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On the Arts: Transvestism through the ages has served cross purposes

Sunday, June 11, 2000

By Barry Paris

PREHISTORIC DRAG BULLE- TIN: A long-secret discovery in the tundra, unearthed during the Stalinist era by two herders defecting from a reindeer collective, has leaked out: The defective collective herders reportedly stumbled upon a tribe of cross-dressing cavemen in formal-length pelts, perfectly preserved deep under the Siberian ice -- victims of an avalanche so sudden they had no time to change back into their primal loincloths. The site also is said to contain burlesque cave paintings and Neanderthal man's first primitive boa.

 
 

Barry Paris is a Post-Gazette film critic and author.

   
 



Well, all right, it's not confirmed. But there is room for speculation as well as illumination in the art of cross-dressing through the ages with the Pittsburgh Pride Festival coming up next weekend. It's got a serious gay/lesbian agenda plus a couple of major nondrag headline acts for entertainment, but it wouldn't be PrideFest 2000 without camp, and it wouldn't be camp without drag. They've put out a call again for the best drag king and queen names.

It'll be hard to beat the existing ones: Lypsinka, Misstress Formika, Coco Peru, Flotilla DeBarge, Wilma Fingerdoo or Varla Jean Merman, who smears mayonnaise on his thighs -- evidently allergic to ketchup and mustard. They are but a few purveyors of transvestite travesties that violate the dictates of how men and women should clothe their public and private parts.

And they are in good historical company. Why, exactly, did the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut don a fake beard? What made France's Chevalier d'Eon wear women's clothes as ambassador to Russia? Why would Sarah Bernhardt get such a kick out of parading in the attire of the opposite sex? Why did Milton Berle and J. Edgar Hoover do the same? And what about Lassie?

They all had their reasons. Let us sample a few:

EGYPTIAN DRAG: Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt (1503-1482 B.C.), married her half brother, Thutmose II, and, after his death, dethroned his son, Thutmose III, and proclaimed herself pharaoh. Unlike her male predecessors, Hatshepsut was peaceful and enlightened, fostering trade and building magnificent temples. Her lusty love life was mostly incestuous, with her brothers and cousins, as tradition required. Tradition also required that she wear a fake beard, men's clothes and the regalia of a male pharaoh.

ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME: Catamitus and his catamites? Plato and Alcibiades? It was common for Greek philosophers and soldiers to dress their cutest slave boys as girls -- with often madcap results (as in Charles Busch's off-Broadway hit "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom"). Funny things happened in the forums of Rome, too: Emperor Commodus was an actor-puppeteer who dressed publicly as an Amazon. And while Rome burned, Nero fiddled not just with his violin but with a variety of transvestite pantomimists.

JOAN OF ARC (1412-1431): In addition to heresy, the crimes for which she was burned at the stake included dressing as a man.

ELIZABETHAN DRAG: Boy "actresses" played all the great Shakespearean female roles -- and, allegedly, a secret role in the Bard's private life. Dicky Robinson, most celebrated boy actress of the age, was fun as well as beautiful, we gather from Ben Jonson's depiction:

There's Dicky Robinson,
A very pretty fellow, and comes often
To a gentleman's chamber, a friend of mine.
We had the merriest supper of it there one night,
[Dick] drest like a lawyer's wife ...
To see him behave ... and then talk bawdy! O,
It would have burst your buttons, or not left you a seam.
He's an ingenious youth, O Sir! and dresses himself
The best, beyond forty of your very ladies!

CHEVALIER d'EON (1720-1810): France's most open (and Louis XIV's favorite) dragster had adventures galore in petticoats, spying on Empress Elisabeth of Russia (who was herself obsessed with cross-dressing).

THE VICTORIAN CLOSET: One of the darkest cross-dressing theories -- widely believed by the London police and populace alike -- is that Jack the Ripper lured his victims and committed his murders in women's attire.

JULIAN ELTINGE (1883-1941): Vaudeville's greatest female impersonator tastefully imitated beautiful women's mannerisms. He played the title role in "Fascinating Widow" (1911) on Broadway and made a fortune for his producers, who named a 42nd Street theater after him.

