On January 22, 2005, Melania Knauss married The Donald. At the door of the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida, she was crowned with an aureole of photographers’ flashbulbs. Her body was dressed in a Christian Dior haute couture gown, a gargantuan confection of 1,500 crystals and 300ft of virginal white silk satin, whose cost reportedly sat somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000. She looked like a queen.
That was the intention – not only of the Trumps, but of the gown’s creator, John Galliano, whose autumn/winter 2004 haute couture collection (whence that wedding gown originated) was dedicated to Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Beneath an arch of plumped-up jumbo roses, on a mirrored magenta catwalk, 29 variations on the theme emerged, hiked up on towering 12in platforms, crowns wobbling, make-up dripping from sweaty brows, dresses trussed around tightly corseted waists. The cumulative effect was less imperial queen, more drag queen. And the same when Melania emerged, bustled and padded and laced, a real woman rendered unreal.
That was almost 15 years ago – long before either Trump seemed likely to enter the White House in any capacity, bar perhaps on its television screens. But that vision of theatrical (as opposed to actual) femininity feels particularly relevant now. It’s been there for a few seasons in the bubbly prom dresses, overblown rosettes and big fat ruffles at Marc Jacobs’s shows and the colour-saturated, studio-flat-scale ballgowns swelling the ranks of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino shows. For autumn/winter 2019, those two were at it again. They were joined by a general proliferation of Dame Edna-esque feathers: Mary Katrantzou created floor-length ruffled dresses smothered with plumes; Anthony Vaccarello cropped his high on the thigh for Yves Saint Laurent. In New York, young designer Tomo Koizumi presented huge dresses made from scrunchy nylon in rainbow hues that exaggerated hips and breasts to enormous proportions. They were part Mae West, part shower loofah. Back on earth, the trend for contouring – harshly carving out faux hollows and reshaping jawlines and cheekbones via heavy make-up, as popularised by the Kardashian and Jenner clans – has its roots in drag subculture. And this May, the Kardashian family figurehead Kim wore a Thierry Mugler nude silicone and silk organza dress to the Met Gala. Its built-in, body-moulding corset was so restrictive that she was unable to sit for the duration of the night. Fittingly, the event’s theme was “Camp”.
The drag performer RuPaul Charles, of the Emmy-award winning television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, has a saying: “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Truth be told, fashion’s always been a kind of drag. Glance back a few centuries and the unreality of women’s clothing – and often men’s too – is striking. Corsets were mandatory, physically and morally: in the 18th or 19th century, a woman dressed without a corset was viewed as “loose”, lacking in moral character. Jumping forward to the modern era, those styles persist: Trump’s 1980s heyday was characterised by extravagantly pouffed, ruffled and padded dresses, worn by the kind of pin-thin society women the novelist Tom Wolfe described as “social X-rays”, and created by designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro and Christian Lacroix to “compensate for the concupiscence missing from their juiceless ribs and atrophied backsides”. In short, to make boyishly thin women look like women again.
In the mid-1990s Vivienne Westwood built several collections over elaborate foundations, padded and corseted, that were, nevertheless, oddly sexless – much as a drag queen, for all her erotic emphasis, ends up hovering in an asexual hinterland. Incidentally, Westwood’s clothes have always been beloved by drag queens, boutiques unable to keep up with demand for her platform shoes in larger sizes.
Westwood wasn’t pitching for drag, nor consciously aligning herself with a drag aesthetic. It’s perhaps simply that her affinity for old-school, midcentury glamour – Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, pin-ups of her 1950s childhood – was closer to the taste of drag than the grungey slant of mainstream 1990s fashion. By contrast, today’s culture is turning consciously and generally towards drag. Maybe it’s in aesthetic protest against conservatism, to Trump’s restrictions on military service by transgender people and ongoing debates over “bathroom bans” across the US, as well as the lip-curl homophobic remarks by Boris Johnson. Or maybe it’s reflective of a genuine paradigm shift, of new generations less tied to traditional gender norms than ever before. Previously a niche programme only available stateside and watched with cultish regularity by worldwide fans on various dodgy streaming platforms, RuPaul’s Drag Race is now something of an institution – a British spin-off version is scheduled to broadcast this autumn. Much of the show’s patois is drawn from “ballrooms”, the black and Latino gay subculture documented in Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, and which also forms the basis of the Ryan Murphy FX series Pose, now entering its second season and confirmed for a third, with a cast of trans and non-binary actors.
