In Drag: The Complete Story, Simon Doonan offers a summary of drag from the ancients to RuPaul. Doonan’s book is not a history in the traditional sense. Rather, it comprises nine chapters covering topics such as Glamour, Butch, Comedy, and Radical drag. The chapters variously contain historical essays, examples of cross-dressing both ancient and contemporary, profiles and anecdotes of individual drag artists, and plenty of photographs. Like its namesake, the book is nothing if not lavishly visual.
Drag was once defined, in Doonan’s words, as “women’s clothing worn by a man—or vice versa—for the purposes of entertainment.” All manner of male and female impersonators can fit this definition, even if they wouldn’t necessarily have used the term. Thus it can include male actors playing female roles in classical Greek, Shakespearean, or Japanese theater; female performers who wear men’s attire, such as Gladys Bentley and Annie Lennox; the “soldiers in skirts” of World Wars I and II; and the likes of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Divine—all of whom make appearances in Doonan’s book.
These performances are a far cry from the drag of RuPaul and modern pride parades, with its masklike makeup, outrageous costumery, and lip-synching to pop stars. And they do not capture the limitless spectrum of artistic styles, gender identities, and sexual orientations that characterizes contemporary drag. There are transgender drag artists, “bearded divas” like Conchita Wurst, and much more besides.
Within each chapter, we bounce merrily from anecdote to anecdote, queen to queen, century to century, only to do it all over again in the next chapter. This makes for a highly entertaining ride, but it does have some drawbacks.
For one, there is the organization of the book, which sometimes leads to non sequiturs. The book opens in the early 1970s and wends its way through Glamour, Art, Butch, and “Black” drag before turning back the clock several thousand years to the ancient Egyptians in the chapter on Historical drag. We then learn about Comedy and Popstar drag, ending with nonbinary musician Shamir and YouTuber Alaska Thunderfuck, before segueing into Movie drag by going back again to 1959’s Some Like It Hot. Organizing the book by chronology and tradition would, in my view, have made for a more readable story.
Then there is the chapter on “Black” drag. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to profiles and stories of a number of individual artists, and Doonan correctly credits drag artists of color for their great achievements and contributions to the field. But he also writes of the “black drag queen…an enduring icon of fascination and inspiration,” who has a “unique black irony and wit,” who is “comedic,” “glamorous,” and “fierce.” Summarizing an entire tradition, with all of its diversity of cultures and styles, into one “black drag queen” who possesses all of these qualities seems an unfortunate turn of phrase.
And in his attempt to span three and one-half millennia of drag history, Doonan casts his net so wide that he cannot always give important personalities and issues the space they deserve. Activist and Stonewall participant Marsha P. Johnson is covered only very briefly; and while the book is peppered with mentions of RuPaul, a thorough coverage of her career, importance, and influence is lacking. Doonan also raises important issues, but he doesn’t always follow through: “What is fuelling drag now? Better to ask what isn’t fuelling drag now.” That’s not an answer.
That said, Doonan, a longstanding member of the New York fashion community, has spent years following the drag scene. I learned a lot from Drag, and I was certainly entertained. It is lovely to pick the book up, look at the photographs, and read a paragraph or two—knowing that I will come back to it before long.
Simon Doonan: Drag: The Complete Story (Laurence King, 2019) · Illustration by gay·F·fect: Images from Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Collection, and Flickr; photograph of RuPaul by David Shankbone/CC BY 3.0; rainbow sparkle by Peter Burka/CC BY-SA 2.0.