I’ve been trying to write this post for months, but two things inspired me to finally finish it: a recent article by Frankie Graddon for The Pool on garments with annoying cut-aways, and the announcement of the line up for RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars season 3. Here’s the reason why I turn to drag queens rather than Vogue for my fashion fix these days.
I first became interested in fashion as a child in the 1980s. I owned a Fashion Wheel, was forever drawing fantasy outfits, and enjoyed playing stylist to my well-loved collection of Sindy and Barbie dolls. Then, in 1986 when I was 11 years old, iconic sartorial magazine programme The Clothes Show was first broadcast on the BBC and I quickly became hooked. Every time I hear the opening to the Pet Shop Boys song In The Night*, it gives me goose bumps – not just because PSB were my favourite band in the late 80s and early 90s, but also because it was the theme tune for one of my favourite TV shows.
The Clothes Show gave me my first glimpse of catwalk fashion, and in the late 80s and early 90s this meant dancing models, smiles, and oodles of attitude. I loved the diversity in Bodymap shows, the sass and laughter of Vivienne Westwood models like Sara Stockbridge and Naomi Campbell (who even giggled as she tumbled from those towering blue platform heels). I adored seeing Naomi with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford on the catwalk for Versace and and lip synching in George Michael’s Freedom! ’90 video. These amazons strode onto catwalks worldwide with a confidence that inspired me to find the same joy in my clothes.
The fashion industry I fell in love with in the 1980s was diverse and fun – a proper spectacle that made you want to join the party. These days, the fashion industry talks about models ‘walking’ in a show because, well, that’s pretty much all they do. I’m not saying it’s an easy job – anything where your worth is based purely around looking and moving a certain way is tough in ways most people cannot imagine – but I miss the flourishes. There’s no peeling off of jackets and flicking them over a shoulder, no striking a pose as if your life depended on it, and definitely no smiling. Models are no longer allowed to have any personality on the runway, especially since Jean Paul Gaultier quit the ready-to-wear business in 2015.
Aside from a few highlights in recent years – in particular, the stunning couture shown by Viktor & Rolf and Iris Van Herpen, the dancing in Gucci‘s pre-fall 2017 campaign, and Moschino’s delightful paper dolls – I rarely find myself excited by fashion any more. But then, in 2016, I finally succumbed to peer pressure and discovered the delights of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The main reason I was wary at first is that it’s reality television. Shutting a bunch of strangers in a room together for an extended amount of time usually results in tension (just ask anyone who’s ever shared an office or had flatmates), but adding in a competition element can really bring out the worst in people. In that respect, I prefer my television to be as far away from reality as possible! However, lots of trusted friends recommended it, so I started with season 2 on Netflix.
Before long, I was completely and utterly hooked. Not just because I love an unashamedly structured format and it was good to have on in the background while I did something else. Not just because I have loads of friends who watch the show that I can now chat to about it. Not even because I started to grow to love everything about it – the judges (pictured above), contestants, challenges and catchphrases. It’s because I live for those runway looks. It wasn’t long before I realised that Drag Race is one show that has absolutely everything I loved about fashion when I was a kid. Here’s my top four:
Most people forget that, even in 2017, clothes still have to be constructed by hand. There are no sewing robots. So, it’s nice to watch a show that takes you from raw materials to finished look, giving glimpses into how outfits are made and styled well. Whether the contestants are tasked with building a look from an extensive fabric selection or something more challenging – curtains, the leftovers from a party celebration, or from thrift store finds – many of the sewing challenges remind me of outfits I created for my sister back when we were playing fashion photoshoots in our bedrooms (yes, we were stylish kids). Bafflingly, not every contestant who is accepted onto the show can sew, but many are eager to learn and some outfits end up being a surprising lesson in what you can achieve with a good idea and a hot glue gun.
If you’re a fashion model, you’ll need to fit into a rather tiny sample size and you’re past-it by the time you reach 30, but Drag Race‘s contestants have ranged from 21 to 52 years of age at the time of shooting and have had a wide variety of body types. While the catwalks of most fashion week shows in 2017 are still depressingly white, Drag Race‘s runway stars have a wider variety of skin tones than many mainstream cosmetics ranges. OK, so I’ll admit that RPDR doesn’t always get it right and has a disturbing amount of cultural appropriation (from a couple of Raja’s distinctive runway looks in season 3, through to that cringeworthy Native American incident in season 9), but I think the show’s producers are mostly learning from their mistakes, whereas the mainstream fashion industry seems to be simply recycling tired stereotypes and ignoring anyone who flags it as an issue.
As a childhood fan of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the power of a good movie makeover (hey Sandy!), this was always going to be where Drag Race grabbed my attention first. Whether you’re interested in the vintage inspired perfection of Violet Chachki, the covergirl style of Naomi Smalls, the beauty of Miss Fame, or the sheer artistry of every single one of the looks created by Kim Chi and Sasha Velour, RPDR will undoubtedly give you more than your recommended daily allowance of glamour. I haven’t begun creating a list of my favourite looks because I just know the sheer size of that task will distract me from literally everything else I need to do. Since the season 7 finale, one of the most breathtaking looks has been that of the reigning Drag Superstar when handing over the crown, so I can’t wait to see what Sasha Velour comes up with when it’s her turn!
In the days when models were allowed to bring a bit of themselves to the catwalk, you could see how you could adapt trends to work for you. One of the joys of Drag Race is that RuPaul gives the contestants the same challenge, but they’ll all interpret it in different ways (well, apart from the disappointing Madonna challenge in season 8!). This is why we need queens like Sharon Needles, Milk and Vivacious, up there embracing their own personal style. As ex-Broadway costume maker Bianca Del Rio once said “I’ll show you versatility when Santino wins a sewing contest and Visage wears a fucking turtle neck. Ain’t gonna happen!” Now there’s a queen who knows what looks good on her and sticks with it.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a joyous mix of looks, talent and personality. It sometimes feels like a guilty pleasure, especially whenever the show isn’t as ‘right on’ as I think it should be (hopefully Peppermint has taught them a thing or two about how to avoid transphobic language), but the cheesy soundtrack and eyeball-searing colour saturation lure me back in every time. It has the glamour of a burlesque show combined with the drama of a soap opera, plus you get a glimpse into how these talented individuals do what they do. Some folk in the fashion world may be obsessed with Drag Race, but I’ve not yet felt its influence in the type of shows and magazines that influence high street fashion. Buy, hey, that’s not really a problem because nobody wants to be a basic bitch, do they?
*Interestingly, the lyrics of In The Night reference a 1940s subculture called Zazou. I wonder if The Clothes Show’s producers knew the theme tune contained a glimpse into fashion history?