A ball in the film 'Paris is Burning'twitter/illuminema

Content Note: This article contains discussion of HIV/AID and physical violence.

Fashion can truly be about survival.

Drag and transformation through fashion have historically been harnessed as a means to contend with the world. In particular, ball culture took off in the late nineteenth century in New York, as underground communities organised masquerade balls known as “drags” when hate crimes and discrimination were rife. The main participants were African-American and Latin-American youth, who defied laws banning individuals from wearing clothes associated with the opposite gender. Judged unfairly and excluded due to predominantly white authority figures, they set up their own balls in the 1920s: this is when ball culture truly began, and was an early incarnation of what was captured in the iconic documentary Paris is Burning (1990).

Extravagence was key in the ball scenetwitter/illuminema

The role of fashion and drag transformation in balls can be seen in the categories individuals walked and competed in, especially those highlighting ‘realness’. These categories — such as ‘Butch Queen Realness’, ‘Femme Queen Realness’, and ‘Realness with a Twist’ — were designed to both epitomise and satirise genders and social classes, as competitors were judged by their ability to blend in respectively with male heterosexuals, cisgender women, and both. Exuding ‘realness’ was a transformative act, as participants elegantly and performatively assimilated into the gender norms of society. This, however, was in no way an act of giving into social subjugation and rigidity. Queer emulation and aspiration into traditional gender roles in itself subverted the binary as transgender women and drag queens luxuriated in their realness. In the face of horrific oppression, queer people of colour thus stuck their tongues at the gender constructs and social oppression of white America.

“queer people of colour thus stuck their tongues out at the gender constructs and social oppression of white America”

Another category titled ‘Executive realness’, for example, is meditated on in Paris is Burning by Dorian Corey:

“Now, the fact that you’re not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just a pure thing. Black people have a hard life getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight. In a ball room, you can get anything you want.”

Anyone could transform into executives and exude their power, whilst in society they were denied access to it. As legendary queen Pepper Labeija declared, “You can become anything and do anything, right here, right now. It won’t be questioned”. Putting on a suit and donning a briefcase bestowed power, freedom and acceptance to its wearer; performance and presentation, including voguing, were key to achieving true ‘realness’. Fashion in the drag balls went beyond ornamentation of the body — it was transformation of the self. By way this transformation through fashion, the true, empowered self was accessed; by adorning the body, the burdens of race and queerness were lifted off. Fashion was synonymous with embodiment. As Corey’s quote continues:

A look of opulence in 'Paris is Burning'twitter/illuminema

“You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because I can look like one, and that is fulfillment.”

The aspiration of drag balls is inextricable from fashion. Voguing, a style of dance originating from these balls, was inspired by poses in high fashion magazines such as the eponymous Vogue. Voguers struck angular and rigid poses to the beat in imitation of high fashion models in the magazines. Drag queens would pretend to apply makeup, style hair and don extravagant clothing while voguing, once again performing gender, aesthetics and aspiration, in this case through movement. Drag houses, furthermore, took their names from fashion houses. The House of Saint Laurent was founded by Octavia St Laurent in 1982; contemporary houses competing today (in the televised series Legendary) include the Houses of Balmain, Lanvin, Balenciaga and Miyake-Mugler. These houses channel luxury and glamour, and themselves operate as chosen families for those alienated by their biological ones. Amidst immense pain and persecution, confidence and hope permeate the drag balls. Venus Xtravanganza is captured on Paris is Burning declaring:

'Paris is Burning'twitter/illuminema

I want a car. I wanna be with the man I love. I want a nice home away from New York, up the Peekskills or maybe in Florida - somewhere far, where no one knows me. I want my sex change. I want to get married in church in white. I want to be a complete woman and I want to be a professional model behind cameras in the high fashion world. I want this, this is what I want, and I’m gonna go for it.

“Fashion was not merely external assimilation or aesthetic emulation; it was a portal to and a building block of this alternative world”

Ballroom culture was about creating an alternative society, about treading a new world. For Venus Xtravaganza, the expression of gender through fashion helped alleviate what we would now term gender dysphoria, and achieving ‘realness’ was a confirmation of her assimilation. This alternative world was possible to her. José Esteban Muñoz, a scholar on queer politics and aesthetics, describes that “the here and now is a prison house — we must strive in the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality to think and feel a then and there”. Within these ballrooms scattered in a few cities in America, alternate worlds were created in which persecution due to queerness and race were absent. Fashion was not merely external assimilation or aesthetic emulation; it was a portal to and a building block of this alternative world. To enjoy the pleasures of the present was impossible, and drag ball culture instead looked incessantly towards the future, bringing this utopia into the present for moments, however transient, through fashion and performance.


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This story is tinged with tragedy. The HIV/AIDS epidemic swept the ball community and continues to do so today. Venus Xtravananza was found dead, strangled under a bed in a hotel in New York. Drag balls did not guarantee survival, but provided temporary shelter and strode into the future, extending their lives beyond temporality. Drag and fashion kept individuals alive by keeping alive their aspirations, empowerment, queerness, and selfhood.

Fashion became political because aesthetics and appearances were politicised. It became political because race and physicality were grounds for oppression, because gender expression and sexual orientation were policed. Fashion was a means to survive the oppression of reality and to construct a new world beyond it; it was a means to restore dignity, confidence and power amidst a world that vehemently denied it from them. Achieving selfhood and survival was in itself political.