It’s affecting the fashion industry, for sure, at the highest levels. Indya Moore, who identifies as non-binary and uses the “they” pronoun, is a break-out star from Pose. Moore is now in effect a Louis Vuitton womenswear ambassador and features in the house’s latest jewellery advertising campaign. Take cosmetics, where spokespeople are no longer restricted to slender, beautiful women for make-up and rugged, stubbled men for aftershave and razors – with nary a slither of emasculating moisturiser. The controversial beauty blogger James Charles – who shot to fame via viral videos on Instagram – was named an ambassador of cosmetic company CoverGirl in 2016 (CoverGirl is part of Coty Inc, whose 2018 turnover was $9.4bn). He was the first “CoverBoy”. In the same year, L’Oréal Paris named former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Kurtis Dam-Mikkelsen – who, when in drag, goes by the stage name Miss Fame – as a spokesperson. His contract with L’Oréal is now over, but 34-year-old Dam-Mikkelsen – who began his career in art and has worked extensively as a make-up artist – attends fashion shows and events in drag, and is represented by IMG Models and Storm. He has also released a line of Miss Fame beauty products, which launched last year with a range of lipsticks and was augmented this year with a selection of eyeshadows. “There’s only a select few of us who have genuinely broken into the industry,” says Dam-Mikkelsen, of drag queens generally and Drag Race contestants in particular. “I could count those girls on one hand.” They include himself, as well as Giovanni Palandrani (aka Aquaria), Matthew Sanderson (Detox), James Andrew Leyva (Valentina) and Paul Jason Dardo (Violet Chachki). Simon Doonan, a self-described drag enthusiast and the creative ambassador for Barneys New York, has just written Drag: The Complete Story, tracing the art form’s origins and contemporary resurgence. He grouped these drag queens together as “glamour queens”, reasoning that “drag is, first and foremost, a visual assault”.
Of them all, Dardo is perhaps the most glamorous, and probably the most successful: he is the first drag queen to front a women’s lingerie campaign (for Bettie Page Lingerie, whose namesake is an inspiration for his drag persona); has walked in three fashion shows by the Italian house Moschino; and appeared in a campaign video for Prada, alongside the actor Sarah Paulson. He also featured with Dam-Mikkelsen in a video for the cosmetics line of make-up artist Pat McGrath – who created the beauty for that 2004 Galliano-Dior show. “Innumerable drag artists have told me that I ‘invented’ contemporary drag make-up during my period with John Galliano for Dior,” says McGrath.
McGrath’s beauty range, Pat McGrath Labs, which launched in 2015, was teased with incremental product releases and a digital-facing marketing strategy. The colours are bold and extreme – the line comes packaged in baggies of glitter sequins. This April, the full range launched in Selfridges, its first UK stockist. It became the department store’s best-selling cosmetics range, achieving the highest first-month turnover of any brand in the store’s history. In July 2018, investment company Eurazeo Brands took a $60m minority stake in Pat McGrath Labs, pushing the overall value of the business past $1bn. In 2018, the line was projected to make $60m in sales. It’s notable because McGrath’s line draws heavily on drag culture – she launched it in New York with a “Voguing” ball, aping the gay subculture, rather than the Madonna spin-off – and refers to herself as “Mother”, a term again drawn from that world. And the make-up itself is intense, theatrical, heavily pigmented, statement-making. Draggy, really. “Just like me, drag artists are total beauty lovers,” says McGrath. “They are obsessed, inspired and addicted to cosmetics. I knew it would be vital to incorporate the wonderful drag community into our visuals and campaigns as a way of paying tribute and homage to individuals who inspire me.”
Cosmetics are at the forefront of the drag/mainstream culture crossover and, as evidenced above, are proving lucrative. Alongside ranges whose colour palettes and, sometimes, marketing tactics draw on drag culture, make-up specifically targeted at men is a newish excursion, with ranges by Tom Ford and Chanel, the latter marketing its year-old Boy de Chanel range with the line “beauty knows no gender”. That’s a slogan that McGrath echoes, saying “make-up has no gender”. Nevertheless, Chanel’s ranges are skin-toned, “no make-up” make-up, with a focus on skincare rather than the overt artifice of McGrath’s line. “Even in gay culture, femininity in men has always been deemed an undesirable trait,” comments Dam-Mikkelsen.
But times are changing. Part and parcel of the concept of gender fluidity is the notion that “feminine” and “masculine” are constructs – which fits in perfectly with drag. Add a hip pad to wasp a waist, and you can create a feminine illusion, balancing out the masculine shape of wide shoulders. It’s a new version of the “flatteners” women wore in the 1920s to craft a fashionably boyish silhouette. The difference now is that fashion isn’t dictating what people wear, but rather offering alternatives. And for many – including the Kardashians – after decades of dress-down, there’s something seductive about cinching and pinching and corseting yourself up into something patently fake. Westwood’s corset may still be extreme – but Spanx have become part of the everywoman’s wardrobe, and the Kardashian clan (again) repopularised waist-training girdles that could be straight out of a midcentury lingerie catalogue.
The whole shift is the antithesis of the move to deify “Old Céline” via the female-friendly aesthetic of that label’s former designer Phoebe Philo. Rather, this is a move towards fashion as bold, sweeping spectacle, patent artifice, absolute unreality. Faced with situations of extreme danger, the atavistic human response is either to flee or fight. Couldn’t this be both, at once: fleeing reality, and fighting gender conventions?
Maybe that’s a bit heavyweight. At its base, drag is fun, enjoyment, entertainment. Which great fashion can be all about too.