Fashion Culture | “I LOVE Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs”: The Patrick Kelly Story

Patrick Kelly (1954–1990) also loved “Fried Catfish, Fried Chicken and “Foie Gras” …, Buttons and Bows, Pearls and Popcorn, Madame Grès, “I Love Lucy”, Bette Davis, Martin Luther King, and All Women (Fat, Skinny, and Between…).”¹  Kelly’s “Love List” of over 30 items, which was distributed to the press and buyers at his runway shows, was the essence of who he was, how he identified with diverse cultures and communities as an African American designer who made it big in Paris.  And I mean Big.

Kelly took Paris by storm. He was the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the prestigious governing body of French fashion designers.  A few recognizable members of this group who also exemplified extraordinary work were Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel, and Christian Dior.  The late André Leon Talley (1948–2022) said, in a special contribution to Patrick Kelly Runway of Love catalogue, that Paris embraced Kelly as they did Josephine Baker, another African American who rose to worldwide fame and made a notable mark on history, “His meteoric rise in the world of ready-to-wear fashion, and his couture collections, have earned him a significant place in fashion history.”¹

Patrick Kelly’s work marked a time in history where the French accepted the beauty and meaning of his work while Americans couldn’t get beyond his use of racist imagery.  Kelly leveraged beauty and the appeal of his work as an asset that served as a platform for the real message – racism.  He intuitively identified a need to expose the elephant in the room and, to this day, his work has been a transformative experiment for the American culture.

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Plaque of Patrick Kelly Paris, 6 Rue du Parc Royal, 1987-1990, on loan from Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Bother

“I get a lot of criticism from Blacks and from whites and from everybody about who I am and my image.  And with Blacks I always say, if we can’t deal with where we’ve been, it’s going to be hard to go somewhere”, Kelly told a packed audience of students at Fashion Institute of Technology’s lecture series “Faces and Places in Fashion”, April 1989.²  He said racism is everywhere and that he didn’t have time to “bother” with it.  His response was prompted from a question on how does he deal with racism, particularly around his controversial brand logo, the blackface doll, the golliwog.

Over the span of his career, ‘bothering’ with it he did.  Kelly had a unique ability to reclaim, reappropriate white society’s racist imagery, used to degrade and oppress Black people, into a beautiful body of work that we are talking about today, thanks to the intellectually stimulating and comprehensive presentation Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum (23 October 2021–24 April 2022), first presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014.

Kelly strategically repurposed racist imagery to call it out, to flip the script, to own the narrative of American society’s demonic social practices, to expose the American culture for what it really was during the segregated times of the legal mandate known as Jim Crow (post-Civil War to 1968).  “Only Patrick Kelly in his day could appropriate the stereotypical racist memes of such cultural images and make them real”, said André Leon Talley.¹ 

“I Love Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs”: The Patrick Kelly Story delves into the depths of Kelly’s use of racist imagery and why it was (and still is) important as a national conversation.  Fashion’s power to ignite conversation as messy as the use of racial stereotypes demonstrates its importance as a means of communication, a visual language of culture.  Bearing witness, society chooses how to identify and interpret the symbolism used by “white dominance”– is it one of shame, regret, celebration, or disregard?  Through the use of fashion, Kelly’s work is a reminder of how Blacks were represented through these iconic degrading images and the conversations continue today on how we move forward.

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. (l) Fall/Winter 1986-1987, Chez Patrick Kelly collection, button design black face, “golliwog” shape, wool, angora, spandex knit dresses; (r) Spring/Summer 1986, cotton and nylon printed “golliwog” dress and gloves, shoes by Maud Frizon made of leather, mask: made of paper, wood, hemp. Gifts of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the Jim Crow 1950’s south, Kelly knew early on that he wanted to make a difference in elevating Black presence in fashion. Friends and those close to him say that he was always involved, in some way, in fashion, whether it was styling or designing. “Even when I was a little kid, I always knew I wanted to be a designer”, he told Kim Alexis, ABC network Good Morning America fashion correspondent, in 1987 who was covering his Paris show.³  His grandmother, Ethel Rainey, brought home Vogue magazines from the homes of her white employers.  Inspired by this, when he found time, he sketched.  Putting into perspective for Alexis about his childhood activities and ambitions, he said,  “I used to work in the fields behind my grandmother’s house, but when I would come out of the fields, with my grandfather …, I would come in on the porch and sketch.  Being from Mississippi and a man wanting to be a designer wasn’t the greatest thing you could be, here.  A doctor or a lawyer or working at the post office was the general idea of what they wanted, but it wasn’t what I wanted, but I still found time to sketch.”²

What’s interesting about the Good Morning America interview of Kelly is that it was at a family picnic in Vicksburg.  It is very telling of Kelly who never strayed from his deep southern roots.  It prepared him for a humbled journey of creative output, inspired by the stylish and attentively dressed Black men and women who were and to this day are noted for.  But the direction he took at putting race front and center in his designs and the controversy that went along with it, is the courageous mark he made of the times, and is why his work has made such a significant contribution to the field of fashion.

