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“You betta werk!” How drag culture changed the fashion world

It was RuPaul Charles, the world’s first drag queen supermodel, who coined the phrase “you’re born naked and the rest is drag.” It’s certainly intended as a positive message on the blurring of gendered stereotypes, but it also perfectly illustrates fashion’s flirtation with drag culture – of which we’ve seen a resurgence in recent years.

His modelling contract with MAC Cosmetics in 1993 was female impersonation’s first breakout into the mainstream fashion world, with national US billboards featuring him in full drag. However, the foundations for this inevitable foray were laid a decade prior, in the underground ball culture of the 1980s.

Centred in New York City, the gay and transgender community would gather in clubs to participate in highly structured runway competitions. At a time when both poverty and LGBT homelessness were prevalent, the balls allowed its participants to aspire towards the luxury and decadence of the fashion world. As these individuals continued to read up on Vogue and wear stolen designer clothes, the term ‘voguing’ was coined. Contrary to popular belief, Madonna’s titular 1990 song and video ‘Vogue’ did not invent the highly stylised dance move – rather it served only to immortalise drag’s influence on the fashion world, catapulting ball culture out of the underground.

One of the first purveyors of voguing, Willi Ninja, walked for Jean-Paul Gaultier before working as a runway coach. A league of successors followed – let us not forget the inimitable Miss Jay Alexander, declared by Tyra Banks as a “runway/diva coach extraordinaire,” who featured for no less than 18 seasons on America’s Next Top Model. It’s obvious then that drag has, albeit subtly, paid its dues. What’s encouraging however is that the fashion world is finally repaying the favour; whereas the world of fashion once influenced drag, now its taking its cues from gender bending – just in time for drag’s renaissance age.

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Fashion designer Marco Marco, who has styled the likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, featured several notable drag queens in his new collection for LA’s Style Fashion Week. Female impersonators have also recently turned music video stars for pop icons such as Cher and Lady Gaga (who is regularly influenced by drag culture), but contrary to Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, these references aren’t exploitative, they’re celebratory.

Of course, the fashion world is no stranger to gender ambiguity without drag’s influence, but if last year’s response to male model Andrej Pejic taught us anything, it’s that gender ambiguity is still considered ‘other’ outside of magazines.

It’s critical then that drag continues to have an active role in fashion – not just to enrich, but to educate.

This article first appeared in Issue 288 of Concrete, UEA’s student newspaper. View it here

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