A Brief History of Drag in the Art World

  • 2017-04-18
  • Artsy

Drag has a rich cultural history, spanning cross-dressing performances and deliberate parodies of fixed roles of gender and sexuality. Men have been performing on stage as women since the Ancient Greek tragedies, Shakespeare famously cast men as women, and Baroque operas featured early examples of drag.

The term “drag queen” was first used to describe men appearing in women’s clothing in Polari—a type of British slang that was popularized among gay men and the theater community in the late 19th and 20th centuries. And while drag has long maintained a powerful presence in popular culture, more recently, it has developed a strong foothold in the art world as well.

Today, in the wake of the popular television program RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queen Conchita Wurst winning the Eurovision Song Contest, and new drag-themed club nights popping up across London, New York, and L.A., one could say that drag is in the midst of having a mainstream moment. Riding this wave of popularity are art galleries and museums. Recently, drag has been identified as an influence among major art exhibitions, like the Whitney Biennial in New York, and performance programs, like “Contemporary Drag” at NADA New York this past March. It also serves as one of the themes in the new show “Queer British Art” at Tate Britain.