Expressing and Dressing: The Significance of Ball Culture and Fashion

There’s a space where our skin and home feel synonymous. 

For some, it’s a walk through the park alone. 

For others, it’s a dingy concert hall cramped up against a stranger screaming the lyrics to the sky. 

But if you ever find yourself in the heart of Harlem, you might see the everlasting glow of the ballroom vogue scene. 

Back in the ‘90s and ‘80s, Ball culture became home to any poor disenfranchised gay or transgendered Black or Latinx persons who couldn’t walk down the street without the risk of a hate crime. The event itself became a safe space for these minority groups who already felt out of place in the outside world. Attendees could walk, pose, perform, vogue (a form of dance that mimics the traditional poses models create in Vogue magazine), cheer, or judge in numerous categories competing for a trophy for themselves or their “House”—a family, or a collective group of friends with a strong bond that replaces the gap their biological relatives left. 

Photo Credit: Miramax

In some ways, Ball culture is a rebirth. A call to be the truest and rawest version of oneself—realness. Showing “realness” is a performative act that transcends traditional drag and exudes glamour in archetypal figures. The concept of “realness” questions the identity of men and women feel most dignified by in the midst of hardship. The answer is shown, however, in how one animates once the MC of the Ball says, “Show me realness.” 

But to discuss what makes one feel “real,” we have to consider the aesthetic roles fashion aids in finding one’s identity. In Ball culture, or “Drag Balls,” every attendee and House is expected to abide and embody a certain category that appeals to popular trends or settings of that time. Some heavily fashionable ones include executive realness, military realness, or femme queen realness (the ability to emulate cis-gendered women). 

The purpose of these categories is personable, especially when it comes to cultivating one’s identity. Categories act the same way public settings act— any cisgendered man or woman walking down the street will never have to feel underrepresented or isolated from the world they know because of their identity and/or sexuality. During the rising years of Ball culture, there was no safe space to be apart of the larger heterosexual and cis-gendered society.

The 1990 documentary called Paris Is Burning by Jennie Livingston attests to the out-cast role many Black and Latinx individuals struggle with. In 1981, Voguing and runway icon Pepper LaBeija took over the roll of Mother for the House of LaBeija where she took in numerous people into her care and helped uplift them to their highest potential. LaBeija states in the documentary that the purpose of Balls is a way of stating one’s truth: “You can become anything and do anything, right here, right now. It won’t be questioned. I came. I saw. I conquered. That’s a ball.” 

Ball culture is still prevalent in our society. What started out as an underground subculture hidden from the harsh realities has now become major house in mainstream pop culture. With shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race winning Emmys and makeup looks deriving from the vanities of drag queens, Ball culture is still alive and thriving. To preserve the rich history and significance of Ball’s, cultural products such as Paris Is Burning is making a return by releasing new, unseen footage since its debut in 1990. Criterion will introduce a 2k restoration of the documentary featuring poignant moments portraying the hardships behind the glamour. 

Fashion ties into the fold of accepting one’s truth when the world doesn’t. The Balls are extra and exaggerated in order to achieve the atmosphere the world offers outside the doors of every venue. Every handmade article of clothing from head to toe is proof of resilience. Proof that there’s no space that is not available to conquer and validate as one’s own.

It’s something we can take for granted. The space to feel like our existence is enough and accepted is something that everyone needs to survive. There’s no cinch or curve that sways us away from that safe place. In Emerson, every day behind the overarching walls of our common, our dining hall, or our sidewalks to and fro class, we are celebrated by our ability to express. There are no second glances or hushed whispers of judgment. There are no gaped mouths of disgust or blabbering slew of insults. There are no calls for an occasion. We are compelled by the strong urge to be our unapologetic selves—that’s the heart of Ball culture. 

Navigating our identity through any medium such as fashion is essentially finding our home. Whether we’re feeling lost or hopeless to find such a home, it’s important to remember that we all deserve to feel dignified. For ourselves, and only ourselves.

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