Transvested Interest:The Drag Diaries
by Cassandre Creswell
My personal experience with drag has had a pretty limited scope, consisting primarily of dressing up male friends and relatives in an array of fascinating fashions from yesteryear that I dug out of a decaying trunk in our basement.
Taking my cousin Eric to the grocery store in a wig and dress and fooling even the checker had to have been the high point of my drag experience repertoire.
Of course, as a female, the world of drag just doesn't offer the feel of an intriguing fantasy for me -- I wear both women's and men's clothes all the time. Half the jeans or button-up shirts or sweaters I own were originally sold in the men's clothing section. And even if I were male, the donning of skirts, makeup and bras really doesn't have much over the classic boy garb of a baseball cap, jeans, t-shirt and no makeup.
Maybe I'm just not cut out for the newly-trendy phenomenon of drag. But that's not to say that drag's recent surfacing in the cesspool of modern pop culture doesn't deserve the attention it's receiving in movies, club scenes and fashion. Although films like the currently running, "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," can provide a neophyte with a hint of drag culture, to really get a feel for drag, you need a reference manual.
"Drag Diaries" is that book. Working it from cover to cover, "Drag Diaries" is as alluring and artful as its glamorous subjects. A combination reference guide and confessional, "Diaries" provides an overview of the topic through an array of personal interviews with some of the top names in drag. Unless you are already a drag aficionado, however, you probably won't have heard of them. For example, there's no RuPaul section, though she inevitably garners mention in several of the interviews.
Supplementing these in-depth samplings of drag life are a photo history of highlights in drag history, a chronological listing of drag films and television shows, a bibliography for further reading, a calendar of annual drag-related events and a mini shopping guide for drag essentials.
The history presents some cool personas and events from the annals of drag past. My personal favorite was the photo of a '20s flapper with gobs of eye makeup, caption reading: "'Iron Mike' Ames, football megastar, puffs away nonchalantly on his cigarette, 1927."
The filmography covers extensive chronological ground with its detailed entries. One interesting fact I derived from this film list is a confirmation of my impression that drag is really rooted in female rather than male impersonation. Less than ten percent of the works listed in the filmography featured women dressing as men.
While some listings were expected --"Tootsie," "Rocky Horror Picture Show," "M*A*S*H" -- some surprised me. I don't recall Pee Wee Herman appearing in drag in "Big Top Pee Wee." Plenty of less mainstream offerings are also listed-foreign films, silent films and a public access television show. It's a reference list with something for everyone.
The calendar and reading list are similarly well-stocked, but I was somewhat disappointed with the shopping guide. It's a two-page spread with only 11 items and little that even a drag novice couldn't figure out for himself. The average issue of Glamour magazine has more to offer an experimenter in female dressing in the way of fashion layouts and makeup tips.
Nonetheless, the shopping guide does demonstrate a key factor in the book's overall appeal-its artistic presentation. The combination of sharp fonts, arty photography and eye-pleasing layouts make not just the shopping guide, but the entire volume, a visual treat. The layering of photos and quotes gives the book the energy of a magazine without losing the depth a book format offers. Combining color and black and white printing, the fonts and photos also add to "Diaries'" slick design.
This imagery is really what makes the book work.
Reading straight through the interviews can become tedious. But exploring the text on a purely visual path from picture to picture and quote to quote-only stopping to read the surrounding text when it's juxtaposed with something eye-catching-is fun. "Drag Diaries" is the print version of a Web site or an MTV documentary. All it's missing is a disco-laden soundtrack.
So, as a fun read and an elementary reference guide, "Drag Diaries" works, but why does drag even merit a book devoted to it? Popular culture births a new hot topic every month it seems, but rarely does one have such deep roots in the essence of human psychology. Gender identity ultimately derives from an identity of self beyond gender. Drag doesn't just ask what does it mean to be male or female, but what does it mean to be me?
Drag raises controversy within the gay community. It influences the fashion industry. And even before it arose as the new glam twist for a movie plot, it's appeared in human societies throughout history. These are what make drag more than just a garden variety fad.
Drag screws with the psyche.
RuPaul says you're born naked and everything you put on after that is drag.
What does dressing like a woman or a man allow one to feel or experience?
Read the book.
Buy some lipstick.
Wear a tie.