Drag and fashion: a conversation with Lady J and Banksie

“Where is the line where the artist is being respected and seen versus where that artist is just being exploited?”

Drag and fashion have an arguably symbiotic relationship. This emerged in the 90s, and has been boosted in last five years when drag performers have been spotted lining runway front rows. Their presence is arguably the work of RuPaul. The reality show Drag Race has bolstered drag to a new realm of commerciality with successful queens from the show starring in high fashion campaigns and releasing their own lines of products.

But how beneficial is this, does it amalgamate drag into one brand of performer (or product) or is it beneficial to represent this art form which has been drawn on for decades?

Speaking to drag historian and performer Lady J, and Drag Race Series five queen, Banskie, questions are answered about drag’s history, the homogenisation of drag race, virtue signalling and what follows drag’s popularity.

Q: How do drag and fashion overlap?

Lady J: “I would say drag and the fashion industry has been a big two way street for a long time because drag has been influencing what you define as fashion? Is glamour fashion? Is glamour style? Glamour is a huge thing in drag and fashion is constantly pulling tricks from drag, but often fashion does get very directly appropriative.”

“I think the problem comes when there’s not credit. When the artist is involved, that’s a different thing. There have been many shows, for instance, Mugler. Mugler uses Joey Arias, a famous drag performer who was partners musically and theatrically with Klaus Nomi. Since early 80s, late 70s (and) has been one of Mugler’s muses, her silhouette, the way she creates her character has really become a of part of his…oeuvre, she’s part of his whole shtick.”

“And so I think that’s very different from a fashion designer who says, see something on television, on drag race, and goes, ‘I’m going to yank this’, or ‘I’m going to put that person in one of my costumes because that’s going to get us attention’. So I think it’s really important what that relationship looks like. Because I think there are lots of instances where the relationship between fashion and drag is very symbiotic. Where drag performers can be lifted up by their style being pulled into what a designer’s work is.  I think that’s very different from a lot of what’s going on now, and it happened in the 90s during kind of the drag craze when Paris is Burning came out and Madonna was doing Vogue.”

“I often wonder what is the real difference between those things? Where is the line where the artist is being respected and seen versus where that artist is just being exploited?”

Image courtesy of: Banksie

Banksie: “I think that people expect drag, and drag queens to belong in a certain vehicle and belong in a certain place, be it an underground club, Drag Race, or a very small sort of belonging. And I think that as we get to a position where we can appear in campaigns, and do press and do runways and appear on the red carpet, it shows that we’re not just one thing. You know, drag is a vehicle for a lot of those to experience our queerness and to experience a gender identity.”

“And I think that to finally open the door for us to be seen in a place that is every day, in the daylight, where we can be seen every single day, by the working man. (It) makes me feel like we’re moving in the correct positions, socially, to accepting all different types of queer people. We’re all very different people with very different opinions and points of view, and places we want to go with our drag. And I think that that needs to be celebrated even higher”

Q: Is there an element of virtue signalling:

Lady J: “I think a lot of it comes down to credit, and what the involvement in that process looks like. But I will also say that queens who can work with editorial looks, and who do those fashion looks, tend to make a crap load of money. So it can be really, really beneficial. Violet Chachki is one of the most in demand people out there because of her fashion status and it does get you to a whole other level.”

“Its about the level of involvement of the drag queen. If you’re just throwing somebody in a seat to be like, Oh, that person’s here, who cares? You’re going to get a couple extra flashbulbs going off, ‘Oh, so and so’s in the audience’. It’s going to be signposting. It’s going to be virtual signalling. It’s going to be all that sh*t. If you really want to empower a drag performer, pick someone who designs, ask them to collaborate with you.”

“I get at the end of the day, you want a drag queen to stand on this spot. Do you even really care that it’s me? It’s like there are a lot of people who pull drag in and they don’t really know what they’re doing. They don’t understand how to use it. They don’t understand what the audience it is for. And a lot of people just throw drag on top of something to see if we can get more people to look at it”

Banksie: “I think it all has to do with the pink pound. And it all has to do with how companies actually invest themselves within our community, rather than just dipping their toe in order to get their money out of us.” 

“A lot of businesses will see what we can invest in them, and they will signpost and sort of dip their toe into our community in order to get some money out of us, when actually there are genuine companies out there. And genuine support from companies and people within those companies who are LGBT.  I think that that’s the most important thing that we should be watching right now.”

Image courtesy of: Banksie

Q: Has Drag Race homogenised drag and fashion:

Lady J: “(It) also speaks to what what drag race pushes people toward. It pushes people towards figuring out how to create something marketable. So people don’t really do singles, produce singles. People who don’t really do makeup lines produce makeup lines because everyone’s trying to figure out how do I turn my reality show status into money?”

“Most people look like the same drag queen. They’ve got a similar cut crease, contour, and lip. Maybe the shade’s different. Maybe the colour’s a little different. But some people may be like, ‘Don’t you ever get bored with that look you do now?’”

“That yields a lot of really bland results. I don’t blame these young performers for being that way, but the reality is it’s Drag Race. Drag Race has made it very homogenised, because that show, since day one, has really said drag is about fashion, drag is about glamour, and being slightly funny. Not that funny. the show isn’t about comedy, the show is primarily about: can you do fashion, and can you do fashion funny. And then can you act, could you do acting in a commercial, can you do the basics of being in the entertainment industry? That’s a lot of what that show is about, but I think performers don’t realise what options they have. They don’t know that there are drag performers who make equal livings to drag race performers that they’ve never even heard of.”

Drag may be reaching its saturation point but for now, its commercial reality sees more and more queens involved in fashion. Drag as an ‘art’ has been a longstanding spectacle but now it may be transforming into a marketing ploy or product. What direction fashion and drag take will change as each season of Drag Race premiers and how longstanding the mainstream interest is with performers.

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