The racist imagery in his work represented white peoples’ treatment of and how they identified with Blacks, but the real representation, more profound, if you will, is how he represented the Black race.  Overtly pushing the racist imagery in his methods, he put the issue in the hands of white America.  Cleverly and rebelliously, he didn’t have to own talking about it; this was a white problem.  Instead, he was empowered to leverage the dark side of America with beautiful designs that all women wanted to wear.

That simple white dress, stamped with this image, became a garment that was powerful in historical relevance, designed by a Black man, as well as a sophisticated, cool message print.¹

André Leon Talley

Black and White Americans denounced his use of racially loaded imagery, such as the golliwog icon on shopping bags, watermelons on hats, mismatched buttons, and black baby doll pins; Oh no, it was a reminder of enslaved times.  American retail establishments had to market Kelly’s designs cautiously. I was a buyer for Macy’s, based in Union Square, San Francisco, in the ‘80’s during the peak of Kelly’s career.  The late Wilkes Bashford of the namesake luxury clothing store on Union Square at the time, who bought Patrick Kelly’s designs for his store, received backlash from his patrons.  Laura L. Camerlengo, curator of “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love”, said in a statement to Juxtapoz magazine, “when Bashford put the clothes in his window, people basically saw it as a racial slur and were extremely upset”.⁴  Although Kelly signed a deal with Warnaco (U.S.) in 1987, Madison Moore, author and educator, referenced in an essay, Patrick Kelly Runway of Love, that they refused to use the golliwog logo on the shopping bags, and any branding related to racist imagery.¹

But André Leon Talley expressed Kelly’s use of the golliwog as a symbol of pride and relevance indicating the dress in the image below as “prints of happy golliwogs”.  He wrote, “that simple white dress, stamped with this image, became a garment that was powerful in historical relevance, designed by a Black man, as well as a sophisticated, cool message print.”¹

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Spring/Summer 1986, cotton and nylon printed by Bianchini-Férier (French, est.ca. 1880); Shoes by Maud Frizon (French, est. 1969) leather; Mask: wood, paper, hemp. Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill

The headwinds against his bravery of playfully reimagining racist imagery didn’t derail him from his vision.  He was still a Black man, and gay, in a white global society.  Moore also referenced racist encounters.  Receiving hate mail from the Ku Klux Klan, being denied entry to a Paris hotel, and at times not able to hail a cab in New York, didn’t stop him.¹

Kelly’s own personal style and identity were right in step with his roots. Kelly not “bothering” with It continued to own the narrative and make a statement of identity as he did with his “go-to” uniform.  He proudly wore Liberty overalls at all occasions including for dress-up events.  It was a symbolic statement representing his deep southern roots of Black farmhands and sharecroppers.  When it came time to meet the designer, the symbolic identity of the overalls wasn’t cuttin’ it.  Buyers meeting him for the first time in his Paris atelier thought he was the delivery man.¹

A few high-profile Americans were cheerleading his efforts.  Bette Davis was a huge fan and patron of Kelly, and proudly promoted his work.  In May of 1987, wearing a custom design Patrick Kelly hat and dress with mismatched buttons shaped in a heart, Davis was a guest on the David Letterman show.  At the start of the interview, Letterman asked her about what she was wearing. Davis responded acknowledging Kelly as the designer and said he is “making a big, big wave in Paris”.  She offered a gift to Letterman of what she described as a “good luck symbol and it’s a little black tiny baby on a pin and it’s his good luck, not that you need it, but will you accept this from me on behalf of Patrick Kelly …”⁵ 

Letterman’s acceptance had such an impact on Letterman and the audience, a true example of how uneasy the American public was on racist objects.  The crowd initially laughed, then became quiet, not knowing what to think.  Letterman’s reaction was a nervous laughter, clearly uncomfortable, not knowing what to do with the doll and wanted to move on with the interview.  People like happy, feel-good history and this was not it.  The audience and Letterman’s reaction were telling and a representation of America’s shame, guilt, and embarrassment of what the black baby doll symbolized in Jim Crow American history.  Davis had no shame and embraced the real message of reappropriation of the black baby doll.  Being a recipient of the black baby doll pin was a good thing in Paris, you were part of the Kelly club. Davis knew that, but she was in America.

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Spring/Summer 1986, Earrings and Necklace: metal with plastic black baby dolls and synthetic roses. Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Sunday Best

Kelly’s work not only conjures up the horrors and exploitation of racism, but, in contrast, the unstoppable legacy of the Black community when it comes to fashion.  Black women who dress well, elevate the community and demonstrate the good worth and decency of all Black people. That is a fact. I know it first-hand.  I was raised knowing that Dress is an important tool and could be used to communicate your identity and status, a tool for advancement.  With a well-dressed appearance, Black people could claim a sense of inclusion, respect, and recognition.

