Look queens and why they matter

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 5:07pm

“I like to think of modeling as a performance,” sajid Violet Chachki in an interview with Another Man — and perform she does. Alongside the primarily burlesque-themed shows she puts on, the most recent installment of which featured  the star straddling two men atop a wire, art-deco-style penis rocket suspended from the ceiling, Chachki is one of the increasing number of drag queens (and visibly queer people in general) that have been welcomed into the arms of fashion’s highest guard.

She has walked in a slew of fashion shows, modeled in several campaigns including Prada and its diffusion line, Miu Miu, and has used her platform to express her ideals and her experiences in the industry. On her YouTube channel, she discusses her internal conflict regarding how best to gain agency over how she is perceived on the runway: “You’re already getting looked at as the drag queen, so do you tone it down and try to be taken seriously as a model? Or do you camp it up all the way so everyone’s like, ‘Oh look that’s so cute, look at the drag queen being campy?’ … I just try to walk it how I would.” The impossible scenario she describes, in which she acknowledges the ever-present risk of her work being invalidated regardless of what she does, is also an ironic one.

Whether or not you’re a pupil of the life imitates art or art imitates life school of thought, fashion has been complicit in the production of gender roles, acceptable expressions of identity and structural inequality, ever since ancient populations decided that their leaders and warriors got to wear cooler shit. The evolution of aesthetics has led to a slow-burning erosion of the very norms that they once enforced. Drag highlights the relational networks, not to mention the commodification of identity, that the fashion industry is reliant upon, so it should come as a surprise that queens are just now being tapped, albeit in an occasionally tokenistic way.

The obvious answer to much of this success lies in the immense popularity of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The show’s draw, showing no sign of waning as it drives full speed ahead into the finale of its eleventh season, is such that the mere discussion of it has become so much of a cliché (and I mean that positively) that it’s hard to imagine a time when the only gender-bending performers with any name recognition were Divine, Lady Bunny and the Supermodel of the World herself. The Supermodel video and resulting Viva Glam campaign for MAC, along with the 1990 film “Paris is Burning,” the club kid movement, the electric working relationship between John Waters and Divine and a few other key drops in the queer media bucket were flashes of mainstream subversion that gave their respective audience a sense of hope: Hope that marginalized identities wouldn’t just be accepted, but sought after and valued in the near future.

The signs of what was to come have been realized in years since. The number of queens with booking agents and savings bonds is in the hundreds now, even if you only count the show.,The impact is much greater when other queens as well as queer beauty bloggers, fashion designers and business owners that have been positively impacted by the show in some way are taken into consideration. To posture “RPDR” as the singular catalyst for the exponential outpouring of success for the LGBTQ+ community would be incredibly obtuse, but it serves at the very least as a barometer for its rapidly increasing ability to interact with capitalist markets and a sizable platform that consistently draws attention to it.

The gilded age of identity commodification is here. While there are wild differences in available opportunities for different members of the queer community (which ultimately boils down to class, race, transphobia and the all-encompassing “pretty privilege”), the space is present more than ever before to talk about these issues, in large part because visibility is its own industry and being on the right side of history has become  economically lucrative. You might ask what fashion has to do with the precarious intersection between drag queens, queerness in general and a financial system that may or may not destroy us all, and the answer is absolutely everything.

One of the most important takeaways from the era of PinkNews, dangerous laxatives packaged into tea form and the downright nauseating overuse of the phrase “personal brand” is that individuals have begun to regard themselves as both consumers and markets. Personal presentation carries an acute awareness of how one will be perceived and the financial opportunities that perception will bring. The clearest, most respected source of inspiration for that mode of thinking is through fashionable institutions — labels, houses and publications that present ideas, entire universes even, that can’t quite be bought, but function to sell products that facilitate their emulation.

The process is a mimesis in more ways than one, and drag highlights the production of it all. It highlights the irreconcilable gap between an idea and a product, a feeling and an action, a social movement and its outcome, a gender and a person. The indoctrination of look queens into the cavalcade of fashion’s “elite” is not just about selling an idea; it’s an act of self awareness and a turnkey moment in terms of what it means to define oneself and what it means to be beautiful. An NYX advertisement featuring Aquaria and her new, collaborative eyeshadow palette isn’t just an incredible, expertly crafted assertion of self; it’s a question posed to the casual passerby: “What do you want to look like?” As far as the self is concerned, we are in the wild, wild west, and it really is up to you.