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Rediscovering Patrick Kelly, the designer who made blackface his brand

Patrick Kelly’s contributions to fashion history aren’t well known, but his work is more relevant than ever. 

Rediscovering Patrick Kelly, the designer who made blackface his brand
Patrick Kelly [Source Photos: Frederic Reglain/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images (Kelly), Philadelphia Museum of Art]

In 1985, celebrated African-American designer Patrick Kelly sent a model down the runway in a white dress printed with a cartoon image of a black face, with large eyes and smiling red lips, and dangly yellow earrings hanging from her ears. The model had coordinating long white gloves with the same pattern, a fan in the shape of the face, and brown heels, imbued with white googly eyes and a red smile, designed by the French shoemaker Maud Frizon.

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[Photo: Frederic Reglain/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images]
It was Kelly’s visual interpretation of the golliwog, a fictional black character that first appeared in an English children’s book in 1885, where she was described as “ugly yet friendly” and “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome.” The figure was turned into a doll that was popular with kids until the 1970s. But by the time Kelly incorporated it into his haute-couture collection, the golliwog was widely understood as a symbol of racism. Kelly–who had experienced racism growing up in pre-civil rights Mississippi and had studied black history in college–knew what he was doing when he printed the golliwog’s face on a slinky body-hugging dress. He was deliberately using his work to confront questions of race–something with which the fashion industry has struggled mightily over the years.

[Photo: Regan Vercruysse/Wiki Commons]

In recent months, blackface has surfaced in the national conversation. Virginia’s governor and attorney general both admitted to donning blackface at parties in the 1980s, thoughtlessly engaging in acts of racism during the very same period that Kelly was trying to engage with race in a progressive way. In the fashion world, brands like Prada, Gucci, and Katy Perry have released trinkets, sweaters, and shoes featuring black faces, with bright red lips and protruding eyes. Consumers immediately saw in these products the iconography of blackface. Each brand quickly withdrew the offending products, saying that any reference to blackface was unintentional.

There was never anything unintentional about Kelly’s use of racist symbols. He is remembered for his bright, joyful aesthetic, covering dresses in rainbow-colored buttons and designing funny hats in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. The racially loaded golliwog was oddly charged in the midst of these other cheery designs. There’s an unmistakable smile on her face. Even now, looking at the golliwog dress creates cognitive dissonance. How could something associated with so much pain and suffering appear so casually on a catwalk? Are we supposed to recoil in horror? Are we supposed to smile back at her?

[Photo: Regan Vercruysse/Wiki Commons]

In the mid-’80s, fashion journalists did not know what to make of Kelly’s golliwog. The New York Times never mentions the pattern, although it regularly covered Kelly’s collections. The newspaper occasionally referred to his other motifs, including watermelons and “exotic” jungle prints, but never contextualized them as symbols that had been used to stereotype black people.

[Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin/Wiki Commons]

But one can assume that his work made viewers pause to think and take stock of the strange mix of emotions coursing through them when the models walked out on stage. We can no longer ask Kelly what he meant, of course. He died of AIDs on New Year’s Day 1990, at the age of 35. What we know for sure is that he felt a deep connection to the golliwog image he created. It is engraved on his tomb in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. On the gray slab of stone, there are pops of color: red on her lips, yellow in her earrings, and white in her eyes and teeth.

Three decades after Kelly’s passing, his profound, complex contributions to fashion history aren’t well known. This may be, in part, because we lost him when he was so young and just at the start of his career. But he has left behind a body of work that stands out for fearlessly and sensitively engaging with race. He unearthed symbols of black oppression, asking what power they held, and whether they could be reappropriated.

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Kelly was born in the small town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954. His love of fashion began when he was in elementary school, where he learned to sew. He struggled to make it as a designer for several years after college, moving to Atlanta. He then moved to New York, where he connected with Pat Cleveland, a black supermodel, who fell in love with his work. Cleveland encouraged Kelly to move to Paris, which he did in 1980. There, his looks immediately caught on, and he began dressing celebrities like Grace Jones and Isabella Rossellini. In 1987, the large fashion conglomerate Warnaco, which also owned Calvin Klein and Speedo, invested in his business, although the company did not allow him to use the golliwog logo on shopping bags. In 1988, he became the first American ever to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, a prestigious governing body in the French fashion industry.

But even in the glitzy world of Parisian fashion, Kelly was constantly thinking about how to pay homage to his black roots. “He’d say that in one pew at Sunday church in Vicksburg, there’s more fashion to be seen than on a Paris runway,” Bjorn Amelan, Kelly’s partner, told the Washington Post in 2004.

Kelly was famous for incorporating mismatched, multicolored buttons on jersey dresses. At the time, he told fashion reporters that this look was inspired by his grandmother, who mended his clothes with whatever buttons she had on hand. One black dress features red buttons sewn on in the curved shape of a smile, with two googly eyes in the middle. It was another representation of blackface on a jersey dress.

Kelly was aware of everything that blackface represented. He had studied art history and black history at Jackson State University, and collected more than 8,000 pieces of black memorabilia, including boxes of Darkie toothpaste and figurines of Aunt Jemima. For Kelly, these artifacts held personal meaning. They reminded him of his own experience as a black person growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in the Deep South. In a retrospective exhibition of Kelly’s work in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2004, there’s a little anecdote printed next to some pieces of his collection. Once, a woman told Kelly that she didn’t like Aunt Jemima figures because they reminded her of maids. “I said, ‘My grandmother was a maid, honey.’ My memorabilia means a lot to me,” the quote reads. For Kelly, there was power in wresting these images from the people who created them to hurt and disempower African Americans. He wanted to appropriate these symbols for himself to tell his own story.

The dress as it was displayed in the 2014 exhibition of Kelly’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. [Photo: courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art]

It wasn’t just blackface that Kelly featured in his work. He pulled from many corners of black history. Take, for instance, a banana skirt and bra top he created in 1986, a specific reference to Josephine Baker, an African-American woman who emigrated to Paris. Baker became an ally in the French Resistance during World War Two as well as one of the best-known performers at the Folies Bergère. As a civil rights activist, Baker refused to perform before segregated audiences. Kelly didn’t just copy her famous costume in his show: He dedicated his entire fall/winter collection to her.

Eventually, Kelly made the golliwog his logo, printing his name in bold letters around the blackface. He used the image on the paper bags women–most of whom were white–carried out of his store, filled with his dresses that retailed for between $600 and $1,800.

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That logo made some people uncomfortable. Amelan says, in the Washington Post interview, that many white customers wouldn’t buy any garments that featured any of the racially charged symbols Kelly favored. And when Warnaco came on as an investor, it forbade Kelly from using the golliwog logo on shopping bags.

Amelan doesn’t go on to explain how Kelly responded. But it is clear in Kelly’s work that he believed there was some value in taking these hurtful characterizations of black people out of the dark recesses of history. He wanted to put them on display for the world to see, even there, under the bright lights of the catwalk and in swanky boutiques frequented by wealthy white women.

Kelly understood the power of these images, having studied their history and experienced them in his own life. While there was a levity to Kelly’s creations, it’s clear from his body of work that he never used these portrayals of blackface lightly.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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