Thursday, January 17, 2008

South London Drag

The recent post about Boy George, South East London’s best-known cross dressing icon, has got me thinking about drag. Whether Boy George was ever strictly a drag queen, as opposed to a man in a frock, is as open to question as the meaning of drag itself. As one its historians points out: 'Drag is about many things. It is about clothes and sex. It subverts the dress codes that tell us what men and women should look like in our organised society. It creates tension and releases tension, confronts and appeases. It is about role playing and questions the meaning of both gender and sexual identity. It is about anarchy and defiance. It is about men's fear of women as much as men's love of women and it is about gay identity' (Baker).

Until the 17th century, almost all actors were men so the stages of London’s South Bank were full of female impersonators like Edward Kynaston, of whom Samuel Pepys said he "made the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life, only her voice not very good" (18 August 1660).

Later there was cross dressing in music hall and pantomime, particularly the role of the Pantomime dame. Dan Leno (1860-1904) was one of the most famous dames as well as the sometime Champion Clog-dancer of the world. Towards the end of his life he lived in Brixton (56 Akerman Road, SW9) and was part of the company that built the Oriental Palace of Varieties in 1896, a Camberwell music hall.

Post-Second World War drag acts 'in the noisy, smoky, crowded pubs of South London and docklands’ drag acts ‘'were joining the singers and local comics in the line-up of entertainers for a Saturday night’ (Baker). Who were these South London drag acts? Boy George mentions from his childhood (late 60s/early 70s) 'Bubbles the drag queen who ran a caff in Dulwich... Used to perform at the Valley Club in Dulwich and spent all his days dishing up sausage, egg and chips to navvies'. There was also George Pinaud, some-time Greenwich market stallholder and drag artist, who set himself up as the Pearly King of Greenwich and Deptford in 1958 (Binder).

Men like these have had a significant impact on South London in some unexpected ways. In the 1950s 'drag acts were a popular attraction in some working-class straight pubs. Some of these such as… (the) Vauxhall Tavern and Camden's Black Cap began attracting gay men in growing numbers to their shows, and by the late 1960s had slowly metamorphosed into gay pubs' (Baker). So perhaps Vauxhall’s current key position in London gay nightlife owes something to these men who weren’t afraid to put on a dress.

Sources: Drag: a history of female impersonation in the performing arts - Roger Baker (London, Cassell, 1994); Take it Like a Man: the autobiography of Boy George; Binder, Pearl, The Pearlies: a Social Record – Pearl Binder (London: Jupiter Books, 1975)


Anonymous said...

Her Husband was a Woman!
The Review bookshop in Peckham is holding a book launch/talk on women cross-dressing as men on Thursday 24th January (6.30). Alison Oram is a local resident. Here's the book blurb:

"This pioneering study of women's gender-crossing explores the popular press to analyse how women's cross-gender behaviours and same-sex desires were presented to ordinary working-class and lower middle-class people. It breaks new ground in focusing on the representation of female sexualities within the broad sweep of popular culture rather than in fiction and professional literature.

Her Husband was a Woman! exposes real-life case studies from the British tabloids of women who successfully passed as men in everyday life, perhaps marrying other women or fighting for their country.

Illustrated with newspaper cuttings and postcards the book is a fascinating and essential resource for researchers and students, and an accessible study for the general reader."

Unknown said...

Having a party to raise £££ for a documentary about collective of London drag queens and performers who put on the NYC Downlow ( Glasto's 1st & only gay-run tent and the hottest all night party at the fest)

So please come:

Thurs 28th May
@ Bistrotheque,23-27 Wadeson Street, E2 (nearest Tube: Bethnal Green)

Featuring: Performances, DJ's (Horse Meat Disco's Jim Stanton), and lots of other exciting guests.

The Downlow is in association w/ Block 9 and Horse Meat Disco (yes, Vauxhall's favorite disco)