What is Glamour? (part 1 of 2)

I’ve written a great deal about drag queens and used the term “drag” primarily to refer to men who cross dress as women in a highly theatrical fashion.  In the past I have also used “drag” to refer to any sort of identifiable social category achieved through dress and performance.  In short, I use the term loosely and do not object, for example, when Michelle Visage describes herself as a drag queen. 

Yet what of drag kings? 

Lydia Thompson in performance drag
Lydia Thompson in performance drag

One of the most famous drag kings in recent memory was the British born Lydia Thompson (1838-1908) who made audiences swoon with her drag burlesque performances on both sides of the Atlantic. Before Ms. Thompson made her US debut in the late 1860s, we had our own impersonators, albeit far less ostentatious.  In keeping with the national character, our women were driven to cross dress for patriotic purposes.  Margaret Cochran fought in the Revolutionary War and hundreds more women dressed in man garb to fight in the Civil War.  Such military drag, however, has rather different objectives than drag for the stage.  Ms. Thompson sought to entertain in a performance context.  Women in the military sought greater social and physical mobility through passing.  Discovery led to their removal, though some women remained undeterred and simply moved on to another regiment as Lizzie Compton did after being discovered seven different times.  While such passing and donning military looks meet my broader criteria for drag, they do not make one a drag king.

Frances Clayton dressed as a man
Frances Clayton dressed as a man during the Civil War (National Archives)


Frances Clayton dressed as a woman during the Civil War (National Archives)

If the king is the queen’s complement then he should dress in a highly theatrical fashion and do so for the purpose of entertainment rather than passing in day-to-day life.  Mind you, a person is free to pass and to entertain and to become transgendered or to do some combination of the aforementioned.  Identifying cross-dressed women gets further complicated because women’s dress in general has far more variety than men’s and includes pieces that fall into in-between areas.  How something is worn, however, makes all the difference and so it goes that performance distinguishes a drag king from someone passing or just hanging out in the in-between areas of gendered dress.

Judith/Jack Halberstam
USC professor and drag king popularizer, Judith/Jack Halberstam

Certain gentle readers—generally this side of 30—will recall that about 15 years ago drag kings caused a modest urban sensation when they began performing in clubs and appearing on Pride parade floats.  USC professor Judith/Jack Halberstam helped increase drag king visibility by authoring and appearing in The Drag King Book (co-authored with Del LaGrace Volcano, 1999).  The book reflected an existing phenomenon even as it was the spark to fuel a national trend.  While drag king performers and troupes still exist, anecdotal evidence suggests they are not as popular as they were a decade ago.  For example, drag kings were not a conspicuous presence at Drag Con nor do they have a leader with the same star power and cross over appeal as RuPaul.

Diane Torr in performance drag
Diane Torr in drag looks at and through you

The artist Diane Torr is perhaps the best known drag king performer of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  She got her drag king start at the 1989 Whitney Biennial when she showed up at the opening party in men’s attire and a fake moustache.  What began as a ploy to get a few laughs from her friends turned into a decades long project that includes performances and drag king workshops.   

Since 1990, Torr has taught people all over the world the art of being a drag king.  In the early 2000s I had the opportunity to attend one of her workshops in Chicago.  At the time the Chicago Kings (2000-2005) were the city’s reigning drag king troupe and many of their members were present at the workshop.  I recall one troupe member saying to Torr, “Whenever I’m in drag and out in public I get mistaken for a gay man.  It’s not that I mind, I just want to know what I can do to pass for a straight man.”  Here the issue was one of performance in everyday life, which seemed to require more subtlety than the very theatrical stage performances.  Torr explained that in addition to dress there are nuances to the physical performance.  A drag king performance involves a great deal of posturing and taking up as much physical space as possible, often to exaggerated parodies of manliness.  Yet in day-to-day life there are smaller gestures and ways of presenting the self that are less obvious. In her response, Torr described the importance of an aloof bearing, distant eyes, and constructing an invisible wall that disconnects one from other people.  Women and gay men, she said, very often have an open expression—not a bad thing but also not how straight men typically present themselves. 

More than 10 years later, I have not forgotten Torr’s observation and have thought of it frequently in connection with dress, drag, and gender performance.  It is this distance and aloofness, which Torr assigns to straight seeming manliness that I have come to think of as being associated with glamour.  While glamorous is not a word we typically use to describe men, glamour’s essence has everything to do with creating distance in performance.  Creating distance is by no means glamour’s only ingredient.  Check back next week for a closer look at successful performances of glamour.

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