To mark the release of Dr Jacob Bloomfield’s new book, here’s our cheat sheet on the riotous history of British drag
There’s something special about British drag history. We’ve got campy, eccentric pantomime dames, and foul-mouthed socialists like Lily Savage, long-time favourites of working-class audiences nationwide. The likes of David Hoyle, Bloolips and today’s anarchic drag creatures are creating DIY genius, making game-changing art on a shoestring budget. In historical music halls, there’s an underrated lineage of principal boys and vaudeville stars like Vesta Tilley and Hetty King, who found global success with their comedic send-ups of traditionally masc archetypes.
These histories are increasingly being restored, and one scholar bringing them to the forefront is Dr Jacob Bloomfield, whose Drag: A British History is a wild ride. His work covers old-school dames, cross-dressing ex-servicemen and more recent histories of radical drag, and it’s proof that there’s always been an “international network of drag,” he tells Dazed.
Although a subversive art form, it’s long been wildly popular. “When theatre was becoming the major cultural language of the Victorian period, drag was at the forefront of that,” Bloomfield says. “When radio first emerged, drag was at the forefront of that.” Drag and popular culture aren’t separate; they’re interlocked.
It’s impossible to distil centuries of drag history into one book, but Bloomfield is hopeful his work will spawn others. So, in that spirit, here’s an A-Z primer that touches on some of the book’s fascinating stories, and offers a glimpse into the glimmering labyrinth that is British drag history.
A IS FOR ACTIVISM
Drag has always been political. Sure, we know that, as an art form, it throws two fingers up to gender norms and reveals the extent to which we all perform gender daily. Yet Britain has a rich history of radical drag: just think of anti-capitalist performance artist David Hoyle, canonised by a group of drag nuns as Saint David of the Avant-Garde.
Increasingly, there are drag kings, creatures and monsters creating political platforms of their own, highlighting drag history’s disproportionate focus on queens. These histories are still being written, especially as drag artists are ruthlessly politicised whether they like it or not – in 2023, even reading books to kids is framed as a radical act.
B IS FOR BLOOLIPS
Founded by Bette Bourne in a pre-gentrification Notting Hill back in 1977, Bloolips was a gloriously chaotic drag troupe known for never taking themselves too seriously.
A Bloolips show was always a riot. Songs were witty, high-octane and socialist, accompanied by tap dancing and filthy jokes. The drag was messy and unpolished, cobbled together from charity shops and topped off with a clown-like mask. The result was decidedly punk. Even as the occasional punter jeered at performers to “fuck off,” Bloolips performers can-canned across the stage with grins on their faces, taking their talents worldwide over the course of 25 years.
C IS FOR CHARLEY’S AUNT
It might seem wild to think that the most successful play of the 19th century featured a drag role, but it did. “Charley’s Aunt was the most popular play ever at the time,” says Bloomfield, pointing to its run of almost 1,500 shows in London alone.
In the 1892 original, WS Penley spends most of his time on-stage dragged up as an elderly woman, a white veil shrugged over his shoulders and a toothy grin plastered across his face. The audience laughed along as he flirted with beautiful young women in his drag dowager guise, cementing a comedic formula that pantomime dames would later revise and build upon. “You have adaptations of Charley’s Aunt on-stage and on-screen throughout the 20th century,” says Bloomfield, who points to its success as a pivotal moment in British drag history.
D IS FOR DANNY LA RUE
“Vulgar, yes, but never crude.” This was the motto of Irish-born drag superstar Danny La Rue, who paired glamorous gowns and high-femme drag with gruff, masculine outbursts, much to the delight of audiences worldwide. “A comic in a frock” was how he described himself, and it’s a formula that earned him enormous mainstream success – in the 60s and 70s in particular, he’s thought to have been one of Britain’s highest-paid entertainers.
Bloomfield’s writing on La Rue highlights his conservatism – “La Rue was constantly cultivating his respectable image by casting himself in opposition to a litany of perceived signifiers of moral decay” – but the impact he made on British drag history can’t be ignored, as exemplified by the various obituaries written after his death in 2009.
E IS FOR ELTINGE
Part of Bloomfield’s aim with Drag: A British History was to show that “international networks of drag” have always existed. In 1906, American drag entertainer and vaudeville star Julian Eltinge travelled to England, performing for an enraptured King Edward VII at Windsor Castle. “I don’t know why so many early drag shows were at Windsor Castle,” laughed Bloomfield. “I guess it was the place to be!” Eltinge is the stuff of legend – according to a recent Washington Post article, his feminine drag made audience members “swoon” – and enjoyed enormous success, a fact proven by his royal welcome.
