Aurélie Godet

Festive Drag in Context: Historicizing Transvestism in New Orleans from the Eighteenth Century to the Present


While Judith Butler’s and Marjorie Garber’s works have been invaluable for challenging the supposedly natural relationships between binary sex, gender, and sexuality, their theoretical insights have sometimes been criticized for their apparent disconnection from specific sociohistorical contexts in which “gender trouble” (Butler) and “category crises” (Garber) emerge.

This paper is an attempt to resist the imposition of contemporary gender and sexual identities onto past cross-dressing practices by shifting attention away from a metaphoric use of drag or a recognizablecross-dressing figure to multiple forms of cross-dressing practices in one specific locale – i.e New Orleans, a city that has sometimes been described as a “cultural blender of the Atlantic world” (Sylvia Frey) –, on specific occasions (festivals such as Mardi Gras), but over a long period of time (from 1718 until today).

In doing so I carve out analytic space for practices that do not always attach to recognizable cultural figures (such as the “passing woman” or the “drag queen”) and may actually be harder to interpret. These include the cross-dressing of a French Company of the Indies clerk at a 1730 Lundi Gras wedding, the cross-dressing of male and female Mardi Gras celebrants in the 1870s and 1880s, the transvestism of “female impersonators” at gay carnival balls in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the contemporary gender-bending practices of participants in the “Red Dress Run.”

Taken together, these case studies will hopefully shedlight on the extent to which understandings of gender (and occasionally race) have changed over the past three centuries in New Orleans and, more largely, in the Atlantic world. 



Aurélie Godet is an Associate Professor of US History at Nantes Université, France. She is the co-editor of the online, peer-reviewed Journal of Festive Studies and is currently at work on a manuscript titled Festive City: The Politics of Leisure in New Orleans fromthe Colonial Era to the Present.