BY ERIC REZSNYAK
This week we released our episode devoted to the Best “Drag Race” Runway Looks (Season 7-Season 12). In it, we made the specific caveat that we were looking specifically at looks that appeared on the “Drag Race” runway, NOT finale/crowning/stepdown looks. Those are a whole other list.
Like this one! Since Season 4 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the previous season’s winner has at least been present as the new Supreme emerges. That tradition has since been carried over to several of the international spinoffs. Since at least U.S. Season 5, there has been an official “stepdown” moment, in which the previous winner comes out and offers some words of wisdom/encouragement – and shows off what is likely to be the most consequential look of their entire drag career.
So for this Top 10, we are looking specifically at the best STEPDOWN looks worn by outgoing reigning queens, at the crowning of their successor. These include some of the most influential looks in “Drag Race” history, and some of them have received significant cultural attention period. Stay tuned for a subsequent list of the best looks for queens when they actually received their crowns.
Honorable Mention: Yvie Oddly “RuPaul’s Drag Race S12”
We’ll never know what Season 11 champion Yvie Oddly would have served up as her stepdown look had the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic not happened. But based on her Season 11 finale showstoppers, and her “All Stars 7” runway package, I think we can assume it would have been a wonderfully weird, astonishingly creative confection. Still, considering all of us – including Yvie – were basically stuck at home in quarantine for the months leading up to the Season 12 finale, what she DID give us was still memorable, and certainly playful. A sock-monkey-inspired outfit outfit with a huge stole created out of, well, socks, she gave us comfy couture, stuck-at-home realness. And also a reminder to not let your laundry pile up, queens.
10. Spankie Jackzon “Drag Race Down Under S3”
This one makes the list not necessarily for the garment – which is gorgeous, to be sure – but more for what it represents. The stepdown is an opportunity to show everyone – RuPaul, the viewers, the other queens, YOURSELF – how far you have come after winning your season. It is the place to show that you were the right choice, and that you have made the most of your Moment. By that metric, few queens on this list made a better use of the opportunity than “Down Under” Season 2 winner Spankie Jackzon. An absolute fireball of charisma, Spankie’s major Achilles Heel in her season was her fashion, which was more hot trash than haute couture. And we loved her for that streetwalker aesthetic. BUT! A winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” can’t solely rely on Santee Alley threads. Spankie showed up to the “Down Under 3” crowning looking like the madame of an upscale whorehouse instead of a back-alley hooker, and we could not be more proud of her. BTW: Spankie Jackzon for All Winners 2 or we riot. FUCK YEAH!
9. Aquaria “RuPaul’s Drag Race S11”
Season 10 winner Aquaria is certainly eye-catching in this Mugler-inspired design by “Project Runway” alumn Garo Sparo. And Aquaria herself wore the shit out of it on that stage. It does lose points for being overly referential of not only high-fashion designer, but also reminiscent of other outfits worn by “Drag Race” alums. I’ve seen it compared to looks by Acid Betty, Sasha Belle (both direct Mugler references), and even Kennedy Davenport’s iconic “Death Becomes Her” runway. My favorite comparison, however, is that it’s giving yassified Moltres, and I’m here for that. There’s nothing wrong with a fashion reference, but when you’re the reigning queen about to hand over your title, you don’t want people comparing your look to those worn by also-rans. So, gorgeous? Sure. Singular? Arguably not. But still really fucking cool!
8. Jaida Essence Hall “RuPaul’s Drag Race S14”
For those who need reminding, the Season 13 finale was really weird. We were still “in” the pandemic, but kind of..not? It was set at an outdoor set themed to be a drive-in, with a crowd of people who were ostensibly there, but I don’t recall any crowd shots during the actual lipsynchs. Jaida was a quasi-host for the whole thing. It was all very strange. And god bless, Jaida, an absolutely terrific queen whose entire reign was basically spent in quarantine. She deserved better. Speaking of better, she gave us this exquisite, regal, glamorous, chic purple number that I always thought of as “Guinan and Q from ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ had a baby, and that baby was really fierce.” There is beautiful detail in this look, both in the garment itself and in the styling – I LOVE the hair coming across the face and under the cowl. It’s stunning, and I *think* Jaida made it herself, which is even more incredible.
7. Willow Pill “RuPaul’s Drag Race S15”
Season 14 victor Willow Pill was very serious when people told her, “You can become anything you want to be.” So for her stepdown look, she became a fucking willow tree. Specifically, a willow tree in bloom. This is a concept that could have gone very wrong very quickly, but designer Joshua Naponte created a fabrication that evokes bark in a way that is still so *cue Heidi N. Closet whistle* soft and supple, branches that evoke religious iconography instead of grade-school theater production…it’s truly breathtaking.
6. Raja “RuPaul’s Drag Race S4”
Perhaps an out-of-left field choice, as “stepdown looks” weren’t really a thing in this, the Cretaceous Period of “Drag Race.” Season 4 was the first live finale. I’m not even sure Raja was brought up on stage to do an official stepdown segment. But even just sitting in the audience, you couldn’t help but take notice of Raja, who did an ode to Leigh Bowery by wearing a facekini and an outfit that was seemingly every single plaid ever created, topped off with a giant houndstooth-print cap. Eye-con? Eye-popping. More people need to acknowledge Raja’s commitment to fierceness at finales YEARS before “Drag Race” went “fashion.” Raja was always fashion, and Raja was always here.
