“Only a book as beautiful and broad as this could possibly honour the history of drag. This book is utterly desirable as an art object but also hugely informative about the art of drag, the queer rebellion of drag and drag as a political statement as well as cultural art form. A thing of beauty!”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
The Art of Drag by Jake Hall is a truly beautiful book, illustrated by Sofie Birkin, Helen Li, and Jasjyot Singh Hans. In this colourful guide to the artform of drag, the pages take the reader on a journey through history and a wander across the world as they explore a cast array of cultures.
The book is broken up into seven sections; The Art of Performance, The Art of Glamour, The Art of War, The Art of Freak, The Art of Charisma, The Art of Influence, and The Future of Drag, which allow the author to explore every different facet of drag from Kabuki Theatre to the drag we would recognise from the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, from the avant-garde of the Club Kids to the glitzy performances of the Jazz Age.
The first section of the book begins in 400BCE and spans through to the early 1900s, weaving its way through performances of mime, Shakespearean theatre, Kabuki Theatre, Peking Opera, Pantomime, and much more. In this section, Hall also maps the rise of the Drag King and examines drag in a time when cross-dressing was a crime.
Next, we travel through the 1900s to the 1950s with a look at drag during the US prohibition laws, the popularity of vaudeville, the Panzy Craze, and see drag begin to appear on the silver screen in films such as Some Like It Hot.
In The Art of War section, the book explores the 1950s-70s, and the fights for LGBTQIA+ rights including the Stonewall Riots. Hall, of course, highlights the well-known heroes of these such battles including; Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLaverie but they also highlight many lesser-known protests such as The Cooper’s Do-Nuts Riot. This section also captures to very beginning of the Ballroom culture with Crystal LaBeija’s appearance in the documentary The Queen which followed the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant and then her founding of the House of LaBeija as a response to racism within pageants and drag balls.
Next, The Art of Freak is set in the decades of the 1960s to 1980s and features amongst its pages; Andy Warhol, Disco music, Divine and John Waters, and the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture show.
The Art of Charisma section journeys on from the 1980s to the 2000s via the Harlem Ball scene to the rise of RuPaul. Whilst RuPaul may be one of the best-known drag queens worldwide, this section also explores other key figures including Lady Bunny, Lipsinka, Amanda Lepore and Club Kids such as Leigh Bowery and James St. James.
The 2000s to 2010s are marked in this book by The Art of Influence with the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the subsequent global explosion of drag in more mainstream areas of life.
Finally, in The Future of Drag, the book features contributions from several trailblazers in the world of drag including; Crystal Rasmussen, The Vixen, Sweatmother, and Don One, all of whom offer and insight into where they think or would like drag to be in the coming years.
The Art of Drag is a thorough and well-researched book that explores drag not just in America and the Western world but also further afield, diving into the diversity of global cultures. What’s more, it also builds a full picture of the drag world, not just the queens we see on reality TV but also aspects such as the trans experience, drag kings, female impersonation, art, and performance. At the same time, the writing also examines drags influences including personalities who don’t necessarily fit the mould of drag, such as David Bowie and Cher, but who have had great influences on the drag artists who followed them.
Even if you think you know a lot about drag already, this book is truly insightful, interesting and educational. Jake Hall, Sofie Birkin, Helen Li, and Jasjyot Singh Hans homage to drag is an absolutely stunning read and once you’re done pouring over the words that fill this book, it can become a coffee table ornament that you open at a random page to admire the vivid artwork that decorates every page. The perfect gift for anyone interested in the world of drag and queer art.
Catherine Muxworthy, Booksbirdblog
Added 8th October 2021