Settle in my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts; it’s time to learn your drag herstory! That’s right, dolls! We are going to learn all about those lovely people who laid out the groundwork and made drag what it is today.
We are going to define “drag” as, “a person of one biological sex wearing the clothing of the opposite sex for entertainment or enjoyment purposes.” We are not excluding anyone, but if we started writing about any person who has ever put on the clothes of a different sex, we would go on about every football player who ever dressed up like a cheerleader for a laugh. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
So whom in the world do we talk about? Do we start with RuPaul, who is credited for bringing drag into the mainstream spotlight? What about the drag queen who supposedly started the Stonewall Riots that ignited the LGBT Civil Rights movement? According to several online sources, the variety of drag that we have come to know and love today did not exist until the 1950’s or 60’s. Should we ignore that it was normal for men to play female roles on the Elizabethan Stage for a significant period in time, starting in 1660?
Time was taken to carefully consider each of these questions. And then I remembered this is my article, and I can write about whomever I wanted! So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to an inspiration for my personal life as well as my drag persona:
Ms. Julie d’Aubigny
Yes, that’s right. I’m not even going to start with a QUEEN. I’m going to talk about a drag KING! Take THAT, patriarchy!
This lovely lady lived in France from 1670 to roughly 1707. She was not only proudly bisexual, but she often wore men’s clothing whenever the mood struck her. Oh, and she was kick-ass.
She often made money while demonstrating her fencing talents in the streets of Paris while wearing men’s clothing. According to several accounts, when a particularly intoxicated man doubted she was actually a female, she simply ripped open her shirt to prove it. Clearly, she was comfortable with her own body, and played a convincing male as well.
You may be wondering if wearing men’s clothing was the norm for Julie, especially since it was pretty difficult to wield a sword in the corsetry, hoop skirts, and elaborate powdered wigs of the day. While she did often wear men’s garments for comfort and the occasional disguise, she was no stranger to feminine garb. Most notably, she wore a nun’s habit during her short stint in a convent.
Yes, before she had even left her teenage years, our sword-slinging heroine had fallen in love with a young girl who was sent away to a convent when their relationship was discovered. So d’Aubigny joined the convent herself, until eventually the convent burned down, (conveniently) giving the two lovebirds a chance to run away together… for about three months. d’Aubigny then left the girl with her parents and took off for Paris.
Another story says that while wearing men’s clothing, she accidentally walked into a young nobleman, Comte d’Albert, who then challenged her to a duel, not realizing she was a female. She won the duel by running through his shoulder with her sword. She later visited him in the hospital and it is rumored that the two began a passionate romance. At the very least they became good friends. She was clearly very forgiving.
Other versions of this encounter say that she did not accidentally bump into d’Albert on the streets, but rather he accosted her after one of her shows, throwing vulgar insults at her that loosely translated into “I’ve listened to your chirping, now display your plumage.”
Have I forgotten to mention that Julie d’Aubigny was not only a master swordswoman, but also an opera singer? Not only was this amazing woman able to stand up for herself and hold a remarkable sense of dignity and self-worth for a woman in this time period, but she was also the 15th-century equivalent of a rock star. Picture Beyoncé getting into sword fights.
I know, right?
There was also the time that she dressed as a gentleman and snuck into a ball in the royal palace, winning the attention of a beautiful young female. When the lady’s three suitors discovered Julie and the maiden kissing, Julie was challenged to another duel, which she accepted. She fought all three of them outside of the royal palace and beat them all. Some say she even killed all three men.
Because of her celebrity status, and because she had gotten into trouble with the law before, she had to leave town until things quieted down. She was, however, pardoned by the king for breaking the anti-dueling laws of the time.
As mentioned, drag as we know it didn’t come about until about the 1950’s. So why does a bisexual, crossdressing, French opera star from the late 15th century matter to us now?
She matters because this is proof that wearing the garments of another sex is not exclusive to today’s modern times, nor is it a shameful act. Drag is a very personal mode of self-expression and artistic identity. While Julie d’Aubigny may not have had a direct influence on the art form, she serves as an example of someone who unapologetically lived her life the way she wanted, no matter who or what stood in her way. Whether she dressed for comfort during sword demonstrations, or to disguise herself to slip unrecognized into royal balls or down the street, she carried herself with the confidence every drag performer ought to embody when they present themselves to the world. It’s exactly what RuPaul always preaches, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Perhaps we ought to stick to using our sharp wit rather than burning down convents, though: just a suggestion.
For more information regarding Julie d’Aubigny, or to just make sure I got it all right, check her out on http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/julie-daubigny .