Domestic Drag: The #TillieTuesday Archive (part 1)

On August 15, 2017, the Gerber/Hart Library and Archive posted a black and white photograph of a drag queen named Miss Tillie to the popular social media site Instagram.  In this photograph, Miss Tillie smiles with tight lips and bright eyes.  Her hair is coiffed into a bouffant.  Her eyes and lips are lined with heavy make-up that stands out against her white skin.  On her ears, long earrings dangle.  She wears black elbow length gloves sparkling jeweled bracelets on both wrists.  A form fitting black dress covered in an abstract pattern hugs her body. Her shoulders are draped with a black feather boa.  In the corner of the photograph, the words “Holland Chicago” are embossed, indicating that this picture was taken by a professional.  The most striking element of this photograph is Miss Tillie’s pose.  She stands with one hip out and one heeled foot in front of the other.  With her left hand, she grabs the curtain behind her, as though she is about to pull it back.  What might she reveal?  Viewers are left to wonder.

With this photograph, the Gerber/Hart posted the following caption, resplendent with hashtags designed describe its subject matter and attract attention:

Happy Tillie Tuesday! Every week we feature a photo of our favorite vintage drag queen, Tillie “The Dirty Old Lady of Chicago.” This week features Tillie in either the 1950s or 1960s. #thedirtyoldladyofchicago #tillie #tillietuesday #tillietuesdays  #gerberhart  #lgbtq #vintagedrag  #dragqueen  #chicagodrag #chicagodragqueen #1950s #1960s[1]

This photograph and caption are a part of an unfolding digital archive I call the #TillieTuesday archive.  Every Tuesday, the Gerber/Hart posts a photograph with the hashtag #TillieTuesday, thus creating a new archive of Miss Tillie’s photographs.  These photographs circulate differently than the “Miss Tillie Papers” housed within in the Gerber/Hart ’s archives, despite the #TillieTuesday archive being a subset of the same material.  Unlike the physical photographs, the #TillieTuesday archive can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection and shared with a click.  The #TillieTuesday photos are not captioned according to conventional historical methodologies based on objectivity.  Instead, the Gerber/Hart ’s captions emphasize the limitations of historical understandings and the social nature of the photographs.  The special dynamics of social media combined with the content of these photographs create a unique digital counter archive.  The #TillieTuesday archive is an example of how queer and transgender people used photography for celebration, survival, and resistance.   Miss Tillie’s photographs subvert historical visual regimes of domesticity, police surveillance, and voyeuristic photojournalism, while also reinforcing whiteness as normative.

I’ll be discussing Miss Tillie in my forthcoming dissertation. Here are a few thoughts about her photographs.

Curtains and drapery figure prominently in the more personal photographs in the #TillieTuesday archive.  #TillieTuesday archive contains eight pictures of Miss Tillie inside a home in front of drapery.  These window treatments resemble the curtains in her professional photographs. For example, in a photograph posted on August 29th, 2017, Miss Tillie stands, hand on one hip, in front of a window curtain.  She stands in same stance she assumes in several of her professional photographs.  Her sequined knee-length dress is not as flamboyant as some of her stage costumes, but it is still striking.  On top of her wig, she wears a large feathered hat, along with her typical earring and necklace.  To the left of Miss Tillie sits a coffee table with silver tea set.  To her right, a golden Buddha head hangs on the wall.  The result is a photograph in which Miss Tillie embodies the idea of a stage performance, but within the interior of a middleclass home.  Through Miss Tillie’s presence and pose, the window drapery is transformed into a stage curtain and this home interior becomes a performance space.

The tea set and Buddha are striking editions to this scene and in the context of Miss Tillie’s whiteness take on an air of the orientalist exotic, a common theme in on-stage drag performances of the time.

This photograph and others in the #TillieTuesday archive centers whiteness as normative, but the #TillieTuesday archive does challenge norms of domesticity.  I’ll discuss how in my next post.

h o t - a i r

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