Fashion Flashback:

For this week’s Fashion Flashback, we’re looking back at the iconic beginnings of Ball culture in celebration of Pride Month, in conjunction with #BlackLivesMatter. 

           —By Luisa Tarantino

Ball and drag culture has become widely popular in the queer community, but it’s important to remember that ball culture was created by and headed by the Black and Latinxs queer community. The Harlem renaissance (1920-1935), an artistic, cultural, and intellectual movement that centred around the development and celebration of black life, literature, art, and music had a significant influence on the growth and evolution of ballroom culture, as many of the movement’s leaders identified as having fluid sexualities, and brought about discourses on the intersection of race, gender, sex, and sexuality. Throughout the years, Harlem became a site of LGBTQIA+ art and activism, leading to Harlem becoming the birthplace of  ‘voguing,’ a dance created by black and Latinxs LGBTQIA+ communities.

In the 1960s and ’80s, balls were born. ‘Balls’ were no longer just drag competitions, but elaborate pageants that included many forms of performance, from vogue battles to catwalk competitions. While there were also white men doing drag, the black and Latinxs queens were expected to lighten their face in order to compete, leading to black and Latinxs communities creating their own distinct communities and “Houses,” groups of queens/participants belonging to a competitive affiliation, and more so for many queens fleeing prosecution in society, a surrogate family. Marcel Christian (LaBeija) is often credited with staging the first black drag ball in 1962, with Crystal and Lottie Labeija being the founders of the House of Labeija.

ballroom culture

ballroom culture

Crystal Labeija (Left)

Other Houses began to form, and balls were thrown in order for Houses to compete with one another, with other Houses also throwing their own balls. In 1981, Paris Dupree,  who was the Mother of the House of Dupree, threw the first Paris Is Burning ball, making it the first time (that we know of) that categories were lent significantly more importance than they had been before. There were a slew of categories and variations, from butch realness to the model effect to serving face. Categories often played with notions of gender and gender representation, race, and class – queens walked executive looks (how well one could completely pass as an executive/corporate worker), thug realness (hyper-masculine representation), and ethnic. Through theses category performances, queens explored the themes of resistance and conformance, both breaking gender norms and acknowledging that in order to fit in in a society that condemns the black/Latinxs community, especially the queer community, one would have to embody the archetype as well as possible. In doing so, the ballroom gave these communities access to a society and spaces they normally couldn’t gain entry, but also allowed them to express themselves as freely and as safely as possible, no matter which category they walked.

As a result, fashion played a major role in ballroom culture. Many Houses often even took their names from major fashion houses (Saint Laurent, Balenciaga). In many ways, ballroom culture drew from popular aesthetics, but also created their own – many of which still exist today. Fashion, of course, not only helped queens serve the most realness in the category they walked, but also served as means of expression for many queens who did not dress as they did for balls in their day to day lives. And queens not only ‘walked,’ but vogued, combining dance with unique poses as often seen by models in the fashion world.

Willi Ninja, the Godfather of Voguing

Clip of Willi Ninja from Paris is Burning (1991), available to watch here

Ballroom culture also often made references to high fashion, creating categories such as “High Fashion Evening Wear” for example. In part, high fashion categories allowed the queens, many of who came from low-income families and neighbourhoods, a way to express themselves through fashion and live within that fantasy. Oftentimes, looks were over the top, or ‘camp,’ but such was born from the escapism fashion provided for queens. Fashion and extravagance allowed queens to construct their own worlds, spaces, and identities.

Fashion, ‘dressing up,’ and theatrics allowed queens to conquer their space, to be the centre of attention and admiration during their walk. Indeed, fashion was used as a vehicle for ‘self-fashioning.’ It also redefined and created new ways of dressing and understanding fashion for ‘men’ and ‘women,’ and the ways that fashion serves as a tool to play with gender representation. Through their clothes, makeup, and accessories, queens fully expressed their creativity and artistry – creating worlds that had no limitations.

Pepper LaBeija, captured in Paris is Burning

Pepper LaBeija, captured in Paris is Burning

Undoubtedly, ballroom culture had a massive influence on the pop culture of our day, from fashion to music to popular slang, breaking boundaries beyond just the queer community. And it is important to remember the black and Latinxs queer community that contributed so greatly to the culture. Ballroom culture prevails and will continue to – just last year, the MET Gala’s theme ‘camp,’ pulled directly from the fashion and ways of expressions born of ballroom culture.

Queer icons continue to be major sources of inspiration for fashion and major designers. The queer community continues to create and set trends, and in many ways, inspire fashion houses to embrace gender ambiguity in fashion. Drag allows for an entirely new realm of creative expression – a realm that has no bounds or limitations. Indeed, the queer community and its artists remind us every day that a world that is diverse is beautiful – and the kind of world we want to live in.

Celebrate Pride Month with Willi Ninja’s incredible performance.


For previous segments of Fashion Flashback, click here.

Written on: June 27, 2020