You thought Rupaul invented drag? Hunty, you better listen up.
Way back in 15th century, masquerade, costume balls, and cross-dressing were a huge part of the carnival tradition. During the season of carnival, cross-dressing was seen as a challenge to the status quo and, in order to try and turn cultural hierarchies on their heads, women dressed as men, men dressed as women, beggars dressed as kings and, through costume and mask, the powerless were able to become powerful.
The subversion of social norms that was ingrained in the carnival culture is also a fundamental part of LGBT+ history, and masks and masquerade have long since been a part of the queer tradition. In fact, the gay masquerade ball is generally considered the precursor to twentieth century drag. Yup, you heard it here first.
In the early twentieth century, masks were symbolic images used in queer fiction to explain the feelings of LGBT people who had to hide their true identities. Gay Dutch author Charley van Heezen even published a novel called The Mask (Het masker) in 1922 that explored the experiences of young queer men in the Netherlands.
By the mid-1920s, masquerade balls had become the heart of queer club scenes in Berlin, Paris, and London, and LGBT+ people would come together to flout social norms and expectations without the fear, necessarily, of being ‘outed’. The famous lesbian bar ‘Violetta’ in Berlin would give away prizes for the best costumes and masks, and its New Year’s Eve masquerade ball saw thousands of queer women flock to the club.
In Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern, 1919), noted as the first positive gay feature film, a scene with a masquerade ball in Berlin highlights just how important masked balls were to queer people, enabling them to be themselves in a safe space.
Although times have changed, and the ‘masking’ of LGBT+ identities does not have the same imperative in the UK as it once did, the challenging of social norms that comes with carnival, masking, and drag is something that should always be celebrated and safeguarded.
Now you’ve briefly been schooled in the history of queer masquerade, you better get werking on those masks!
Images: wikicommons; GIPHY.