Drag in its broadest sense means a costume or outfit that carries symbolic significance, but usually refers to the clothing associated with one gender role when worn by a person of the other gender. The term originated either in gay or theater slang in the 1870s, where the official long-established theater term for "cross-dressing" on-stage was travesti (French, "cross-dressed," giving rise to "travesty" which took on further connotations as a genre of critical vocabulary). The term "drag" may have been given a wider circulation in Polari, a gay street argot in England in the early part of the last century. Unlike "threads," "drag" never simply meant "clothes."
Someone wearing drag is said to be "in drag." "Drag queen" appeared in print in 1941. The verb form is to "do drag." A folk etymology whose acronym basis reveals a characteristically late 20th-century bias, would make "drag" an abbreviation of "dressed as girl" in description of male-to-female transvestism; the converse, "drab" for "dressed as boy," is unrecorded. Drag is practiced by people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Drag in the performing arts
"Drag" is too casual and culturally freighted a term to be used for the cross-dressing elements in shamanism, but there is a long history of drag in the performing arts, spanning a wide range of cultural as well as artistic traditions.
Drag in the theater arts manifests two kinds of phenomenon. One is cross-dressing in the performance, which is part of the social history of theater. The other is cross-dressing within the theatrical fiction, which is part of literary history.
Cross-dressing elements of performance traditions are widespread cultural phenomena. Kabuki, the traditional theatre of Japan, has always featured drag. Originally kabuki troupes were all female; now they are all male, and female roles are played by Onnagata, actors who specialize in playing female roles. Conversely, the Takarazuka Revue is a popular all-female troupe that specializes in putting on romantic plays. All the male roles are played by young women.
Earlier, in England, actors in Shakespearean plays, and indeed in all Elizabethan theater, tragedy as well as comedy, were all male; female parts were played by young men in drag. Shakespeare used the conventions to enrich the gender confusions of As You Like It, and Ben Jonson manipulated the same conventions in Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, (1609) an elaborate vindictive and misogynist sight gag that builds up to the Wedding from Hell. The plot device of the film Shakespeare in Love (1998) turns upon this Elizabethan convention. By the reign of Charles I, actresses were allowed on the London stage in the French fashion, and serious travesti roles disappeared.
Within the dramatic fiction a double standard historically affected the uses of drag. In overwhelmingly male-dominated societies, where active roles were reserved to men, a woman might dress as a man under the pressures of her dramatic predicament. Since a man's position was above a woman's, this resulted in a rising action that suited itself to tragedy and sentimental melodrama as well as comedies of manners that involved confused identities. Conversely, when a man dressed as a woman, the action was inherently conceived as a falling action: the result could only be suited to broad low comedy and burlesque. These conventions were unbroken before the 20th century, when such rigid gender roles were first undermined and then began to dissolve. This evolving process has transformed drag in the last decades of the 20th century, and is still unfolding. With the theatrical drag queen presented, not as a "female impersonator" but as a drag queen (as, for example, RuPaul), modern drag has transformed its conventions, its meaning, and its audience.
In Baroque opera, where soprano roles for men were sung by castrati, Handel's Alcina disguises herself as a man to save her lover, a male soprano: contemporary audiences were not the least confused. In Romantic opera, certain roles of young boys were written for alto and soprano voices and acted by women en travestie (in English, in "trouser roles") . The most familiar trouser role in pre-Romantic opera is Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (1786). Romantic opera continued the convention: there are trouser roles for women in drag in Rossini's Semiramide (Arsace), Donizetti's Rosamonda d'Inghilterra and Anna Bolena, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, even a page in Verdi's Don Carlo. The convention was beginning to die out with Valentine, the ingenuous youth in Charles Gounod's Faust (1859) and the gypsy boy Beppe in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, so that Offenbach gave the role of Cupid to a real boy in Orphée aux Enfers. But the divine Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in tights, giving French audiences a glimpse of Leg (the other in fact being a prosthesis) and Prince Orlovsky, who gives the ball in Die Fledermaus, is a soprano, to somewhat androgynous effect. The use of travesti in Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier (1912) is a special case, unusually subtle and evocative of its 18th century setting, and should be discussed in detail at Der Rosenkavalier.
The self-consciously risqué bourgeois high jinks of Brandon Thomas' Charley's Aunt (London, 1892) were still viable theater material in La Cage aux Folles 1978, (remade, as The Birdcage, as late as 1996). In the 1890s the slapstick drag traditions of undergraduate productions (notably Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard College, annually since 1891 and at other Ivy League schools like Princeton University's Triangle Club or the University of Pennsylvania's Mask and Wig Club) were permissible fare to the same middle-class American audiences that were scandalized to hear that in New York, rouged young men in skirts were standing on tables to dance the Can-Can in Bowery dives like The Slide. Drag shows were popular night club entertainment in New York in the 20s, then were forced underground, until the "Jewel Box Revue" played Harlem's Apollo Theater in the 1950s: "49 men and a girl." The girl received a roar of applause, when she was revealed as the same smart young man in dinner clothes who had been introducing each of the evening's acts. Drag as a last-resort tactic in situational farce (its only permissible format at the time) made a big Hollywood splash in Some Like It Hot (1959).
Drag broke out from underground theater as personified by "Divine" in John Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972) (See also Charles Pierce.)
The world of popular music has a similarly venerable history of drag, starting with Sylvester. Pop singers Boy George (of Culture Club) and Pete Burns (of Dead Or Alive) frequently appear in a sort of semi-drag. In Japan there are several popular singers who always or usually appear in full or semi-drag.
On American television, only the broadest slapstick drag tradition was represented, and one of the few American TV comedians who consistently used drag as a comedy device was Milton Berle.
Current rules are less strict: Dame Edna, the drag persona of Australian actor Barry Humphries, is the host of several specials, including the Dame Edna Experience. Dame Edna also tours internationally, playing to sell-out crowds, and has appeared on TV's Ally McBeal.
Dame Edna, however, represents an anomalous example of the drag concept. Although her earliest incarnation was unmistakably a man dressed (badly) as a suburban housewife, over the years Edna's manner and appearance has been so greatly feminised and glamorised that even some of her TV show guests appear not realise that the Edna character is actually played by a man. The furore surrounding Dame Edna's 'advice' column in Vanity Fair magazine also suggests that one of her harshest critics, actress Selma Hayek, was apparently unaware that Dame Edna was actually a female character played by a man.
Drag kings and queens
In gay slang, a "queen" is an effeminate gay man, or a gay man with a specializied quality (e.g. "rice queen," for a gay man who prefers Asian men). Along with "drag," this term has entered the general lexicon.
Drag queens (first use in print, 1941) are usually, but not exclusively, gay men who dress in drag, either as part of a performance or for personal fulfillment. Doing drag here often includes wearing makeup, wigs and prosthetic devices as part of the costume. Women who do drag are called Drag kings; however, drag king also has a much wider range of meanings.