F IS FOR FEMINIST
In February 1971, members of the British Gay Liberation Front (GLF) gathered outside Bow Magistrates Court in East London. Wearing breast plates, wigs, gowns and beauty-queen sashes, they gathered in solidarity with members of the British Women’s Liberation Movement, who had been arrested months earlier for protesting the 1970 Miss World competition.
They were there to perform a so-called “street theatre” show entitled Miss-Trial 1971, but before long, the GLF protestors were pelted with rotten tomatoes by local market traders. We know that at least one of the feminist protestors was convicted – Jenny Fortune, then 20 years old, was “convicted of breaching the peace and discharging a missile with intent to endanger the public, spending a night in Holloway Prison,” according to The Independent – but the trial marked a visible moment of queer solidarity with the early feminist movement.
G IS FOR GAY LIBERATION FRONT
Britain’s Gay Liberation Front was formed by students Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellors in a basement classroom at the London School of Economics, back in 1970. Within just a few months, meetings were drawing hundreds of members, some political novices and others well-worn activists.
Drag played a key role in the GLF’s protests, most famously in their disruption of the 1971 Nationwide Festival of Light. As the evangelical conference got started, GLF members stormed the stage dressed as drag nuns, and held steamy gay make-out sessions as attendees looked on in horror. Although short-lived, disbanding in 1974, the radical history of GLF and its drag protests live on in books like Blowing The Lid and Queer Footprints, well-documented by queer scholars and troublemakers alike.
H IS FOR HAG
According to Bloomfield, historians have traced the earliest origins of pantomime dames back to the “frightful old ‘hag’ in the ancient mythology of various cultures.” As such, the archetypal dame started out as comedically old and haggard, a slapstick character based on less-than-favourable stereotypes of elderly women.
The dame has morphed over time, becoming one of Britain’s best-loved archetypes. Every Christmas, you’ll see her drawn-on eyebrows and gaudy, exaggerated dresses in local theatres across England, feigning shock as audiences of all ages scream: “HE’S BEHIND YOU!” Bloomfield writes extensively of performers like Dan Leno, who shaped the “dame” role as we know it today; despite her “frightful” origins, she’s an undeniable staple of British drag past and present.
I IS FOR INSTAGRAM
Instagram is often critiqued – and often for good reason – but for drag artists and historians alike, it’s been game-changing.
It’s no secret that drag is expensive and poorly paid, but social media at least allows drag artists outside of big, expensive cities to get their work seen by wider audiences and celebrate their local scenes. Accounts like @dragkinghistory – the brainchild of US drag artists Mo B Dick and Ken Vegas – document the lesser-known pioneers of drag, and photographers like Peter Linden have archived their queer nightlife collections, offering glimpses of British drag scenes in recent history.
J IS FOR JOHN COOPER FIELD
In 1732, Thomas Gordon was charged with – and acquitted of – the robbery of John Cooper Field. At face value, it’s a straightforward trial transcript. Dig deeper, and you’ll find the story of Princess Seraphina, John Cooper Field’s alter-ego, and England’s earliest-known drag queen.
Trial witnesses describe Seraphina as a glamorous goddess roaming the underworlds of British “molly houses”, which Bloomfield describes to Dazed as “dens of iniquity”. Sex workers, queer people and outcasts gathered in these fabled premises, where Seraphina acted as a clandestine messenger to those who needed her. What’s interesting too is that she clearly had allies: working-class women speak highly of her in the trial, complimenting her “curled hair” and “scarlet cloak”. Clearly, Seraphina made quite the impression.
K IS FOR KINGS
Drag kings dominated the British music halls of the late 19th and early 20th century, often finding success further afield, too. Hetty King entertained troops during the First and Second World Wars, dragging up in soldiers’ and sailors’ uniforms to perform campily butch renditions of songs like Ship Ahoy! (All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor). In pantomime, there were so-called “principal boy” and “breeches” roles for gender-bending women – although Bloomfield tells Dazed that reviewers often sexualised these performers. “You would have reviewers talking about their bust measurements,” they explain. “You had this really blatant sexualisation of the principal boy.”
Historically, drag kings have been minimised and erased; now, there are countless talented performers headlining blockbuster nights, like Jamie Fuxx’s Magic Dyke, Sheffield-based Andro & Eve’s Kingdom Come and The Glory’s Man Up, led by the Adam All.
L IS FOR LILY SAVAGE
No history of British drag would be complete without Lily Savage, the iconic Scouse “blonde bomb-site” alter-ego of Paul O’Grady. Her filthy mouth and caustic wit brought radical, working-class representation to the British mainstream, but she started out as a regular at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Regularly decked out in leopard print, Savage embodied an over-the-top glamour unconcerned with femme aesthetics – in Bloomfield’s book, they describe her as the antithesis of La Rue’s conservative, polished drag. Even in his later years, Paul O’Grady ruffled feathers with socialist tirades on prime-time telly, combining the acerbic tongue of Savage with barbed, political quips. When Paul O’Grady died earlier this year, he did so as a bonafide national treasure.
