There are chapters of queer history that we will never unearth because the evidence has either been lost or destroyed. “Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers,” on view at The Photographers’ Gallery in London through June 3, presents a rare view of gender experimentation from the 1880s to the present with an innocence and joy unseen in other recent exhibitions tackling LGBTQ identities. More important, the show smartly features nearly as many drag kings as queens, a sorely needed reminder that the art form is not a one-way street, despite what Drag Race fans may think.
Curious facts emerge in “Under Cover,” which is predominantly composed of French screenwriter Sébastien Lifshitz’s collection of found photography. Did you know, for example, that prisoners of war performed in drag for their fellow inmates during both World Wars? Or that after being released from their prison camps, many of these performers would later transition by adopting female names and donning conventional women’s clothing? In a tradition that continues today, women at all-female universities in the early 1900s would cross-dress for fake marriage photos. Like their male counterparts, many of them discovered their trans identities through these larks. Armor that exposes the soul, drag has always been a clever way of revealing one’s truth, no matter the century.