girls who wear moustaches
METROPOLITRAN LIFE A curious new addition to urban club culture, beer-swigging, bearded drag kings - the lesbian answer to drag queens - are a playful backlash to the media's love affair with lesbian chic
Sunday 17 September 1995
She's not the only girl moustaching-up this evening. There are other girls like her who have all prepared themselves earlier. Jewels is off to a club that positively encourages those who don 'taches, even letting them in for half price. Here you'll find a range of men. Lads in lumberjack shirts and Timberland boots swig their bottled beer. Spivs in trilbies and raincoats smoke against a wall. Blokes in bovver boots bounce around in braces while dudes in dapper suits chat convivially in a corner. You'll find a definite twinkle in every eye because those very same self-styled men are, beneath the vests and Y-fronts, actually all girls. Girls who really enjoy a lads' night out.
These cheeky characters are that most curious new addition to club culture, "drag kings". Drag kings are the lesbian answer to gay men's drag queens. Instead of sequins and boas, wigs and tottery high-heels, it's false 'taches, braces, shirts and ties. They are more likely to lip- sync the football results than warble Shirley Bassey. Drag kings are now encroaching on to the drag queens' territory, as Club Naive takes up residence at that bastion of male crossdressing cabaret, the Soho revue bar Madame JoJos.
Of course, lesbian culture has a long and honourable tradition of camp crossdressing - ever since there have been bars where lesbians go, women have flouted gender rules, whether that be in Paris in the Twenties, Berlin in the Thirties or New York in the Fifties. This recent flurry of London Nineties girls with masculine talent began when Naive opened in June at its original home at Maximus in Leicester Square. The time was ripe for boysey experimentation. For a couple of years, a handful of dykes sporting moustaches had been spotted in selective nightclubs, representing the height of a certain variety of queer radical chic. Greeted at first with howls of laughter, the idea of 'taching-up was nevertheless firmly planted as something rather dandy, cool and firmly tongue-in-cheek.
Then last September, New York-based drag king expert Dianne Torr visited London, giving workshops at the ICA in how to "pass" as a man, handing out plenty of advice on things like the intricacies of stubble application and trouser-stuffing. "Women have a curiosity about the sense of entitlement and privilege immediately granted to a man, just by virtue of his gender," Torr asserts. "Feminists have been writing about sexual difference since the Seventies, but to actually physicalise and perform gender is completely different ... Nineties urban gender-bending is only the latest in a long line of transformations, but unlike them is no longer seen as an outward sign of identity. It's now fashionably understood as a way of performing gender, as an expression of the arbitrary nature of gender roles, which are reduced to no more than a set of clothes and a range of stylised behaviours."
Torr's visit was followed up by the Britain's first drag king contest in March at the National Film Theatre organised to accompany a talk on the subject by another American academic, Judith Halberstam. The winner of the competition was Hans Scheirl, an Austrian-born avant-garde SF film- maker, who describes the whole drag king thing as "more than a cult. It's a revolution". She explains: "It's not that we are not women. It's that the words 'Man' and 'Woman' are not descriptive words but political labels. They only describe where we come from, our history, not who we are or could be. I want to go to a place where gender is not fixed and where gender is a language, not a static way of being."
A less rarefied public forum for the drag king habit is Naive. It is a place where theories of gender can be put into practice - the club has succeeded in encouraging even the most unlikely women to grab their eyeliner and pencil on moustaches and sideburns. It's becoming a clubbing thing as much as it is an academic theory or a fashionable dalliance. Jewels says that it's also a reaction by certain dykes to the whole "lesbian chic'' media fest that ran all last year. Drag kings aren't nice girls and don't look like Beth Jordache. In fact, Jewels in drag bears more resemblance to Sinbad than Beth. But, ironically enough, the glossy magazine icon of the concept "lesbian chic'', was the Vanity Fair cover of singer kd lang sitting in a barber's chair, chin covered in foam, being shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford. The whole area of crossdressing teeters between high chic and freak show. It's both disturbing and fun, academic and hands-on, provocative and vicariously pleasurable.
Certainly, one of the reasons the drag king thing has caught on with the woman in the street is because the sense of fun at being able to dress up quite so manfully is almost tangible at Naive. It's a make-believe space to step in and out of at your pleasure. It's playful and sexy. Jewels says that she likes to spend the whole night "in character" as much as just dress-up. In a cockney accent she calls everyone "mate'' or "guv'nor''. "I get really laddy. I live with a straight man and I do all the things that he feels he can't because he's a bit of a new man. I think dressing as men gives us a sort of freedom that women don't usually have - freedom to touch yourself, to burp and fart and just go 'cor' at other women. My flatmate calls me Sid the Sexist."
Jewels explains that she has a variety of male personalities up her sleeve: "I went as George Best one week. I put a wig on backwards, had lamb-chop sideburns and wore a Seventies suit with a purple frilly shirt. All the drag queens became my dolly birds. I've got other personae - I like being an embarrassing uncle - you know - the sort who get drunk at weddings and who dance with their bum sticking out." Not all the drag kings at Naive revel in such bad-taste attire or bad manners. Some sit elegantly in jodhpurs and expensive suits and condemn such laddishness. Dusty comments: "Jewels is a bit of a Grant Mitchell type and Naive can be a bit too much like a Bash Street Kids night out for my liking. It can get a bit regressive. I think it should be more upper-crust, more elegant. I'd like to come next week as a huntsman. We need to encourage more gentlemanly behaviour." Dusty also doesn't approve of "packing", the practice of stuffing objects down pants, because she/ he thinks "bumps in your trousers are seedy". In fact, the
range of men at Naive is amazing, with each woman bringing something of her own sensibility to her male persona, whether that be camp cowboy, gawky teenage boy or belligerent business man. To complicate the mix further, many women at Naive don't go as men at all but as super-girls.
Louise says: "It really doesn't appeal to me dressing up as a boy. I do the boy thing as day wear. At night I'm skinhead Barbie Princess. I do feel a bit left out as boys definitely cruise boys at Naive, but the atmosphere is so good and everyone's so relaxed that even girlies can have a really good time." Dusty thinks that in order to stop Naive getting too faggotty there should be lots of bunny girls. ("And a mini casino," she adds mischievously.) It's not just dykes at Naive either, though they do predominate. There are real boys too. I met a cute gay boy in combat trousers similar to mine who told me that he had deliberately butched it up for the evening after coming last week as a girl. "You look a lot like a lesbian," I told him as he grinned appreciatively. At Madame JoJos there is also a smattering of bemused tourists who wander about the club, truly naive.
The organisers of the night, a gay man and a lesbian, reflect this happy blend. Along with the lad to end all lads, Jewels, there's Peter-Paul, who is a photographer (and hair-donor to Jewels). He documents the drag kings at the club - the latest in a long line of colourful clubbers that he has snapped throughout the Eighties. He describes himself as a "self- confessed 'dyke-hag' ".
Hans comments: "He's a super voyeur.I allow him to be a dyke sometimes. As a sci-fi filmmaker, I like the idea and accept it as a reality." Peter- Paul's work, including his drag king photographs of Jewels and her mates, is due to go on show at the Levi's gallery, London, in December. Levi's is known for television advertisement campaigns that feature hunks taking off their trousers in launderettes and transsexuals in the back of yellow taxis. Whether it would consider using images of a drag king in a barber's chair having his beard shaved off by a bunny girl ... only time will tell. Vanity Fair, you ain't seen nothing yet.
8 Naive at Madame JoJo's every Monday, 8-10 Brewer St, London W1 (0171 494 2479).
There will be an exhibition of P-P Hartnett'sphotography at the Original Levi's Store, 174-176 Regent St, London W1, 2-29 Nov
Frances Williams is the editor of 'Diva' magazine
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