Dr. Lady J in National Geographic – From police raids to pop culture: The early history of modern drag

Jun. 05, 2023

Today’s drag queens trace their roots back to clandestine balls hosted by Black performers in the late 19th century.

Before drag queens competed for a crown and the title of America's Next Drag Superstar on the Emmy-winning show RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag emerged from two separate worlds: female impersonators in silent films and popular theater—and underground drag balls that were part of a vibrant LGBTQ subculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Because of the stigma surrounding drag, much of its history is muddled. But many modern drag queens credit drag balls as the true origin of their art form. Held in secret, these competitions were pioneered by Black and Latino performers—including one who is believed to be the first self-styled “drag queen.”

Here’s what to know about the history of drag.

A black and white image with a strong pose and gaze directly into the camera holding reeds.
RuPaul Andre Charles—known simply as RuPaul to millions of fans—holds a grass skirt over his head during a photoshoot. Perhaps the modern world’s most famous drag queen, RuPaul has won a dozen Emmy Awards for his reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race.PHOTOGRAPH BY AL CLAYTON/GETTY IMAGES

How did drag begin?

Some historians believe that drag’s early history can be traced to theater in ancient Greece and Rome, where men would play female characters. Simon Doonan, author of Drag: The Complete Story, writes that female impersonation was also part of kabuki theater in Japan and Peking opera performances in China in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively.

William Shakespeare also encouraged drag in Elizabethan theater—even using it as a major plot device when Viola disguises herself as Cesario in Twelfth Night.

(From LGBT to LGBTQIA+: The evolving recognition of identity.)

But other historians argue that drag’s true origins are a little more recent. Lady J, a drag performer with a doctorate in musicology focused on drag history, traces its debut back to 1860s Victorian England, when Ernest Boulton of the duo Boulton and Park described his cross-dressing act as “drag”—the first known use of the term. Some accounts suggest it was inspired by the petticoats the men wore that would drag on the floor as they performed.

Around the same time in the United States, female impersonators starred in racist minstrel shows, during which mostly white actors wore blackface to portray racial stereotypes of African Americans. A common character in these minstrel shows was a “yaller” gal, or a man dressed as a light-skinned Black woman, Lady J says.

As popular theater evolved to vaudeville style in the 1880s, those portrayals shifted to emulating glamorous white women with thin waists and elegant makeup—perhaps best represented by Julian Eltinge, a silent film superstar.

But even as female impersonation was all the rage in popular culture, a subculture of drag balls was emerging in the U.S.—and that’s partially due to the first self-described “queen of drag.”

A woman poses on the ground in a black and pink bodysuit.

Left: Vanity Legend poses at a drag ball held in New York City in 1988. Drag balls—where drag performers competed against one another—trace their origins back to the late 19th century where they were pioneered by Black and Latino members of the LGBTQ community.Right: Revelers celebrate Mardi Gras in 1974. Although most modern drag performers credit drag balls with the origins of their art form, others say that drag’s roots really date back to the female impersonators who have been part of theater traditions for centuries.PHOTOGRAPHS BY CATHERINE MCGANN/GETTY IMAGES

A woman stikes a pose with onlookers behind in zebra pant and top.
A black and white image of a dance class.

Left: A performer strikes a pose during a drag ball in Harlem in 1988. The New York City neighborhood is where the ballroom scene flourished.PHOTOGRAPH BY CATHERINE MCGANN/GETTY IMAGESRight: Anthony Truly, a drag performer, leads a dance class at a gym in New York City in 1997.PHOTOGRAPH BY INGE MORATH/MAGNUM

Who was the first drag queen?

Few traces remain of the earliest drag balls because participating in them was extremely risky due to gender and social stigmas.

But Lady J says that drag balls can be largely credited to Black and Latino performers. Excluded from or prevented from winning pageants held for white drag performers and female impersonators, Black drag artists began to host their own competitions.

Some scholars believe that annual galas held in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood paved the way in the late 1860s. But others argue that William Dorsey Swann’s dance parties in Washington, D.C. are the first concrete evidence we have of drag balls.

Born enslaved in 1858 in Maryland, Swann began to host drag balls as early as 1882. He was also the first in history to describe himself as a “queen of drag,” a precursor to the modern drag queen.

Swann’s story came to light in 2005, when Channing Joseph, a writer and historian, found an 1888 report in The Washington Post about a police raid on Swann’s home. The report said Swann’s guests wore satin dresses and fascinators and likely competed in a cakewalk, a dance resembling voguing that enslaved people had invented to mimic plantation owners. Swann tried to prevent the police from entering, which Joseph writes allowed a few guests to escape before he was arrested.

These parties had been going on in secret for years, with invitations whispered among men—each facing the possibility of arrest for charges related to prostitution or homosexuality. As Joseph wrote in a 2020 essay for The Nation, Swann’s home had also been raided in 1887, and he had also served a short jail sentence in 1882 after he was caught stealing party supplies.

Swann and his drag balls were also pioneers in another sense: as defenders of the queer community’s right to assemble. Not only had Swann attempted to fight the 1888 arrest, but in 1896, he also wrote to President Grover Cleveland to demand a pardon—but he was denied.

A speia toned image a woman stands hands clasped in front of a heavy curtain dressed in an ornate gown.
Two people stand together with brightly colored clothing.

Left: French vaudeville female impersonator Robert Bertin wears an ornate gown for his character Anna Thibaud, an opera singer. PHOTOGRAPH BY LYON BIOLETTO, ARCHIVIO GBB/CONTRASTO/REDUXRight: Two members of an LGTBQ group pose during the 1995 Gay and Lesbian Freedom Festival in Washington, D.C. The festival is the origin of the capital's pride celebrations held annually in June.PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK REINSTEIN/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

The legacy of drag balls

Drag balls began to flourish in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 20th century, as recorded in Langston Hughes’s 1940 autobiography. This evolved into the Harlem ballroom community, portrayed in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning.

(How the Harlem Renaissance helped forge a new sense of Black identity.)

Drag balls still continue around the world, and their effects reverberate through not only drag culture, but also mainstream culture. For example, voguing became the basis for Madonna’s hit song of the same name, and Mae West’s famous line “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” is derived from drag comedian Bert Savoy's lisp-filled bit, Lady J says. Plus, modern slang adapted many terms originally used in balls, like “yas,” “work,” and “shade.”

And the legacies of individual drag queens still live on, especially of Swann: D.C. officials recently rededicated a street to be named after the icon.