Drag Queens have recently become a popular fixture in the entertainment industry (thanks, RuPaul), but their trousered counterparts – Drag Kings – are less widely known of. In fact, women have been dressing as men and ‘performing masculinity’ on stage for centuries, from regency actresses in breeches to music hall stars in top hats and tails. Here is a rundown of the long history of the drag king…
Throughout history, women have generally been prevented from acting in public, from as far back as ancient Greece. Instead, women’s parts were played by male actors in drag well into the Shakespearean era. The first woman to tread the English boards was in 1629, as part of a visiting French company – she was booed off the stage.
In 1642 the Puritan government passed an ordinance to ban theatrical performances altogether on the grounds that they were overindulgent and unseemly. When theatres re-opened eighteen years later under King Charles II, women were finally allowed to appear. While this eliminated the need for ‘boys in dresses’, a new phenomenon surfaced – women in trousers.
Known as ‘breeches roles’, a huge number of Restoration plays featured male parts intended for women to play. Breeches roles were a popular novelty in a time when clothing was extremely restrictive depending on gender.
It must have been very liberating for the actresses to subvert the conventions of the time, and many women in the theatre made their living playing only ‘breeches’ parts. These types of roles in the eventually began to die out as social norms changed, but cross-dressing became a mainstay of Victorian Music Hall performance.
Music Hall (known as Vaudeville in the US) consisted of variety acts including comedy sketches and sing-alongs to popular songs. Both male and female impersonators were sought after acts.
Vesta Tilly was the most successful male impersonator of her day, touring both Britain and America for more than three decades. A child star, Tilly first appeared on stage when she was three years old, with her father who was a comedy actor. At six, she appeared dressed as a boy for the first time, singing opera.
After this, she preferred to perform in exclusively male clothes.
“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” – Vesta Tilly
Tilly was largely a comedic actress, most famously in the part of the London ‘swell’ Burlington Bertie, strutting across the stage in a tuxedo and flirting with the girls in the audience. Her songs such as ‘Following in Father’s Footsteps’, ‘The girls I’ve left behind me’ and ‘Naughty Boy’, portrayed a rakish young ‘man about town’, though she also performed more sentimental love songs directed at women.
Another popular entertainer was Ella Shields, an American woman from Baltimore who became famous in the London Halls for her parody of Vesta Tilly’s ‘Burlington Bertie’. Shields’ version was ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ – a young man who dressed the part of an aristocrat without the money to match.
Shields toured the world as a male impersonator, and was known as ‘Bertie’ rather than Ella almost everywhere she went.
During the heyday of Music Hall (from the mid-1800s to the 1920s) it was also common for male impersonation acts to play soldier boys – adopting the uniforms of the British army in the Boer and First World wars. Hetty King popularised a number of songs from the trenches of World War One in her 1916 act ‘Songs the Soldiers Sing’.
The first male impersonator to become famous in America was English performer Annie Hindle, who immigrated to New York City in 1868. Hindle toured the country and was extremely successful, earning rave reviews wherever she went.
While Vesta Tilly, Ella Shields and Hetty King all generally dressed in women’s clothes in their private lives and all married men, Annie Hindle’s career came to an abrupt end in 1886 when she fell in love with and married her dresser – Annie Ryan.
Hindle dressed in male attire for the Baptist ceremony, giving the name Charles. This was not to be her last marriage; by 1892 Ryan had passed away and Hindle was re-married to a woman called Louise Spanghel.
“Annie has once before done the same thing. In fact once she was a bride; twice she has been a groom. Once she had a husband and twice has she had a wife. Once she was a widow, once a widower and now she is a husband again.” – Daily Illinois State journal, Friday 22nd July 1892.
The Jazz age
By the 1920s Music Hall and Vaudeville were in decline due to the advent of cinema as well as the American Depression. Social norms and gender identity continued to be challenged in other ways – step in Gladys Bentley.
A hugely talented jazz pianist and singer, Bentley began her career as a nightclub singer in a gay speakeasy in Harlem.
Openly lesbian, Bentley was big, bold and irreverent. She performed dressed in a white tuxedo and top hat, sang raunchy songs backed up by a chorus line of drag queens and flirted wildly with the women in the audience. She even claimed to have married another woman (unnamed).
The rise of McCarthyism in America meant that Gladys Bentley had to tone down her act. She began to wear dresses, married a man and, even more tragically, attempted to ‘cure’ herself of homosexuality.
Bentley was not the only LGBT woman to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. Other popular Jazz singers included Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, both of whom had relationships with other women.
On 28th June 1969, the New York police carried out a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a notorious
gay nightclub. This was not the first raid of its kind, but this time would be very different. As crowds outside began to congregate, chanting ‘gay power’ and booing the police, the mood changed.
Things began to escalate when a woman – described by witnesses as a ‘typical New York butch’ was escorted into a police wagon from which she repeatedly escaped, running back into the crowd each time. She had been hit on the head with a police baton and was bleeding from the wound as she wrestled with the officers attempting to subdue her and yelled at the crowd; “Why don’t you guys do something?!”
This moment is described as a turning point in the Stonewall rebellion, as once the woman was finally thrown into the wagon, the crowd went ‘berserk’.
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience — it wasn’t no damn riot.” – Stormé DeLarverie
Since that night, the woman has been called ‘the Rosa Parks of the gay community’ and has been identified by witnesses and by herself as Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian drag performer.
“Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumoured that she did, and she said she did,’ – Ms. Cannistraci, owner of the Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson.
DeLarverie had already made a name for herself on the entertainment circuit as a drag king, and had been photographed by Diane Arbus. She performed as part of the Jewel Box Revue, America’s first racially integrated drag revue during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Even after Stonewall, Stormé DeLarverie continued to serve New York’s LGBT community. In the ‘80s and ‘90s she worked as a bouncer in various lesbian bars and was also the Chief of Security and later Vice President of the Stonewall Veterans Association.
“Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls”. … She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero.” – DeLarverie’s obituary in The New York Times (2014)
- The 2004 film Stage Beauty directed by Richard Eyre fictionalises the life of Edward Kynaston a restoration era actor who played women’s parts. Clare Danes plays a young woman who aspires to be an actress.
- A lesbian relationship between two Victorian male impersonators is central to the plot of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which was also made into a TV miniseries in 2003.
- 1982 film Victor Victoria set in 1930s Paris and Starring Julie Andrews as a male impersonator. Andrews had met Ella Shields while she was still alive and likely used her as inspiration.
- Drag King
- English Renaissance Theatre
- Breeches Role
- Vesta Tilley
- Ella Shields
- Hetty King
- Annie Hindle
- Gladys Bentley
- Stormé DeLarverie