Ballroom culture has been the foundation of mainstream fashion for decades, influencing modern TV shows from RuPaul’s Drag Race to the Emmy Award winning show Pose. Yet ballroom-inspired fashion is not a new phenomenon. Ballroom culture has been around since the early ’80s, as shown in the classic movie Paris Is Burning. Another example of its influence is Madonna using voguing in her extremely successful music video, “Vogue,” which featured many of the early Xtravaganza family members. Xtravaganza is one of the most influential and popular ballroom houses.
The ballroom was and is a way for people in the Black and Latinx community to feel safe and loved while dealing with the extreme adversities that come with being LGBTQ+ and a person of color. In the reality TV show My House, a few of the stars come from families that may not be accepting of their sexuality, thus leading to them being kicked out at a young age or not feeling as appreciated as they should be. In response, dancers built a sort of infrastructure so that pupils could have a sense of family and belonging. At every ball, there are a set of different categories, such as Runway, Realness With a Twist, Face, and more. The people competing are in a “house,” which is a group of performers that work together to become successful. Some houses excel more than others, but anyone can make one as long as they’re a respected figure in the community. Houses are almost always named after a high-end fashion brand, like “Balenciaga” or “Mugler.”
Ballroom is very centered around how you appear to others, the way you carry yourself, and what you wear. It all depends on what category you’re competing in; if it’s a face category, contestants should have characteristics like good teeth, good makeup, and nice cheekbones to get the judges’ attention. If the category is Runway, they should have a creative outfit and exude confidence with every step. Dancers will often “vogue,” which means moving their hands rapidly in a graceful manner. This technique evolved in the ’80s and changed the way modern dancers move, and even how models walk the runways.
Today, there are numerous reflections of ballroom impact on the fashion industry and even the way we dance. Opening Ceremony, which used to be a high-end retail brand, struck people’s attention when they declared that they would have Sasha Velour, a RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine winner, be a part of that year’s collection of clothing. This was a big deal, and a start to diversifying the industry. Another example of ballroom influence was in 2019, when the Met Gala’s theme was “Camp,” which is best described as an extravagant garment that is still relatively “cheap” looking. The actor Billy Porter’s look at the Met Gala was an Egyptian-themed outfit with wings, and at the 2019 Oscars he wore a tuxedo gown all in one.
People in the ballroom scene have to make their visions come true using inspiration and creativity. Some make their own intricate one-of-a-kind pieces in hopes to win their category and obtain the prize. If your piece does not fit in with the category, you will be cut by the judges. This can be challenging to deal with, especially if your garment cost a lot of money and took time to put together. But the freedom and empowerment that the performers receive is the real prize.
The ballroom is something that brings joy to the Black and brown LGBTQ+ community. It’s a way to fulfill their self-expression, which they may not be able to do without the ballroom scene. When you watch, you can see the confidence and vigor that these performers have. They protect each other and make sure that everyone is doing okay, because some people may not have anyone outside of the ballroom.
Through practicing and sometimes living together, the houses ensure that they protect one another and keep each other safe. They have made families within these houses, and it is really important to see how community can stem from fashion.