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

Men in Dresses, Dry Cleaning Mysteries, and Packing like it’s 1889

Karen Wornette makes some fascinating discoveries on the web

Hats off (but dresses on) to our Kurdish Feminist Brothers
By Dilar Dirik
The photographs capture the Brothers-in-dresses face on, shoulders back, and confident in their stance. In a regime that punishes a man who commits an act of domestic violence by sentencing him to walk the city streets in traditional Kurdish women’s robes, the Feminist Brothers stand in solidarity with the women of their culture, saying, “This is what we look like.” Harnessing the power of social media to spread this message by posting the photos on Facebook, the Kurds ensure the clothes speak of courage to a global audience.

Orthodox Jewish Women Find New Ways to Be Fashionable in Crown Heights
By Liana Satenstein
The Torah’s modesty guidelines are no match for the stylish, independent, and innovatively entrepreneurial women in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish sect Chabad-Lubavitch. Requirements to wear skirts that hit below the knee and blouses that cover the elbows and collarbones just means that the women face more of a creative challenge than others when they choose what to wear each day.

A Strip of Cloth that Makes Dry Cleaners Shudder
By Vijai Singh
One of my favourite summer jobs was working for the Textile Analysis Service at the University of Alberta, where I would perform detective work on garments that were damaged at the dry cleaners. Like a whodunit mystery, I tried to figure out who (the customer, the cleaner, or the manufacturer) ruined the garment (discolouration, tiny holes, loss of beads), and with which weapon (pretreating agent, solvent, or sunlight)—but not in which room, because, well, that doesn’t really matter in this case. I won’t tell you what strip of cloth makes these dry cleaners shudder; you’ll have to click to find out.

How to Pack like a Pioneering Journalist
By Maria Popova
Nellie Bly, the audacious journalist who, in 1889, challenged the fictional precedent set in Jules Verne’s classic novel Eighty Days Around the World by circumnavigating the globe in five fewer days, carried only a small leather gripsack with all of her personal items for the journey. This remarkable story puts to shame my packing job for my 60-day stay here in Toronto—and I had the luxury of one large suitcase and a couple of carry-ons. If you’re heading off on a summer vacation, keep Ms. Bly in mind as you repeat the mantra “less is more….”

Are Clothes Modern? Or, what we talk about when we talk about “Dress”
The Blog of A.E. Funk
I’m in awe of A.E. Funk, the veritable curator that she is, and her keen eye for evocative references to dress in all sorts of texts, from books on writing to the credits of Paris is Burning. For an assignment in a course on the history of dress, I scoured Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for references to clothing, textiles, and accessories so that I could attempt to make an assessment of the historical accuracy of the costumes in Ang Lee’s film adaptation. I was also graded on the number of quotes I came up with, and I fell far short of the student in the class who’d earmarked the most. If Funk were in that class, I have a feeling she would have set a formidable standard.

text // Karen Fraser