24 November 2012

Drag Queen’s English: Vogue

Leeds (Lower Briggate)_Queen's Court
Vogue is a well known word nowadays. Its meaning has been bent in the 80’s and assumed a new (modern) position – position which is now depicted in formal dictionaries and in the general consciousness of the Western World. Being a non-English speaker, far removed from the cultural setting from where the modern meaning of vogue sprung, I didn’t understand what such word meant when I first heard Madonna’s hit Vogue.
The only person who managed to make me understand the meaning of vogue was my first ‘serious’ boyfriend. Two factors singled him out from our regular hang out group as the person who had a better insight of the new meaning of vogue: he performed as a drag queen, impersonating Madonna, and had a reasonable knowledge of the American pop gay culture.
“Vogue is this…” He began explaining and, instead of using words, he started contorting his arms around his body, assuming a close-up pose with each movement.
Vogue music video

The Concise OED defines vogue as “the prevailing fashion or style at a particular time.” OED still highlights that vogue is often used in the phrase ‘in/out of vogue’ and shows that vogue entered into English in the 16th Century, from French and Italian voga ‘rowing, fashion’. As a verb, however, OED defines vogue with its modern meaning: “dance to music in a way that imitates the poses struck by a model on a catwalk.” No further detail on this meaning is given.
Happily, the Queen Mother RuPaul, in season one of RuPauls Drag Race, mentioned the origins of the modern meaning of vogue. “Vogue was introduced to the world in the cult classic Paris is Burning. And, of course, the mainstream learned about voguing from another queen; name: Madonna…”
RuPaul's Drag Race, s. 01 ep. 06_Mini-Challenge: Vogue Off

It’s during the mini-challenge, a vogue off, that RuPaul further evidences that the features of his eccentric English are not simply idiosyncratic but they actually echo the English of a whole social subgroup. There are two ways of being introduced to the roots of RuPaul’s Drag Queens English: by travelling back to the Golden Age of drag balls during the 80’s in New York City, or by watching Paris is Burning. Watching this documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, can also make one grasp how the word vogue was deviated from its traditional sense in English.
We start to grasp the germ of such deviation when a drag queen named Dorian Corey explains the distinction between Shade and Reading: “Shade came from reading. Reading came first. Reading is the real art form of insult. You get in a good crack and everyone laughs because you found a flaw and exaggerated it. We talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes. Then Reading became a more developed form; where it became shade.”
Shade, if I really understood, is a subtler form of reading – though I have the impression that these words are sometimes used as synonyms. It’s by understanding the sense of shade, that we can understand the meaning of Voguing. This is what the choreographer Willi Ninja explains. “Voguing came from shade because it was a dance that two people do because they didn’t like each other. Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor and whoever did the better moves was throwing the best shade, basically. It’s the same thing as taking knives and cutting each other up, but through a dance form. So voguing is like a safe form of throwing shade.”
Finally, Willi Ninja helps us to understand how the verb vogue proceeds from voguing. “The name is taken from the magazine Vogue, because some of the movements of the dance are also the same as the poses inside the magazine.”
Vogue seems to have the characteristics of a slang term; it’s a word restricted to a particular social group and context, and it also can be paralleled to reading and throwing shade. Yet, OED doesn’t label vogue as slang. It’s patent that vogue, with its modern meaning, just became mainstream English. And that evidences that there’s only a thin line that distinguishes strangeness and Standard when it comes to language (English, if you will).

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