‘They helped to win the war’: the surprisingly mainstream history of drag

Drag performer Danny La Rue in 2000
Drag performer Danny La Rue in 2000 - Martin Godwin/Getty Images

Over the past year, conservative commentators and activists in the UK have identified a new enemy in the culture war: drag performance. Traditionally involving men dressed as women or women dressed as men in the context of a performance, present-day drag is readily defined, more capaciously, as a kind of performance that comments on gender. The Honor Oak Pub in London, which hosts events where drag artists read children’s books aloud, attracts a regular crowd of Right-wing protesters, who in turn attract pro-drag counter-protesters. These anti-drag protests are on the rise in the UK and internationally and are garnering greater media attention.

More recently, social conservatives have expressed outrage over drag artist Cheryl Hole’s participation in Celebrity MasterChef. Regarding Hole and drag in general, Lucy Marsh of the Family Education Trust declared, “MasterChef is a family show and drag is not family-friendly in any circumstances – it’s highly sexualised, niche, adult-only entertainment.” This is a totally ahistorical statement, as I will explain later.

Today associated mainly with the LGBTQ movement, drag has become a pet hate among the socially conservative as part of their wider fight against liberalism. But this state of culture war was not always the case. There were many decades when small-c conservative audiences and institutions appreciated drag. It has, for centuries, been associated with “pansies”, “nancies”, and other gender-nonconforming people. Yet, many conservatives in the past were not threatened by this feature of drag. A great number saw it as part of the fun.

The first published use of the word “drag” as relating to cross-dressing occurred in a May 1870 issue of Reynolds’s News, describing the arrests of two female impersonators, Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park. Police had apprehended the pair outside London’s Strand Theatre and charged them with conspiracy to commit sodomy. During Boulton and Park’s trial, which ended in their acquittal, the court heard that the duo had not always aroused such controversy. Boulton and his skilful female impersonations had been feted in localities such as Scarborough and Essex, where his onstage antics were enjoyed by clergymen and nobility.

The Royal family and the military have historically enjoyed a fond relationship with drag. In 1906, King Edward VII invited glamorous American female impersonator Julian Eltinge to perform at Windsor Castle. Since the inception of the Royal Variety Performance in the 1910s, male and female drag has played a conspicuous role in the event. Drag artists who have appeared at Royal Variety Performances have included male impersonator Vesta Tilley in 1912; pantomime dame Clarkson Rose in 1928; Arthur “Old Mother Riley” Lucan in 1934; drag ventriloquist Bobbie Kimber in 1947; and male impersonator Hetty King in 1958. Entertainer Danny La Rue appeared three times during the 1960s and 1970s.

Les Rouges et Noir with manager Captain Makeham at the Savoy Theatre in 1919
Les Rouges et Noir with manager Captain Makeham at the Savoy Theatre in 1919 - Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Following the First World War, the War Office and General Henry Horne offered logistical and financial support to an important project: a troupe of ex-servicemen drag performers called Les Rouges et Noirs. The ensemble got their start entertaining fellow servicemen in wartime concert parties and went on to stage hugely popular revues all over Britain for the general public between the wars. They also had their own film franchise. Their film, 1930’s Splinters, was one of the very first British-made “talkies”.

Les Rouges appealed to theatregoers’ patriotism and desire for informative, yet pleasurable war-themed entertainment. In a 1919 article about Les Rouges’ first revue for the public, also called Splinters, The Daily Telegraph commended the ensemble’s service: “It is quite easy to believe that those who made and performed that revue helped to win the war. How many tens of thousands of Tommies might have lost something of their indomitable British spirit and grit but for the stimulus at times of such jolly, honest fun as they got out of Splinters!”

The performers’ alluring female impersonations were also key to Les Rouges’ appeal. “Little captivating tricks that come unconsciously to the girl who has always been one are copied with excruciating fidelity by the temporary ladies of the company,” gushed London Opinion. Theatre programmes simultaneously emphasised Les Rouges’ wartime bravery and their sexiness in drag. One programme recounted the time the troupe daringly returned to an evacuated camp to retrieve frocks they had left behind, with “shells screaming overhead”. “And, of course,” added the programme, “they get love letters, treasured as souvenirs of a unique engagement.”

A 1950 handbill for the ex-servicemen's drag revue This Was the Army
A 1950 handbill for the ex-servicemen's drag revue This Was the Army

The attitude towards drag from the British Establishment was not clear-cut. For example, a 1958 Notting Hill drag show, We’re No Ladies, was described by one audience member as a “smutty, badly performed homosexual orgy”. Yet the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Britain’s state censor up until 1968 and once described as “a masculine redoubt of cultural conservatism”, was surprisingly emollient. In the show’s defence, they argued: “There is no law which prevents female impersonation on the stage; it is in fact as old as the stage,” while adding, “we can’t refuse to license a piece on the grounds that it may be performed by pansies.”

Those who were uncomfortable with the permissive zeitgeist of the 1960s found a champion in drag queen Danny La Rue. La Rue’s audience, described by his biographer as “well-dressed, respectable … (few under 35 and many over 50)”, found comfort in the entertainer’s glitzy and quaint routines. The 1970 stage show Danny La Rue at the Palace saw La Rue critique sacred cows of the previous decade’s counterculture, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and – with no evident self-awareness – Mick Jagger’s feminine dress.

Offstage, La Rue complained about various perceived signifiers of moral decay, including homosexuality (La Rue was himself gay, though not publicly open about it until late in his career) and even the abandonment of the Latin Mass post-Vatican II. La Rue saw his eponymous Mayfair club, open from 1964 to 1972, as a safe haven for theatregoers who yearned for old-fashioned light entertainment instead of the kitchen-sink drama and live sexual entertainment that had proliferated in London’s theatre scene. “We also gave dignity back to the 1960s,” the entertainer proclaimed of his club, “at a time when society was in danger of running riot.”

La Rue was even trusted around children, in contrast with anxieties about drag performances for children today. In a review of 1968’s Queen Passionella and the Sleeping Beauty, the Daily Mail concluded that La Rue “has a likeable way with children”, despite his jokes about “the Kama Sutra, whipping, Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine”.

It is ironic that there is now a reactionary attitude towards drag, when many Britons, from all walks of life, embraced it for so long. As is so often the case, we need to look at the past to find a sensible corrective.

Drag: A British History by Jacob Bloomfield is published on September 12 (RRP £25) by the University of California Press