Drag Royalty

A critical look at clothing in Paris is Burning

If Paris is Burning, then Harlem is scorching. I’ve been an obsessed fan of Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary since I first saw it last October. Not only does the film contain costumes as fabulous and layered as the cast members themselves, but it’s also the kind of movie that everyone can take something away from, weaving endless webs of meaning and conversation.

Filmed throughout the second half of the ‘80s, Paris is Burning traces the significance of the drag ball subculture to working-class Latino and African-American gay and transgender folk living in New York City at the time. Following the lives of several of the circuit’s most colourful participants, the film looks at the shimmery and elaborate ball competitions in which contestants face off in categories like Femme Queen and Executive Realness to achieve the highest degree of likeness to the role’s “straight” counterpart. A looming presence of AIDS, violence, and racial and social Otherness make Paris one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. But there’s also an incredible amount of joy in the movie, and so much of that comes from clothing.

The first time I watched this movie, I felt as though I understood the importance of the drag balls to their participants quite easily. But it was one ball-goer’s comparison of attending a ball to “crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland” that made me question my own conception of it. Watching Paris, I could clearly see there was something magical and mythic about these over-the-top fashion events. But exactly what that was, I didn’t know.

The scene about Executive Realness filled in a few of my blanks. Unlike the Femme/Butch Queen Categories, in which cisgender men dress up to resemble women, Executive Realness involves men dressing as another kind of man: a wealthy Wall Street executive. Instead of long, delicate gowns and immaculately coiffed hair, participants don sharp suits and clean cuts. At first, the scene is puzzling: what’s the point? But Dorian Corey, the ineffable mother of the House of Corey, explains: “You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive, and therefore, you’re showing the straight world, I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one because I can look like one. And that is like a fulfillment.” And then it clicked. In wearing someone else’s “uniform,” you project both that person and another (very real) version of yourself. Because the moment you slip a silk pinstripe suit onto your own body, it becomes an extension of you. There’s a level of autonomy there, a sense of control over who you are, who you can come to be. In this way, the film documents how clothing is both a way of expressing and confirming identity. And to ball walkers, there’s something exhilarating in that.

But is clothing really what makes the man (or in this case, woman)? Watching Paris, I was overwhelmed by the cast members’ iron strength. Octavia Saint Laurent, a transgender aspiring model, talks passionately about her own drive to succeed in the industry. It’s clear that she’ll do whatever it takes to make it. And she looks the part: in a delicate black gown with brilliantly sequinned shoulders, she’s absolutely breathtaking. But I can’t accept the idea that her femininity or beauty is completely defined by the garment, or that it’s somehow compromised when she sheds the gown; it’s in her walk, her posture, the way she tilts her head. So maybe clothing is the punctuation, the finishing touch that allows her to draw out and accentuate her personality in different ways. Dress is an incredibly powerful force in the film, but it still takes a back seat to the personalities. I just think that while watching Paris, it’s important to keep in mind who wears the pants (or luscious evening gown)—literally.

One of the images in Paris that stays with me most is from one of the very first scenes. Wearing an elaborate golden gown with puffy, structured shoulders and a hat garnished with a heap of feathers, Pepper LaBeija marches steadily onto the floor. Her dress is exquisite, her walk graceful. In that moment, in her gown, she is more beautiful and famous than Liz Taylor herself, a golden goddess in her own right. There’s a comfortable confidence in her stride, and I can’t help but feel as though her tin foil-textured ensemble is in some way responsible. Maybe it’s the feel of the delicate fabric on her skin, or the sight of her own reflection in the mirror, but something about clothing herself in the garment visually empowers her in that moment. It’s a powerful scene because it raises an important question about the possibility of dress: can clothing at once transform us into something else and allow us to present our most authentic selves? As Miss LaBeija reminds us, dressing in drag is “not a takeoff or a satire, no. It’s actually being able to be this.”

text // Martina Bellisario