of today. Representation is a huge part of self-acceptance and coming from member of the LGBT+ community myself, seeing people who are the same as you, or who even dare to stray beyond norms brings enormous relief.

Drag as a whole bases itself on bending a binary which was once uncompromising. Stars such as Bowie and Boy George engulfed themselves in the beauty which is androgyny and provided new trends accessible to the public, proving that venturing into or exaggerating gender was valid. Parallel to racial, women’s, transgender and gay equality movements, queens have aided in influencing a generation’s self-image.

Style crazes are being used to question what is ‘normal’. Beauty influencers on social media platforms are everywhere, taking over the traditional beauty industry by providing a new and more inclusive version of what it once was. YouTubers, Instagram stars and make up artists ahead of their time are using make up as a form of defiance, disregarding gender norms and proving there are no limits to an illustration of self. What is more, drag make-up (which is infamous for its unconventional techniques) has woven its way into ‘insta’ make-up. Exaggerated cut creases, cream contouring, baking and dramatic highlighting have become integrated into the morning routines of many. They require a different artistic eye, one that disobeys conventional benchmarks of beauty – but that is what is exciting. These ever-growing trends are marking the significant influence of drag on an industry that is easily distracted by perfection, allowing its art to become non-binary.

Femininity and masculinity are no longer two separate categories, but just two ends of a very flexible scale. Fashion brands are happily dismantling the norms within their own realms, with designers like legend Vivienne Westwood bringing traditionally effeminate cuts onto the menswear runway, while others leave tight womenswear behind for boxier pieces. It is not always about contradicting norms, but rather discovering the elements of gender and introducing them as individual components in an effort to disconnect from the binary. The fact is that anyone can wear hyper feminine, masculine or neutral get-up and successfully make a social statement about gender, disregarding how they personally identify – the possibilities within drag being a great example. This movement is being furthered by designers scrapping the concept of two separate shows which once served the binary, and instead are having models of all genders sporting the same line of clothing, with no gendered items in sight. Unisex clothing has found its place on the highstreets, and is being gladly received by those who do not believe in barriers.

Drag and movements similar have been a source of inspiration for most of us creatives, subconsciously or not.   However, it is a must to recognise that as much as drag has played an important role outwith its community, it has proven to produce some problematic attitudes when attempting to demolish the gender binary within itself. As we move into a more open-minded space, it can seem confusing when regulating the new directions and expectations. Although drag has provided general society with a model of individuality and resistance, problems with acceptance of drag kings, trans folk and those who don’t choose a label are bubbling to the surface. Ru Paul herself has made some distasteful comments suggesting the role of anyone other than men in the drag world is not a big enough social statement – which totally undermines the whole intention. At times drag trends can focus too heavily on the concepts of masculinity and femininity as a binary system, making those who do not belong to either end of the scale uncomfortable. The idea that something so sensational and progressive is also responsible for enabling crippling dysphoria is a hard pill to swallow. Although drag has made many steps in the right direction in terms of unity, everyone can always do better. Everyone deserves the right to reject the expectations of gender identity. We want a generation of expressive humans continuing to dress beautifully, present as they wish and resist those who oppress without a doubt in their mind that they are making history,  herstory and theirstory.


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