BERT SAVOY (1888-1923): A female impersonator in carnivals and then vaudeville, he was the opposite of elegant Eltinge -- first of the outrageous performing drag queens. His costume consisted of a flaming red wig, vulgar gowns and gigantic hats. (Mae West supposedly copied her style from him.) While he was walking on a beach one day with friends, a loud thunderclap frightened everyone. Savoy looked up and quipped, "That'll be enough out of you, Miss God!" -- and, seconds later, was struck and killed by lightning.

CELLULOID DRAG: One of Edwin S. Porter's first subjects was a preening transvestite (1903). Soon enough, Fatty Arbuckle was prancing in frocks for "Miss Fatty's Seaside Lovers" (1915) while Harold Lloyd was the pitcher on a girl's baseball team in "Spit-Ball Sadie" (Motion Picture News called it "repellent"). The kiddies cross-dressed, too: Our Gang's Buckwheat was Juliet to Alfalfa's Romeo in "Pay as You Exit" (1936). After Ed Wood's legendary "Glen or Glenda?" (1953) came Billy Wilder's even more legendary "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and Hitchcock's "Psycho" -- the ne plus ultra drag derangement with Anthony Perkins cross-dressing as his own dead mother. On it went, through Andy Warhol's drag-hags, Viva, Candy Darling, et al. in the likes of "Harlot" (1965) and "Flesh" (1968); Divine, who starred in John Waters' "Mondo Trasho" (1969) and "Polyester" (1981); and down to "Tootsie," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and Babs' own "Yentl" -- like buttah.

CANINE-CROSSING: I wouldn't lie to you about Lassie. In four of her first six Hollywood star vehicles, she was played by a male collie named Pal, who starred in four of the first six films bearing his/her name. Later, he made what must truly be termed a seminal contribution to the small screen by siring four future Lassies for the long-running TV series (1954-74). In another shocking canine-crossing revelation, it can also now be divulged that tough-barkin' Rin Tin Tin was really a bitch.

J. EDGAR HOOVER: Dragnet drag. Recently declassified documents suggest the tyrannical FBI chief's Ten Most Wanted Men weren't quite who you thought they were. But that's a long story we'll save for the TV miniseries.



Ted Hoover (no relation) is no drag queen, or "gender illusionist," as some prefer, but rather a playwright, sharp- (often forked-) tongued local critic and PrideFest doyen who will share Saturday's co-hosting duties with Mary Ann Kirby. The events begin with a parade. Participants will assemble at 11 a.m. at Westminster Place and Aiken Avenue for a noon march through Shadyside and 1 p.m. rally at Mellon Park. Political speakers will stir up election-year adrenaline. Al Gore has checked in with a message of support. No word yet from Dubya.

Local favorite Patti O'Fernicher kicks things off with a unique musical extravaganza involving her own uniformed regiment, followed by the Renaissance Women's and Men's Choir. Headline acts are Lonnie Gordon (with three hit singles on Billboard's dance chart, "Gonna Catch You," "Happenin' All Over Again" and "Bad Mood" -- none of which I can hum a few bars of) at the Pittsburgh Eagle, 1740 Eckert St., North Side, and Abigail (whose "Constant Craving" I can hum but won't) at Pegasus, 818 Liberty Ave., Downtown, at 11 p.m.

But I'm most anticipating that drag-name contest, with spectacular prizes ranging from a free Coke to a caffeine-free Sprite. My submissions: Hedda Lettuce, Olive Fitzreal and -- two Asian entries -- Ming Vauze and Helen of Soy. These are tame, I know, and it worries me. Is drag becoming such an integral part of the culture that it's losing its enticing element of taboo? Is there a danger it's actually becoming acceptable, God forbid? RuPaul now compares himself to Big Bird.

I leave you with no deep parting insight on the phenomenon, except Charles Busch's revelation that "the greatest occupational hazard of cross-dressing for a living is shopping for size 12 pumps."



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