Story+ Project

Category Is…Hoopskirt Extravaganza: Femme Drag, Ballrooms, and Southern Belle Realness


Overview: This project interrogates the hoopskirt as an artefact of racist, sexist, and heteronormative practices since the antebellum era that have persisted under the guise of “white Southern” heritage and Confederate nostalgia. However, the historic iconography of the hoopskirt and its representative ideologies are being contested through BIPOC, Queer, and Trans performances of femme drag in contemporary culture. In 2019, Tony award-winning actor and trans-rights activist Billy Porter appeared on the red carpet of the 91st Academy Awards wearing a custom Christian Siriano tuxedo complete with a full hoopskirt gown. This iconic moment represents a shift in our collective awareness elevating BIPOC, Queer, and Trans bodies through a performance of class, wealth, and even royalty by literally taking up more space through a politic of fashion, fabrics, and hoops. Porter’s transgressive performance against social and fashion norms is a continuation of a lineage of “men in dresses” that can be traced from the female impersonators of 19th century blackface minstrelsy to the “final looks” on RuPaul’s Drag Race today. In this STORY+ project, participants will engage in both traditional and creative research methodologies for generating and sharing their findings.

Six-week plan: Over the course of the six-week project, this STORY+ team will conduct three interlocking “hoops” of research:

  • (re)search the archive of Harper’s Magazine and RuPaul’s Drag Race with an eye towards the hoopskirt’s antebellum past and queer present,
  • (re)construct the artifact by building traditional and fashion-forward hoopskirts, petticoats, and steel cage crinoline as a practice-based method of inquiry, and finally
  • (re)hearse the performance of hoopskirts through theater-making and embodied research practice culminating in a multimedia installation/runway.

A Typical Day might begin with a physical warmup and an embodied “in(queer)y” centering a critical movement principle, such as: queer ways of walking, turning, dropping, voguing, camping, etc. During the second block of the day, researchers will shift to one of two research “hoops”: (re)searching the archive of Rubenstein’s collection of Harper’s Magazine in search of hoopskirt images, cartoons, articles, references, etc. and searching for use of hoopskirt, petticoats, and crinoline in the “final looks” of Rupaul’s Drag Race seasons one through fifteen. -OR- Researchers will (re)construct the artifact in the Duke Costume Shop to investigate both traditional and fashion-forward design and construction strategies for hoopskirts, petticoats, and crinoline. Over the course of the six week, researchers will build at least three different hoopskirts together. During the final block of the day, the team will reconvene to share findings and reflection of the day’s work and sketch an agenda for the next. On Fridays, special attention will be given to the third hoop: (re)hearsing the performance. The team sponsor will facilitate an Embodiment Lab with the researchers to workshop creative and embodied approaches to sharing research toward the multimedia installation/runway in the final week.

Key words: Fashion, Embodiment, Femme Drag, Antebellum South, Queer Performance

Preferred skills/interests for undergraduates: Student researchers should be prepared to engage their critical and creative minds as well as their creative bodies, and to engage critical issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class. We are seeking researchers who demonstrate intellectual curiosity and a flexibility to learn new skills and work in divergent ways and who may also have skills in diverse media especially for projections and who are open to movement.

We seek some mix of the following interests and skills on our team, with the expectation that we will also be empowering students with the development of many of these skills:

  • Historians/dramaturgs engaged in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies
  • Designers: Costume design, sewing, constructing garments, use of a sewing machine
  • Writers: abilities to write or compose data within a poetic/narrative collage
  • Movers: dance, yoga, directing, physical acting skills
  • Digital designer: to helping us organize the visual data for projections used during the performance/runway (use of the Adobe Cloud suite, Keynote, or PowerPoint)
  • Videographers/Photographers: to document embodied inquiry, rehearsals, and performance/runway.

Preferred skills/interests for the graduate student mentor:

In addition to the skills listed for undergraduate researchers, we believe this project will be a good fit for historians and researchers interested in

  • the Antebellum South
  • Queer Studies
  • dance/movement
  • interdisciplinary methodologies
  • practice-based/creative research
  • fashion
  • digital/performance design
Project Sponsor(s): 

Johann R Montozzi-Wood, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Theater Studies


  • Archives
  • Embodiment
  • Fashion
  • History
  • Queer Studies