Kelly knew the power of dress first hand, as well.  He grew up in Bible Belt Mississippi with church-going women who, each week, went through great pains and joy of dressing up for his Black Baptist church.  This was called wearing your “Sunday best”.  Church was the center of the community, a place for refuge, healing, and a social outlet; so you dressed your best.  It was a fashion event like none other.  In fact, although Kelly loved French fashion, the likes of Madame Grès and Yves Saint Laurent, his former business and life partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, said in an interview “Remembering Patrick Kelly”, Patrick Kelly Runway of Love, “there was more fashion to be seen in one pew on a Sunday in the church in Mississippi than there was in any of those fashion shows of the grande dames of Paris.”¹

I remember hearing the chatter amongst my mother’s generation before and after church, “Girl, you’re looking good. Look at you! … I want those shoes, where did you get that hat?” and on, and on, and on. From the sidewalk to the church pew, they were dressed right down to the matching hat, gloves, and shoes. It was a parade, alright. And Easter Sunday was the parade of all parades. You celebrated the fineness of dress and tried to outdo each other. This was the core of Black identity and social belonging.  And it wasn’t about just buying something new off the rack, many were dressmakers, sewing their own fine apparel. Creating something new out of hand-me-downs was also part of the mix and rooted in the Black culture as far back as slavery.

Another notable fact was the importance of owning a fur piece. It was a rite of passage for Black women, a sense of inclusion. Fur identified you as having class, one of social status, or aspiring to be in the upper class, even if you were of the working class, as was my grandmother who, like Kelly’s grandmother, cleaned white people’s houses for a living. It didn’t matter, you scraped and saved your pennies to own a fur and when you purchased one, usually on a layaway plan, it was the ultimate piece of fashion to own. Because of its significance in fashion history for Black women, my mother and grandmother’s mink stoles, embroidered with their initials, are archived.

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Kelly, inspired by the code of dress at Black churches – the hats, the furs, fine dresses and suits, the coordinating ensembles of shoes and accessories – created designs as a catalyst to celebrate and pay homage to Black women because of its meaning during those oppressed times. His use of fur (faux and real), flower prints and adornments, fancy hats, matching gloves, and suiting all reflect the Sunday best look.

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Spring/Summer 1989. Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill
“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Fall/Winter 1989-1990, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit group. Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill

The Power of Fashion

The power of fashion lies in its ability to transform identity and culture. “I Love Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs”: The Patrick Kelly Story shines the light on how Kelly used the power of fashion to identify himself, the society that he grew up in, and the life he led.  Through the lens of his designs and branding, he educated the world on the behavioral norms of American Society towards Black people, proudly showcased Black women’s fashion discernment, while offering a body of work with artistry, allure, and wit. His work has transformed our culture. We are talking about it today.

Fashion, like art, embodies the time we live in and society bears witness to the interpretation of its historical and cultural significance. As we engage in Kelly’s work, we see how fashion, like art, embodies the time we live in, and the time he lived in; and as a society we bear witness to our interpretation of Kelly’s historical and cultural significance. As witnesses our interpretation comes from different viewpoints depending on generation, nationality, and one’s affinity to Black culture.

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill

EDGE Fashion Intelligence Fashion Culture series presents The Patrick Kelly Story, acknowledging the significant contribution he has made to fashion’s history.  Fashion Culture provides educational content of untold stories of the under-represented historical and contemporary contributors to fashion’s history.  “I Love Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs”: The Patrick Kelly Story is the second story of a four-part essay, that delves into the significance of Kelly’s use of cultural identity in fashion.  Beauty, IDENTITY, and Representation: The Patrick Kelly Story is the first part of the essays, a starting point, that contextualizes the content of the de Young Museum exhibit, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, as a ‘ground zero’ for studying the work of Patrick Kelly.

“The Patrick Kelly Story” continues:

Fashion Culture | BUTTONS and BOWS, etc.! A PICTORIAL View, The Patrick Kelly Story

Fashion Culture | The Marketing INGENIOUS of Patrick Kelly

NOTES

1. Camerlengo, Laura L., ed., “Patrick Kelly Runway of Love.” San Francisco: Yale University Press with The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2021.

2.  “Faces and Places in Fashion: Patrick Kelly”, YouTube video, 1:02:27, Fashion Institute of Technology lecture series, 24 April 1989, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_gMSO_KjRc&t=1533s

3.  “Patrick Kelly Paris Good Morning America”, YouTube video, 9:03, Patrick Leroy Kelly paris, 27 June 2021 recent YouTube upload, 21 October 1987 original broadcast date, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rL1-da2yKo&t=42s

4.  “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love @ de Young Museum, San Francisco”, Juxtapoz Magazine, 18 October 2021

5.  “Bette Davis on Late Night With David Letterman”, YouTube video, 27:42, CasandraK TVentura, 26 May 1987, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5GvQ3Fzrj8&t=1040s

 

 

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor