From Subculture to High Fashion: How Drag Queens are Shaping the Fashion Industry

While androgyny in high fashion has been gaining momentum for a few years, a new dynamic between masculine and feminine is now emerging in the fashion world. Dramatic, satirically feminine looks presented by male models are cropping up more and more often. This phenomenon can be connected to the hit reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition featuring the best and brightest of American drag queens. Numerous former Drag Race contestants have gone on to become associated with brands like Prada, Moschino and Jean Paul Gautier and featured in magazines such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Here is a snapshot of a few former Drag Race contestants who are shaking up and shaping female fashion.

Miss Fame: Season 7 Contestant

Fame is represented by international modelling agency IMG Models, as well as the US-based agency Wilhelmina Models, and is actively involved in the New York fashion scene. She has been photographed for a number of fashion magazines including D4 Magazine and Blanc Magazine wearing the likes of Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, Moschino, and Gucci. 

In September 2018, Miss Fame walked for Opening Ceremony at New York Fashion Week. In October 2018, Fame launched her own makeup line, which was promptly featured by Allure.

Naomi Smalls: Season 8 Runner-Up

Drag Race season 8 runner-up Naomi Smalls has acted as an Instagram Brand Ambassador for countless designers and brands, including Marc Jacobs and Giorgio Armani. Smalls also hosted an interview with rap artist Cardi B on behalf of Cosmopolitan Magazine in February of 2018.

In May 2018, Smalls was featured modelling Tommy Hilfiger for Prestige Magazine Hong Kong. Smalls is most often photographed representing smaller name designers, but this could indicate the beginning of a segue into mainstream modelling for the 25 year old performer and subculture style icon.

Violet Chatchki: Season 7 Winner

Chatchki in Paris for Paris Fashion Week July, 2018

Chatchki is foremost a high-profile burlesque performer, but she has significant high fashion connections as well.

Chatchki posing in a Miu Miu gown before a party hosted by Vogue Italia during Milan Fashion Week September, 2018

Chatchki regularly attends Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks and caused a stir in September with her avant-guard ensembles representing Prada, Moschino, Jean-Paul Gautier and Vivienne Westwood, amongst others. She has walked the runway twice for Moschino, first in a gender-bent take on a classic tuxedo in January 2018 and again in full femme glamour in June 2018. Furthermore, Chatchki has been featured in Vogue and Vogue Italia numerous times. Perhaps most notably, the model and performer was chosen as the new face of Betty Page Lingerie in November 2017.

Catchki betty page

Chachki in a promotional photograph for Bettie Page Lingerie November, 2017

As evidenced by this abbreviated account of the accomplishments of three former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, the fashion elite are increasingly acknowledging the exaggerated styles so prominent in drag culture.

Barbette

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Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions.  In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality  – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.

His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year.  In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis.  I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images.  These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.

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He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.

He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’

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His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.

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Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).

Sources:

http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/06/02/the-surreal-sex-of-beauty-jean-cocteau-and-man-ray%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cle-numero-barbette%E2%80%9D/