Happy Black Dresses by Patrick Kelly | Opinion
A typical Patrick Kelly fashion show turns the runway into a nightclub. Models dance down the runway in form-fitting dresses – small, simple pieces made grand by the addition of whimsical embellishments. My first exposure to the designer was in 2017, during an exhibition called “Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey” at the Harlem Studio Museum. On the walls were collages of flat patterned pieces and glossy cardstock that blended into shapes analogous to Kelly’s finished pieces. Last year, while visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s Costume Institute’s In America collection, I saw what is perhaps his most famous work: a fitted black dress from his Fall/Winter 1986 collection. -1987. This unique and striking piece is mid-thigh length with long sleeves and a heart-shaped corset made up of hundreds of multicolored candy-like buttons. The heart is so remarkably vibrant that it almost melts the black robe in the background, leaving the viewer to stare at the heart alone.
Hearts were a common motif in Kelly’s work, as they reflected her commitment to love and joy. On his shows, he gave out “Love Lists”, which included a diverse range of items he liked, including lycra dresses, pretty things, fun, all women (fat, skinny and in between), families (especially grandmothers and mothers), and you! Thanks to his embrace of radical joy, he was able to make a political statement via fashion. In the 1980s, community care was an essential part of the fight against the AIDS crisis, and Kelly certainly showed that he cared.
Kelly’s love for buttons comes from a childhood memory of her grandmother. Every time he lost a button on his shirt, his grandmother replaced it with one that didn’t quite fit. To avoid drawing attention to the mismatched button, she then added other colored buttons to the shirt. Kelly wholeheartedly embraced this button aesthetic and incorporated it into her designs. In a 1986 interview, he explained the substantial influence his upbringing had on his approach to design. “I draw differently because I’m Patrick Kelly, and Patrick Kelly is black, from Mississippi.” After looking through a fashion magazine and realizing there were no black models, he decided he would make clothes for black women, so they could be on the pages of Vogue.
Kelly has approached the celebration of darkness in different ways in her designs. He employed black role models, expressed his love for the black community, and also referenced elements of black history in his work as a way to celebrate and reclaim a charged past. Its logo is a golliwog, a racist caricature inspired by a minstrel doll, which originated as a 19th-century children’s book character. A black dress uses buttons to create adorable outlines of golliwog faces. The black cloth acts as the skin of the golliwog, allowing the wearer to physically reclaim the caricature. When a black person wears the golliwog dress, they instantly challenge their racist background by showing that living, black breathing is far from the stereotypes that the golliwog represents.
An image from Kelly’s Fall/Winter 1989 collection features a black model wearing a fitted black long-sleeved mini dress studded with huge silver crystals in the shape of an Eiffel Tower. This dress, for me, reflects Kelly’s entire Parisian journey. The dress’s crystals are like disco balls, perhaps a reference to Kelly’s Parisian career in the club scene. In 1979, when Kelly moved to Paris, he began designing for Le Palace nightclub, which served a diverse clientele of all races and sexual orientations. This culture strongly inspired the staging of Kelly’s lively and diverse parades. The model also wears an Eiffel Tower hat and earrings, in a campy exaggeration that reflects the incredible impact Paris has on the fashion industry as a whole and on Kelly himself. In 1988, after releasing 10 collections of women’s clothing under his Parisian label, he became the first American and the first black to be inducted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the body leader of the ready-to-wear sector.
I love Patrick Kelly not only because of his glamorous and innovative pieces, but also because of his dedication to celebrating black joy in all of his work. The liveliness of her runways is a welcome contrast to the stiffness of many high fashion approaches. The color black is essential to Kelly’s collections; its darkness allows it to serve as a canvas that showcases the unique brilliance of her garments. The effortless simplicity of a little black dress makes it the perfect canvas to be adorned with elements that reflect the wearer’s identity – shiny buttons, fluffy bows, huge dice, plastic lips or picture frames. Kelly’s approach is reflected in shows like Harvard’s Eleganza, which features dance and allows participants to explore joy while expressing their own personal style. Patrick Kelly is famous for saying “I want my clothes to make you smile”. For me, he certainly succeeded.
Onyx E. Ewa ’24 is a hub for art, film and visual studies at Winthrop House. Their “All Black Everything” column appears every other Thursday.