M IS FOR MYSTERY GAUZE
British drag history is overwhelmingly white, so one of the most important findings made by Bloomfield throughout their research is the existence of a “Canadian-Indian artist” known only as Mystery Gauze. Dressed in an embellished, floor-length dress, she perches demurely on a long-backed chair, interlocking rows of gemstones draped around her neck.
In the book, Bloomfield explains that Gauze “toured Britain throughout the mid-1900s and then appeared there again during the mid-1910s”, seemingly utilising a mixture of high-femme drag and surprising, masculine outbursts. There’s clearly more to be uncovered, but Bloomfield’s research indicates British drag history is more diverse than current histories suggest.
N IS FOR NUNS
21st Century Nuns is a rare archival gem, freely available on BFI Player. In the ten-minute documentary, queer filmmaker Derek Jarman – who eventually gets canonised – stars alongside drag nuns with names like Sister Frigidity of the Nocturnal Emission. Together, they tell stories of the British chapters of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer and trans nuns first established in San Francisco.
These drag nuns played a pivotal role in queer activism: they supported striking miners, protested wars and delivered tongue-in-cheek safer sex education, sliding lubed-up condoms onto bananas nestled in their mouths. “It’s very difficult to arrest a nun,” quips Jarman, hailing the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – who still have active UK chapters – as trailblazers.
O IS FOR OLD MOTHER RILEY
In their book, Bloomfield describes Old Mother Riley, the drag dame alter-ego of entertainer Arthur Lucan, as “a wiry, feisty, sharp-tongued, surprisingly agile elderly woman” with a tendency to quarrel. Riley’s no-fucks-given character resonated quickly with British public, spawning a “towering media franchise” which included – but wasn’t limited to – stage plays, comic strips and gramophone records.
Lucan was particularly popular with working-class audiences, who revelled in Riley’s tongue-lashings. They supported Lucan right up until his tragic death in 1954, when he collapsed in full dame regalia in the wings of a theatre.
P IS FOR PORCHESTER HALL
In 1976, photographer Robert Workman travelled to West London’s Porchester Hall to document a glitzy, glamorous Drag Ball. The earliest mentions of “drag” in its current context can be found in invitations for costume and masquerade balls, but the Porchester Hall extravaganza was a different beast entirely, created by the satirical drag opera star, Jean Fredericks.
Workman’s images depict a night of chaos and creativity; drag sirens stalk the runway in towering feathered headpieces and bedazzled shawls, posing for the roaring crowd in their bid for one of the Ball’s fabled crowns. After Fredericks’ death in the mid-1970s, Balls continued to be held in Porchester Hall to continue her legacy – until a fetish-themed ball resulted in Porchester Hall banning future events. Yet there’s evidence of Drag Balls nationwide; in Manchester, the Temperance Ball made global headlines when it was raided by police in the 1880s.
Q IS FOR QUEER
It’s an endlessly-repeated question: just how queer is drag, really?
Despite conservative pockets of drag history, the likes of Lily Savage, Bloolips, David Hoyle, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and more have created decidedly queer, anti-establishment art; today, the likes of Chiyo Gomes, The Bitten Peach, Drag Syndrome and The Cocoa Butter Club are furthering this legacy, using drag to advocate for and celebrate marginalised artists. Some drag might rise to mainstream prominence, but the beating heart of this art form lives on the fringes.
R IS FOR REBEL DYKES
Released in 2021, Rebel Dykes gives a no-holds-barred glimpse into the lesbian squats, S&M clubs and underground scenes of 80s London. While Thatcher decimated working-class Britain with an iron fist, queer communities emerged in squatted buildings, and the so-called “rebel dykes” of the documentary carved out their own hedonistic nightlife scene.
The documentary’s success has given rise to under-discussed drag histories, too: in an accompanying art show, drag icons like Del LaGrace Volcano were celebrated alongside contemporary performers. It’s a raucous ride through the radical, smutty side of lesbian history, which adds vital new threads to existing tapestries of British queer culture.
S IS FOR SPLINTERS
After long days dodging bullets on battlefields, it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to put on drag shows to entertain each other in the barracks. Yet the unthinkable happened in 1918, when a First World War Troupe named Les Rouges et Noirs took their drag shows to the British public, debuting with a show named Splinters. “They were the first to take these shows and parlay them to the British public after the war,” says Bloomfield. “They were hugely popular; they even got institutional backing from higher-ups in the military.”
Throughout the interwar period and even later, ex-servicemen found surprising success as drag acts, sometimes relying on the juxtaposition between their masc, military garb and their high-femme alter-egos to draw in the public. It’s a complicated legacy, but one which shows that British drag history is often unpredictable.
