The Hidden History Of Soldiers And Drag During Wartime

As the ships of Germany’s notorious Kriegsmarine approach the English coast, troops rush to man the mighty guns that point out to sea. But they’re not decked out in typical soldiers’ uniforms. Instead, they’re clad in dresses and bonnets, having been caught out in the middle of rehearsing a drag performance.

The lasting appeal of drag

Incredibly, the strange sight of servicemen wearing women’s clothing was not an unusual one during World War II. In fact, the history of drag during times of conflict stretches back generations, to the battlefields of World War I — and perhaps even further. And today, many believe that its appeal went far deeper than mere entertainment.

A brave new world

Was drag in the trenches simply a way to keep spirits up as the long months of battle wore on and on? Or was it also a way for members of the LGBTQ+ community to express their true identities in an era where such things were rarely discussed? Although they might not have known it at the time, the dress-wearing soldiers of both world wars helped to pave the way for a brand new world.

World War I

Although historians are unsure exactly when the tradition of soldiers performing in drag started, we know that it became widespread during World War I. On June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian aristocrat Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb student, sparking a crisis that quickly became an all-out conflict between the two countries. And when Russia, Germany, and Britain joined the fray, it soon escalated into a global situation.

Horrific death toll

In April 1917 the United States waded onto the battlefield, helping to decide the course of the war. And in November the following year, the Central Powers were defeated, ushering in a period of peace at last. But by the time that the armistice was signed, some 8.5 million servicemen and women had lost their lives.