5. Symone “RuPaul’s Drag Race S14”
This is probably the most polarizing entry on the list. I’ll confess that when Symone came out of that giant slot machine during the “Season 14” finale in, essentially, street clothes, my immediate reaction was, “…that’s it? This is your final act as a ‘Drag Race’ winner and you show up like we’re going to the 7-Eleven to buy some Takis?” But that completely misses the point of Symone’s look, which actually has a lot of layers. First, those jeans are truly incredible. We talk about things being “stoned for the gods” – these jeans were stoned for EXISTENCE, honey. There is no garment MORE STONED than those jeans, unless they’re regularly worn by Laganja Estranja herself. Symone was also smart enough to know that, at this point, winner stepdown looks are essentially a “Drag Race” nuclear arms race, and if you’re going for high glam, it’s going to be hard to go harder than what has already come before. But more importantly, Symone’s drag is highly connected to her African-American identity. Think of her iconic promo look, which basically redefined black hair for drag. Think of the du-rag look. Think of her bead look. Think of her “Fascinating Fascinators” look. African-American streetwear is central to Symone’s drag, and by coming out as the EPITOME of that look, she made sure we never forget who she is, and what her drag represents.
4. Sasha Velour “RuPaul’s Drag Race S10”
I wrestled with the placement for Sasha and Symone, as both are impressive for very different ways, and both are also arguably great examples of that queen’s iconography. When Sasha won Season 9 in the first-ever Lipsynch for the Crown, it was controversial. While nobody denied the power of the “So Emotional” rose-petal onslaught, many people questioned Sasha’s legitimacy as a season winner. So there was a lot riding on her stepdown look, which required a direct punch to silence the haters. I think Sasha did that with her Season 10 finale garment, which she conceived, and which was brought to life by her frequent collaborator, designer Diego Montoya. It achieves everything an iconic stepdown look SHOULD: It encapsulates the queen’s drag – Sasha is all about exploring concepts – it has a point a of view – in this case, the “stolen knowledge” element of the Eve-esque alien – and it is absolutely fucking gorgeous. Direct punch? This was a knockout. Sasha’s win should never have been questioned, but this look and the incredible career she has had outside of “Drag Race” in the seven years since prove that Sasha is a winner in every sense of the word.
3. Priyanka “Canada’s Drag Race 2”
Iconic stepdown looks aren’t relegated just to the RuPaul-hosted franchises, kids. When “Canada’s Drag Race” Season 1 winner Priyanka came out to crown her successor, the entire “Drag Race” audience of the North American continent gasped. Priyanka won the inaugural season of “DRCAN” wearing a stunning garment that paid tribute to her Indian heritage. She came back as the reigning queen as an Indian GODDESS. Now THAT is an evolution. And the extra set of arms MOVED! It was a stunt, and one that paid big dividends. Priyanka set a new bar for this look, and she has been booked and blessed ever since. Check out her genuinely good music on Spotify, and tune into Max as she (and fellow Top 10 List mates Sasha Velour and Jaida Essence Hall!) take over hosting duties for “We’re Here” with Season 4 in Spring 2024.
2. Icesis Couture “Canada’s Drag Race 3”
Icesis saw Priyanka snatch wigs with her multi-armed stepdown look in “Canada’s Drag Race” S2 and said, “Hold my wingspan.” Icesis’s stepdown isn’t as shocking as Priyanka – we have seen winged looks on “Drag Race” many times before, most notably Courtney Act’s Season 6 “Animal Kingdom” runway. But it is EXPENSIVE, bitch. Look. At. This. The detail. The RICHNESS of this look. It really does look like some kind of Catholic devotional image come to life, and my god did Icesis sell this on the runway. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise; Icesis is an incredible designer, whose runway package on her original season was already “All Stars” level. And if you have not watched her aborted run on “Canada vs. The World,” please correct that immediately. It’s a mere six episodes and Icesis’s looks throughout them are unilaterally gag inducing. We have been told that, if there is another All Winners, it will still be restricted to winners crowned by RuPaul (we have plenty to choose from!). I hope they rethink that. Both Priyanka and Icesis are S-tier queens and American audiences deserve to appreciate their drag in full.
1. Violet Chachki “RuPaul’s Drag Race S8”
Anticlimactic? Probably. But Season 7 winner Violet Chachki once again provided a cultural reset moment to “Drag Race” when she came out at the Season 8 crowning wearing…this. The gown itself is stunning – that COLOR! The waist — snatched into nothingness! The crown application to the skull – incredible. The hood reveal. The cockroach references to gay-art pioneers like John Waters. There can be no notes, this is PERFECTION. People were very excited to see Bob the Drag Queen take the crown that night, but trust and believe when I tell you that a chunk of that thunder was stolen by Violet wearing this look. The gays were gagged, they were gooped. There was total unification in the timeline around Violet’s look being THE BEST LOOK we have ever seen on “Drag Race,” and I would argue that accolade holds up to this day, nearly 8 years later. Absolutely no shade to the preceding stepdown looks. Sharon’s Pee-Wee Herman in Season 5, Jinkx’s Emerald City gown in Season 6, Bianca’s sliver glitter torch in Season 7 – all good looks, no doubt. But Violet did what she did from the very start of her original season: she elevated the fashion on this show to an unheard-of degree, and set a new bar that very few subsequent queens have come close to approaching. Violet’s Season 8 stepdown look remains the standard by which every other stepdown look is held, and I’m not sure anything will ever replace it.
But that being said we WILL continue to update this list with subsequent crowning looks, so keep your eyes out for that.
Do you think our rankings are wrong? Did we miss your favorite stepdown look? Tell us about it int he column, and don’t forget to check out our other “Drag Race” podcasts and Top 10 lists and recaps!