T IS FOR THEATRE
Drag and theatre are inextricably linked: there’s even suggestion that the term “drag” is a reference to the long dresses of male actors swishing across the floor, as they played cross-dressing roles.
These histories aren't straightforward. Early drag in the UK is often traced back to Shakespearean theatre, but men cross-dressed to play these parts because women often weren’t allowed to portray them, due to widespread misogyny. The few who did break through were smeared as sex workers or “titillating diversion”, relegating them to sidekick status at best. So yes, drag and theatre are closely linked, but the link isn’t as progressive as we might initially think.
U IS FOR UNDERGROUND
Drag history is largely clandestine. In 1700s Britain, there’s scant evidence of wild, subversive drag performances being held in the aforementioned molly houses, but these bawdy houses were criminalised and raided. In the famous Mother Clap’s raid of 1725, those inside were accused of sodomy and punished harshly, sometimes by execution.
The so-called Pansy Craze blossomed in 1930s Europe, seeing audiences flock to watch glamour drag performances; in 70s London, drag troupes were formed in radical squats, and Black gay men gathered at the famed shebeen of Pearl Alcock. These underground histories are still being uncovered today; no matter how many queens amass millions of followers, drag will always have these radical roots.
V IS FOR VESTA TILLEY
In the late 19th century, Vesta Tilley mastered a number of roles: from slick, top hat-wearing dandies to campy soldiers in khaki uniforms, the male impersonator charmed audiences worldwide with her comedic performances.
Tilley’s career began with principal boy roles in pantomime, and she soon found she “felt more comfortable in boy’s clothes,” so she continued to polish up a number of male characters. Her success was extraordinary: according to some reports, she was the highest-paid woman in England during the 1890s. Tilley was one of many performers – such as Ella Shields and Florence Hines – making international waves for what we’d now call drag king performances. In an era that paid women little and afforded them even less rights, these women became global stars.
W IS FOR WORKING-CLASS
In a moment that’s been memed to death, drag’s high-femme priestess RuPaul spat: “I don’t want to see any fucking H&M!” The outburst, televised on season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, showed just how far today’s polished expectations of mainstream drag have strayed from the art form’s working-class roots.
British drag is rooted in working-class history: think Blackpool’s Funny Girls revue, decades-old X Factor stars dusting off their gowns to perform in local pantomimes, drag queens with acid tongues gleefully tearing apart audiences in working men’s clubs. Drag in the UK in particular has long been DIY and decidedly punk, and these scenes remain today.
X IS FOR X-RATED
Like any art-form, drag can be family-friendly. Today’s widespread crusades to ban Drag Queen Story Hour are rooted deeply in homophobic and transphobic stereotypes, the kind which paint queer people as deviants and “groomers”. Put simply, it’s bigoted bullshit.
Yet there are chapters of British drag history that are gloriously X-rated: think David Hoyle decrying “cunts” on-stage, drag artists stripping on-stage and even the days of Leigh Bowery’s hedonistic Taboo club night, in which he performed the famous act where he gave birth – complete with a makeshift, sausage-link umbilical cord – to a bloodied, naked woman.
Y IS FOR YOKEL’S PRECEPTOR
When I tell Bloomfield that Y will be for Yokel’s Preceptor, he cackles. “I can’t believe that guidebook is getting a new lease of life!”
Released in mid-19th century London, the guidebook warns readers to beware of “monsters in the shape of men, commonly called Margeries, Poofs etc.” Incidentally, the authors tell readers exactly where to find these so-called monsters, detailing their cruising spots and regular hangouts – it’s a little too curious. Could Yokel’s Preceptor be one of the earliest queer handbooks? Look past the language of disgust, and you’ll easy see where you could go for a good time.
Z IS FOR ZAP
When news spread that a pub in London was refusing to serve people in drag, or gay and women’s rights badges, members of the Gay Liberation Front planned one of their “zaps” – like a bolt from the blue, these direct action protests were short, sharp and designed to shock. According to an Attitude interview with early member Nettie, a handful of campaigners sat on the pub’s floor until police yanked them out, asking in posh, mocking tones: “Tell me, officer, am I in drag?”
These zaps varied in size and scale, but they were always gleefully tongue-in-cheek. When so-called “sex educators” said gay men liked shoving cucumbers inside themselves, protestors created massive, cardboard cucumbers and marched to their publishers’ offices, urging them to try it for themselves. In Highbury Fields, 150 protestors staged a “kiss-in” to protest the arrest of Louis Eaks, arrested by a plainclothes policemen for the apparent crime of asking for a lighter. Drag has long been one of many political tools used to shock straight audiences, and push for change.
British drag histories might not be as well-known as their US counterparts, but these legacies of radical, disruptive and ballsy, punk protest are increasingly being excavated, and celebrated for their innovation.