My dear friend and fellow blogger D. Kareem of The Blackout Blog recently wrote about RuPaul’s Drag Race. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, it’s a competition for America’s next drag superstar. Perspective contestants submit audition tapes in order to be cast. All contestants selected must be 21 years of age or older at the time of taping, and all contestants must be biological men. Once selected, the contestants are given challenges to progressively eliminate the number of drag queens in the competition until a winner is selected.
D. Kareem asked me an interesting question:
Do you think it’s a queen’s responsibility to learn to sew before entering Drag Race? Or should she focus more on other parts of her performance in preparation for the show if that’s not her thing?
My immediate reaction to this question was no. And I would say that my answer to this question was self-serving – why should Drag Race seek to become a derivative of Project Runway? As a viewer, the idea of watching the transformation through the use of makeup is much more enthralling. That is why I enjoy watching Petrilude so much:
After some reflection, I considered how difficult it must be to find clothing that fits these queens. Tailored clothing can be difficult to find, not to mention when your proportions are not the industry average. I’m not sure that it should be the responsibility for each queen to make her own garments, but I’m sure it would allow a greater freedom to express their identities.
When teaching, I often discuss how fashion constructs and deconstructs gender identities. The first time I led this discussion, I was entering with my own agenda: women wearing pants. (See my guest post for Fashion Historia on California Playclothes). Trousers or pants for women appeared throughout fashion history, but always on the scandalous periphery: Amazonian warriors, riding habits, coal miners, Bloomers, and so on. It wasn’t until the 1930s that trousers for women became accepted for casual use for the home and vacation. Yet women could be refused service in the public sector when they were clad in pants. This slowly started to change in the 1960s, but with much resistance.
I like to use images of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking“, photographed by Helmut Newton. I think it captures the idea of the time period – is a woman still a woman if she dresses like a man? Now this question seems absurd. Of course women can be feminine and still wear pants. It is socially acceptable. But historically, pants and trousers identified masculinity. So what happens when gender identity is blurred through clothing?
Through these classroom discussions, I learned a lot about the experience of cross dressing from my students. They were all fashion design majors and could construct their own garments, so it doesn’t address D. Kareem’s question to me. But hearing their experience of not allowing their identity to be defined by gender was enlightening. One student explained:
Once I embraced the idea that I was attracted to the same sex, I felt a total freedom to dress differently. Suddenly, every garment was now accessible to me. Waking up everyday became exciting! So many choices! How I dress still reflects my identity, but less of how society sees me and more of how I feel on a day to day basis. Some days it is more masculine, and some days it is more feminine.
Now that’s freedom. For more on this topic, please visit: