If you haven’t caught the show yet (first of all, please watch it immediately!) let us walk you through the extravaganza of it all.
Ball or ballroom culture, though synonymous with New York in the 1970s and 1980s, has really been around since the 1920s. Primarily, these underground gatherings were a way for young black and latinx LGBTQ+ males to express themselves through dance, performance, fashion, and beauty. Between the drama and the costumes, the scene has had a lasting impact in the mainstream world. Let us count the ways!
Many modern-day fashion, beauty, and lifestyle brands and media publications have ‘borrowed’ some of their most over-used lingo heavily from ball culture. Everytime you hear something like, yasss queen, realness, serving shade, or spill the tea in marketing and communications, remember that it has its roots in the alternative ballroom scene.
Of course, the glitz and glamour of ball costumes has led to our ongoing obsession with the culture. Even the ‘Houses’ (group homes where those who frequent these balls live) often take their name from memorable fashion figures, for example the House of Balenciaga, House of Mugler, House of Lanvin, and House of Gucci. Traditionally, participants took part in OTT ‘pageant’ style contests; representing the House that they live in and vying for trophies in different categories. Certain categories, like High Fashion Evening Wear, afforded queer men and gender non-binary individuals a rare opportunity to express themselves through clothes and forever challenged the boundaries around what constitutes traditional menswear versus womenswear.
Madonna remains an LGBTQ icon. One of the main reasons for this is her smash hit Vogue. In the late 1980s, Madonna was inspired by Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza from the Harlem Ball community. After they introduced her to the concept of ‘Voguing’, she immortalized it in a song that is still popular today. But the dance goes far beyond Madonna. Willi Ninja, considered the godfather of Voguing, explained in the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning that the iconic dance form takes inspiration from the fashion poses in the magazine, pantomime, martial arts, and ballet. Voguing also became an outlet for people to battle it out, instead of resorting to physical fights. These days, Madonna’s song still serves as an empowering anthem and pretty much everyone knows how to throw a few moves on the dancefloor when it comes on the speakers.
Whether it was through dance moves, makeup, or dress, the ballroom scene allowed ostracized individuals to find a safe space for themselves among their peers. The terms gender fluid and gender nonbinary has become normalized and widespread, but it certainly wasn’t always the case. Balls allowed people to discover who they were, often by cross dressing, drag, masquerading, and performance that would have been looked down on elsewhere during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Arguably, that wouldn’t be the case today in fashion or beauty without those who pioneered gender fluidity on the ballroom scene.