By my count, during the most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, 140 runway looks walked down the main stage runway. Yes, 140 in just one season (though Season 11 was the biggest ever, with 15 queens competing). Still, when you consider there have been 15 regular and All Stars seasons of varying lengths, it’s not a reach to say there have been more than 1,000 runway looks served by the queens of Drag Race in the show’s herstory.
But with so many garments in the annals, how can we remember the best of the best? The easiest way to do so is to remember them by category: looks from balls, looks from makeover challenges, looks from finales, etc. In that vein, I’ve selected the best look in seven different categories from across the series’ many seasons.
Picking out strong highlights of more specific categories is a better way of remembering the history of the Drag Race runway than a simple top 10-or-so would. The best look made from unconventional materials, for example, will never quite stack up to a multi-thousand dollar gown brought from home but outfits made from trash, scraps, and more stand out in memory than some of the most expensive dresses to hit the main stage. Breaking these down into categories helps honor the full scope of Drag Race runway looks.
Consider this, then, a collection of standards that others should hope to match or surpass on the runway. Because with 15 seasons in the record books, queens in the upcoming Season 12 and All Stars 5 — not to mention Drag Race UK and Drag Race Canada — will have to work especially hard to gag us with their eleganza.
Best unconventional materials design
Sharon Needles’ RuPocalyptic runway (Season 4, Episode 1)
In many ways, Sharon Needles’ season premiere runway is the most revolutionary look to ever hit the Drag Race stage. The first three seasons of the show were, by and large, drag pageants writ large. Up until Season 4, only Raja and Manila Luzon in Season 3 had pushed the fashion envelope beyond the expected. The expected was often very good, especially from queens like Nina Flowers and Tyra Sanchez, but it didn’t break the mould.
In contrast, Sharon took the mould and gave it a full exorcism. Her RuPocalypse Now runway was impressive enough just as a garment: all brown and burnt, looking properly dystopian. But what put it over the edge was Sharon’s decision to spurt fake, dark blood out of her mouth while on the runway. It was shocking to see and thus could’ve backfired. No one had turned out a look so ghoulish on the Drag Race stage before; it easily could have been ruled inappropriate for this venue. Yet RuPaul giving Sharon the win was a sign that the show was ready to move into a new era. A fantastic look, as well as a major gag.
Best ball look
Shea Coulée’s construction worker runway (Season 9, Episode 11)
The ball challenges have been host to some of the all-time greatest looks in Drag Race herstory. From Adore Delano’s diamond drag in Season 6’s Glitter Ball to Alaska’s cotton candy confection in Season 5’s Sugar Ball, this task usually brings out the best of the best in the most creative queens. Such was the case in Season 9’s Gayest Ball Ever, in which queens were tasked with creating couture looks inspired by the Village People.
Shea Coulée got assigned the construction worker materials, and took that concept to its most stunning possible conclusion. She paired the iconic yellow construction hat with a perfect set of matching boots, and added a gorgeous yellow lip to match. The accompanying top and jean shorts were perfect complements.
But what really put the look over the top was a stunning flannel shirt cape that Shea quilted. It made the look breathtaking to watch as she walked, billowing behind her. The effect made Shea look superheroic, and elevated the look from a fun take on the Village People to downright fabulous. Some have argued Sasha Velour did better in this ball as a whole, with three solid looks across all three categories. But I understand why the judges were so enraptured by this one look, they had to give Shea the win.
Naomi Smalls’ scarecrow runway (Season 8, Episode 6)
While Naomi’s look for her partner in the Wizards of Drag makeover runway was cute, it was her own design that earned its place in the canon. Given the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz as her inspiration, Naomi managed the rare feat of a look that clearly evokes the point of reference without simply replicating it. (Kim Chi and Thorgy Thor, who both turned out good looks for this challenge, were much more literal.)
Pairing a skirt made loosely of plaid fabrics with a rigid, strong straw bust was a winning combination. Of particular excellence was Naomi’s choice of hair, a blonde that quite clearly evoked straw. You really do get scarecrow when you look at the complete outfit, but it’s not just a Scarecrow costume. Naomi is one of a few queens — Season 7’s Violet Chachki and Miss Fame and Season 10’s Aquaria included — who have pushed the drag of Drag Race toward a more fashion-focused lane in its later seasons. This look is exemplar of that: Naomi turned the challenge prompt on its head and made something that would’ve been fabulous in nearly any category.
