A few years ago, the photographer Damien Frost went onto the streets of London every evening, looking for drag queens. He took a portrait of one of these ‘night flowers’ every day for a year, often finding that Soho bore the prettiest blooms. In one image, Irma Mess shoots a withering stare down the lens, a Teutonic set of plaits coiled around her head. On Bourchier Street, Miss Fit rocks a hairdo made of oversized sequins, wearing a strappy corset that looks like it could be made from seatbelts (it is somehow still stunning).
Stand in any spot in SOHO a little while, and you’re sure to espy one of these divine, otherworldly creatures sashaying through the evening, a glint in their eyes, before they vanish.
Dragging up itself is nothing new. In London, it was the theatre of Shakespeare and his peers that first caused men to dress as women. Females were a no-no onstage, and so – sometimes with reluctance, sometimes with a frisson of excitement – a male actor would stuff himself into a gown, take his voice up an octave, and be Desdemona for the night. They’d never know they were a distant forerunner to the likes of Barry Humphries, who debuted Dame Edna Everage at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club on Greek Street in the early 60s.
You might say the world of drag orbited Soho for some centuries before honing in. Mother Clap’s Molly House in nearby Holborn was a none-too-clandestine joint where 18th-century men frequently dressed as women (Sundays were busiest). In 1870, the young pair Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were brought to Bow Street Magistrates Court in Covent Garden, on the charge of “the abominable crime of buggery”. They were dressed as their female alter egos, Fanny and Stella.
But the Soho gay scene as we know it now – and the drag that came with it – didn’t properly explode until the 1980s, when the powers that be clamped down on the smut barons, and space opened up for a different brand of entertainment.
In today’s Soho, you needn’t wait till after dark to indulge in drag. You can eat your eggs benedict, watching Vanity von Glow stalk the stage at Soho Zebrano. Shimmy along with queens who lead walking tours through the area. Or call into the Admiral Duncan at the close of the weekend, to be greeted by the saccharine tones of Baga Chipz. It’s good to know Sundays are still popular.