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Drag King in a creatively upcycled stage costume from thrift store finds, showcasing sustainable fashion and gender performance wear by Kings of Joy.

From Thrift Store Finds To Stage-Ready Ensembles – A Guide To Upcycling For The Aspiring Drag King

costume drag king May 09, 2024

One of the most fun aspects of being a Drag King is creating costumes. In the underground Drag King scene, many of us trawl through pre-loved clothing. And we find pieces of gold discarded by others. 

This is the magic of upcycling. It requires imagination, patience and some elbow grease. Your mission is to find already-made clothing and transform it into a costume fit for a King.

Use this guide to increase your chances of recognising and finding gold in an op shop, charity shop or thrift store. 

The Art of Thrift Shopping

The hunt is on!

Start in the men’s section and move swiftly through each and every piece of clothing on the rack. You are looking for style first, then size. 

Remember, a costume is distinct from everyday clothing and what you’d wear down the street. It requires a dazzling transformation to take it from the street to the stage. Read more here.

To start with, we are going to find everyday pieces of clothing and transform them for the stage.

Seek first your Style

Style is the structure and shape of the clothing.

Have in mind what you are looking for. A pre-prepared Pinterest board can help tremendously. Use it to compare your pinned images to what you’re seeing in front of you.

What is your Drag King persona’s profession? Are you looking for clothes that are specific to work? Think high-vis garments and hard hats or a professor’s outfit.

Are you playing a sport like basketball or going to the gym?

Imagine you are a gay boy getting ready for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras After Party. Or any themed queer dance party. What would you wear?

Understanding fabric

Fabric that is good to move in often has a stretch to it. 

Hold the garment in your hands and stretch it one way then stretch it the opposite way. It might have zero stretch, a 2 way stretch or better yet, a 4 way stretch where it stretches in both directions.

Most suits are not made of stretch fabric but will help create a strong masculine silhouette. Consider adding shoulder pads. We want our costumes to create the illusion of the masc ‘V’. This is where the shoulders are broad and everything leads down to the Crown Jewels in a V shape.

Always check the fabric label. High-quality materials will last longer. Plus they lend a more professional finish to your upcycled pieces.

Pattern & Colour

The reason we look for style first before colour is because we can cover the colour. It's much harder to change the style. Often we use sequin fabric to cover sections of clothing, for example, lapels on jackets.

So don’t be too concerned about the current colour of the item. 

Look for fun patterns that will stand out on stage or delightful fabrics that shine. 

South Africa’s Drag Daddy Casual Harry says, ”You can do a black suit once. Then move onto something more interesting!”

The same goes for greys, beige and whites. I know - Men’s clothing can be highly unimaginative and downright boring. This is where costume transformation comes in.

So first look for style, then we can add colour and bedazzle later.

How to shop efficiently

Grab items that are the style you are going for, made from decent fabric and around your size. Next, let’s head to the changerooms. Get ready because this part can be an aerobic workout. So dress accordingly when you go shopping.

Size and Fit: It’s never you, it’s always the clothes

You do have to try clothes on to see if they fit. It’s normal to try on many, many pairs of pants/clothes until you find ones that fit. So don’t be discouraged if many don’t fit. This is normal.

Remember, if the clothes don’t fit, it’s NOT you, it’s the poor design of the clothing. It’s never you or your body. You can always find or make clothes that fit.

Clothing should fit properly across the shoulders. You should also find the correct (for your body) size pants. If you don’t fit into men’s sizes, search the women’s section for the more masculine cuts.

It’s possible to take clothes to be altered for a cost, but it will help if you find the right fit to begin with. The one exception is if you’re going for the oversized look.

As you try on clothes, sort them into ‘No’, ‘Hell Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ piles. Once you are through all the clothes, put all the ‘no’s’ back on the No Rack. You can decide what to buy at the very end.

I had a friend who used to go into shops, take a shopping basket and put whatever her heart desired into the basket. At the end of the shopping adventure, she would put it all back. She just needed the feeling of being able to have whatever she wanted, even momentarily 🙂

Make the choice about what to buy at the very end once you have everything and can consider it all.

Decision-making and purchases

Ok, you’ve made it up towards the counter, but before you line up, take a moment with your ‘Hell Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ piles. 

You’ve already picked out the right style and the right size (or will have it altered).

Keep your ‘Hell Yes’ items. These are the items that excite and inspire you. That make you want to dance. 

Sort through your ‘Maybe’ pile. Can you imagine upcycling this piece into a costume? Are there sections that could be bedazzled? Or shiny inserts put in? 

Think about adding masc accessories. You can also add beading, fringing, sequins, shiny fabric, or glitter. Found 3D objects from Reverse Garbage like CDs or discarded bottle tops can add texture.

Look for beauty in things that are odd and imperfect. As designer Marc Jacobs said, "They are much more interesting."

And finally, ask yourself, does this align with the routine and my Drag King persona?

Great! You’re now ready to buy!

DIY Upcycling

Start small. Upcycling can be daunting, so start with a simple project. This way you can build your confidence and skills.

Here are some examples.

👑 Take a suit jacket. Add sequin fabric to the lapels, pockets flaps and cuffs. Use fabric glue for easy application.

👑 Take pants. Glue a metallic ribbon or a strip of fabric down the outside of each leg.

👑 Take denim shorts. Cut out the panels on the back for instant denim chaps.

👑 Take an 80s-style T-shirt. Cut it into a crop top. Bedazzle the logo with a hot glue gun and stick on diamontes.

👑 Add fringing - down the sides of pants, on the edges of jacket pockets, shoulders or arms.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep," says writer Scott Adams.

Be creative. Take some risks! Experiment.

Be proud & sustainable

A costume you have put effort into will not only stand out on stage but be something you can be proud of. 

Upcycling is an art form, a way to express yourself. It's about seeing potential in the ordinary and transforming it into the extraordinary. 

Additionally, you’ll reduce your environmental footprint.

We often think of sustainability as a moral sacrifice or political dilemma. Designer Bjarke Ingles asks us to think of sustainability as a design challenge.

This gets our brains working in new ways.

Let's end the cycle of fast fashion.

So, to all aspiring Drag Kings out there, remember: the stage is your canvas, and you are the artist. Let your creativity shine, and let your work inspire others to do the same.


Danica Lani

The King Coach

P.S. Wanna be a Drag King? Click here to join the waiting list for Kings of Joy

Hello handsome, 🌈 I'm Danica Lani, also known as The King Coach. I'm here to empower you in your exploration of gender, sexuality, and performance. I have proudly mentored and choreographed 106 first-time Drag Kings since December 2020. Welcome to the joyous community of Kings of Joy, where we uplift and celebrate each other every step of the way! 🎉🤩 Let's embark on this Drag King journey together, cheering each other on! 🤗💖 #KingsOfJoy 

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