So, a friend of mine was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and messaged me because he didn’t know why ‘drag,’ the act of men dressing as women, was called drag. I had to admit that I wasn’t certain either. He lamented that Google was no help and my cursory search confirmed the fact. I turned to my two most trusted companions of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary and Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Below is what each have to say on the matter of ‘drag.’

OED

drag, n

  1. Something that drags, or hangs heavily, so as to impede motion.
  2. Feminine attire worn by a man; also, a party or dance attended by men wearing feminine attire; hence gen., clothes, clothing. slang.

 

1870   Reynolds’s Newsp. 29 May 5/5   We shall come in drag.

1870   London Figaro 23 June 3/4   Not quite so low..as going about in ‘drag’.

1887   Referee 24 July 3/1   I don’t like to see low coms. in drag parts.

1927   Sunday Express 13 Feb. 5/5   A drag is a rowdy party attended by abnormal men dressed in scanty feminine garments, singing jazz songs in high falsetto voices.

1942   M. McCarthy Company she Keeps (1943) iii. 80   A kind of masquerade of sexuality, like the rubber breasts homosexuals put on for drags.

1959   C. MacInnes Absolute Beginners 27   My Spartan hair-do and my teenage drag and all.

1959   J. Osborne World Paul Slickey ii. x. 80   You would never have the fag Of dressing up in drag You’d be a woman at the weekend.

1960   20th Cent. Mar. 255   Bad Taste, exemplified by..Henry Kendall in drag. This is by no means the first time that Mr. Kendall has appeared to reverse his sex.

1966   Listener 23 June 918/3   Laurence Olivier, doing his Othello voice and attired painstakingly in Arab drag.

1967   Spectator 14 July 54/1   The gear shops flip their decor as often as they do the pop tunes blaring out the newest hits as you try on the latest ‘drag’.

1968   R. Baker (title)    Drag, a history of female impersonation on the stage.

 

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

drag, n. 1

  1. in the context of clothing, which ‘drags along’ the ground, and ext. uses [orig. theatrical use, which stressed thedrag of a long dress along the floor, as opposed to tight-fitting trousers. The first OED citations (1870) imply fancy dress; gay refs. not overt until 20C].

(a) female dress as worn by men, but not in a homosexual context, e.g. on stage.

1870Reynold’s 29 May n.p.: ‘Police Proceedings.’ […] We shall come in drag, which means wearing women’s costumes [F&H]. 1909J. WarePassing Eng. of the Victorian Era 117/1: Drag (Theat.) Petticoat or skirt used by actors when playing female parts. Derived from the drag of the dress, as distinct from the non-dragginess of the trouser. c.1925R. McAlmonMiss Knight (1963) 62: I wuz at the Y.M.C.A. – in drag you know – some outfit I had too, stars and spangles and jewels all over me. 1932 ‘R. Scully’ Scarlet Pansy 136: Miss Savoy, the notorious impersonator came sailing by, in a grand drag. 1949L. HughesTambourines to Glory Prologue: I put on drag sometimes. 1952Lait & MortimerUSA Confidential 93: [It] specializes in shows in drag with men made up as women. 1961Rigney & SmithReal Bohemia xi: He became known as […] ‘Margaret Mead in drag’. 1965K. MarloweMr Madam (1967) 31: I played ‘house’ with Connie and dolled up in my drags. 1972D. JenkinsSemi-Tough 175: What’d he say? The Catholics were Baptists in drag? 1982H. BeatonOutside In I ii: They all looked like men. Even the screws. I thought they were men in drag. 1997D. FarsonNever a Normal Man 170: Plucked eyebrows, the black mascara and the scarlet gown worn on special occasions, the only sign of the ‘drag’ deplored by the Australians in the train. 2001N. ToschesWhere Dead Voices Gather (ms.) 296: The song was being performed by the blackface vaudeville team of Baker and Farrell – one of them in proto-Jemima drag – when it was heard by Chris Rutt, a man in search of a name for his new self-rising pancake mix.

(b) female dress as worn by homosexual males; also male dress as worn by lesbians.

a.1870J. Fiske letter in Pearsall Worm in Bud (1969) 463: He tells me you are living in drag […] the thought of you – Lais and Antinous in one – is ravishing. 1873Sl. Dict. 149: Drag feminine attire worn by men. A recent notorious impersonation case led to the publication of the word in that sense. 1909J. WarePassing Eng. of the Victorian Era117/1: Drag […] Also [the name] given to feminine clothing by eccentric youths when dressing up in skirts. 1914Jackson& HellyerVocab. Criminal Sl. 30: drag […] Amongst female impersonators on the stage and men of dual sex instincts ‘drag’ denotes female attire donned by a male. Download DocumentDownload Document: ‘All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight’. 1927M. WestDrag (1997) Act II: I’ve got the most gorgeous new drag. Black satin, very tight, with a long train of rhinestones. 1932 ‘R. Scully’ Scarlet Pansy 166: They visited Atlantic City in time to attend the famous Iceman’s Ball, noted far and wide for the fashionable drags displayed. [Ibid.] 186: Fay had decided to be brilliant and go as a queen. She had with her a drag – ‘Something gorgeous, simply devastating,’ Percy Chichi called it. 1948K. WilliamsDiaries 31 Jan. 21: It was a very good show — quite gay in parts, with some lovely, oh luvly camping and drag! 1959W. BurroughsNaked Lunch (1968) 218: Some of these girls […] are really boys. In uh drag I believe is the word??? 1971D. GoinesDopefiend (1991) 266: Donna Jean, a sissy, who worked in drag. 1987R. CampbellAlice in La-La Land (1999) 214: Seventy, eighty per cent of the hookers are faggot transvestites or homos in drag. 1990Tupper & WortleyAus. Prison Sl. Gloss. [Internet] Drag. 2. To dress ‘in drag’, i.e. for male to don women’s clothing. 2003K. CageGayle.

Green also notes further that the first usage which may be more familiar to modern readers comes in the 1920s.
(e) (US gay) a homosexual man dressed in female clothing, a drag queenn. (1).

1929T. GordonBorn to Be (1975) 218: Must I turn drag, eh? 1931B. NilesStrange Brother (1932) 210: The Drag Ball […] was a great masquerade party to which men went in fancy dress — went in the costumes of women. The men, so dressed, were called ‘drags’ […] The men dressed in what Harlem calles ‘drag,’ men in the garb of women. 1950Goldinet al. DAUL 61/2: Drag. […] 4. A man in feminine attire; feminine attire worn by a fag. 1963J. RechyCity of Night 286: My dear, the Most Fabulous Drags in the world go there […] and the simply butchest numbers. 1985K. VachaQuiet Fire77: This bitch drag screwed me. 1994G. IndianaRent Boy 67: Big drags in sequins doing bad lip-sync.

 

Here’s the article cited by both OED and Green’s from 29 May 1870, reporting on the Boulton and Park trial. According to both sources, this is the first appearance of ‘drag’ in written English. The relevant parts of the below testimony say as much. Click here to read whole article (credit: British Library Newspapers)

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So there you have it, internet. A bit of information where the term ‘drag’ comes from. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s better than what’s out there at the moment. If words are your thing, check out my other post about all the definitions of pornography and obscenity.

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