“Drag: The Complete Story” is just that. Simon Doonan’s new book is a crash course on the latest in drag trends — and a return to where it all began.
Doonan has a lot of ground to cover, because almost as soon as humans decided to wear clothes, they began switching things up. Cross-dressing has antecedents in ancient cultures, and found great favor in some of the most repressive eras, including the Victorian Age.
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Anthology books are often miles wide and inches deep. As happens with any subject having a history, there’s centuries of tales to tell. To Doonan’s credit, “Drag: The Complete Story” serves as a spectacular introduction.
“If I bring anything to the table, says the author, “it’s a love of history and an ability to make it accessible, hilarious and fun. My hope is that it opens the traditions of drag up to people and brings it up to date.”
Although the book reaches back across time, distance and cultures, Doonan says he quickly concluded that this book wouldn’t easily conform to a chronology. Instead, it’s loosely organized by topic.
“Oh, did I try to do it chronologically,” he says with some exasperation. “And it was sad. Certainly there was some rollicking stuff happening back then, but it’s not like there are visuals of drag queens whirling around stone disco balls. So I had to break it down thematically. I mean, there really isn’t a lot of information about what was happening on the scene in the 9th century.”
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One of the big surprises in his research, says the British-born Doonan, “is just how successful these drag queens were who were taking the piss out of the Edwardian patriarchy. For example, Daniel Elton was so successful he had a theater named after him. And he spent his entire career jumping on a boat back and forth on steamer ships performing to sold out crowds in Europe and America.”
Gender-bending might not be new, he’ll say, but it’s certainly in full flower at the moment, due in no small part to the phenomenon known as RuPaul’s Drag Race. “The thing is that it’s still changing. After not much happening back in the ’70s and ’80s when everyone was dressing up as either Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, suddenly there’s this explosion of invention and creative expression. During the three years I worked on this book, I could barely keep up.”
Between the covers of “Drag: The Complete Story,” you’ll read stories that amaze and inspire. Having the courage to put on a dress and get onstage required a bit more intestinal fortitude in the 1800s than it does today. That some of those same performers wore their drag on the streets in their daily lives? It’s mind-boggling.
And that’s just the fellas in frocks. “We’re in a period now that’s very much reexamining gender and identity,” says the author. “And drag kings have played an important part in that. They took it upon themselves to make fun of toxic masculinity. They took on blue-collar archetypes, gas station mechanics and so on. You had Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet, and Meryl Streep can appear in drag as Donald Trump (as she did during the 2016 election) and impugn his masculinity. Drag is a marvelous form of satire.”
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Drag may have its antecedents in satire and pushing back at straight male dominance, but today’s drag is a very large garden with a wide variety of blooms.
“That’s true,” Doonan agrees. “Back in the ’70s, you had people like Divine who were very much making a statement about women’s roles in society. Divine essentially wanted to be Liz Taylor, and she was able to satirize certain aspects of life for women of the 1950s.”
Today’s drag queens paint on a much larger canvas with more bold colors and more subtlety to their expression. “Look queens are among them,” says Doonan. “They’re drag queens who are very focused on presentation, and it’s not mutually exclusive.”
And for those who consider the past as prologue, “there’s a story in the book about Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, who saw a lot of her friends dragged off to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during the Nazi regime, where a lot of gay people were thrown. She somehow managed to elude them. Eventually, she was imprisoned then liberated. But a great number were re-arrested after the war because they were already known as gay.”
In Donald Trump’s America, he concludes, people who don’t conform to norm are being persecuted once again. “But,” he says, “the pushback is inspiring people. It’s acting like fertilizer to that garden you were talking about. Its’ an extremely dynamic moment, and I tried to capture that.”
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Last modified: September 30, 2019