Naomi was mostly drawing dead in the competition up until this point, but this was her moment to shine — and she knocked this challenge out of the park.
Best high concept outfit
Courtney Act’s wings runway (Season 6, Episode 9)
Sometimes, you just gotta wow the crowd with high-impact glamour. Courtney Act used the animal inspiration runway prompt to go big, pulling a magnificent pair of wings out of a contraption on her back. Her wingspan took up half the damn runway! At the end of the day, the Drag Race runway is a place to stun with sheer beauty, and this look accomplished that in a big way. This was also Courtney’s best use of her own body, which she’d been criticized for relying on in previous weeks. While there’s still plenty of skin showing, Courtney wisely made the wings the focal point, so that her sexy look would be the gravy instead of the meat of the meal.
Courtney’s run on Drag Race Season 6 is underestimated in retrospect, largely because she was so clearly the third-placer when it came down to her, Bianca Del Rio, and Adore Delano. Still, this Miss Universe fantasy has us craving for more Courtney. If this is what she could pull out back then, who knows what she’d be able to accomplish in an All Stars season?
Best finale look
Shangela’s’ ballgown runway (All Stars 3, Episode 8)
Speaking of All Stars, Shangela showed us she earned her title as a professional queen in the years between Season 3 and All Stars 3. She consistently stunned on the runway — at least, when she didn’t have to make her own outfits. (We won’t speak about her disco monstrosity.) But no look delivered the polish the way her finale gown did. Shangela said from her very first days on Drag Race that she was going to be a star, and in this gown, she looked Oscars-ready. Her hair was an unusual shape for her, creating the illusion of golden waves cresting down her face. Considering she usually prefers bigger, fuller wigs, the change-up really sold the fantasy of the movie star glow-up as well.
That Shangela went on to actually attend the Oscars, as part of her whirlwind appearance tour for A Star Is Born, elevates this look in memory even further. This wasn’t simply Shangela playing at the cinema diva — this was her announcing that you would see her on a major movie premiere red carpet one day very soon, and you would be blown away by her glamour. This was her coming out as a force to be reckoned with far beyond the Drag Race main stage, even if she was robbed of her rightful win.
Best Snatch Game costume
Alaska’s Mae West look (All Stars 2, Episode 2)
I’m technically cheating here, since this look never walked the runway. But since we just talked about Snatch Games, I wanted to throw in a note of praise for Alaska’s Mae West look. I always cite this as the example of what a great Snatch Game costume should be: it’s not about exacting accuracy, but about getting the right vibe. The giant hat, the fur collar, the diamonds — it all gives off the air of Old Hollywood Glamour, in an exaggerated way. Alaska looks like a caricature just sitting there.
So often, Snatch Game looks are made of some of the weaker parts of a queen’s ensemble, or are so characteristic (a la Chad Michaels’ perfect replica Cher costumes) that it feels more like mimicry than thoughtful drag. Alaska took a character much of the young audience likely wouldn’t know and dressed herself so you’d get her right away no matter what your Mae West experience. This is really strong costuming work from Alaska, and in addition to her on-point jokes, earned her a very deserved win.
Best fashion reveal
Violet Chachki’s tartan 2-in-1 runway (Season 7, Episode 1)
Violet Chachki sashayed down the runway in the very first episode of Season 7 in a spangly jumpsuit, glittering in all manner of dark red tones. She was wearing a mismatched tartan hat, but hey, everyone has a rough accessory moment. But needless to say, this fall runway look was incomplete. In one fluid motion, Violet pulled a tie open, whipped around like a cyclone then exploded into a tornado of tartan. She pulled off the first true 2-in-1 look on Drag Race — one that was just not a tearaway skirt, but two entirely different silhouettes in one. Instantly, memes were born. Gauntlets were thrown. And Violet secured herself a ticket to the endgame of the season. What more can I say?
Honestly, of all the looks on here, this might be my favourite. Drag is not just about serving a strong garment but selling it through performance. Violet knew how to make the biggest impact in a very short time on the runway, and did so in spectacular fashion. I don’t know a better reveal.