Overalls: On Identity And Aspiration From Patrick Kelly’s Fashion To Hip Hop

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It would not be a surprising scene in the late 1980s to come upon fashion superstar Patrick Kelly — dressed in his daily attire of denim overalls with or without a tee shirt underneath, Converse sneakers, and a signature messenger’s cap with the word “Paris” emblazoned across the top — walking or chatting casually on the street near his Paris atelier on Rue du Parc Royal in the historic Marais neighborhood. In the thick of what were his busiest and most successful years in fashion — his commercial accomplishments, celebrity status, and being the ‘It’ designer for fashion icons and socialites seeking the cutting edge — Kelly’s ‘everydayness’ was remarked upon by journalists in numerous news venues as evidence of his down-to-earth, accessible, and exuberant ethos. Kelly, who skyrocketed to international fashion fame over a period of six years, and ultimately made history in 1988 as the first American designer and first designer of color admitted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications.

Darnell Pritchard The Funambulist 1
Patrick Kelly and models displaying his Fall/Winter 1988 Collection. / Photograph by Oliviero Toscani (courtesy of Patrick Kelly’s estate).

Alongside his accessibility, other details of Kelly’s “realness” are evident in many other areas of the aesthetic enterprise that form his label Patrick Kelly Paris. As a designer, Kelly’s original and controversial visual vocabulary blended the real, painful, and also traumatic histories of race in the United States, including racial terror and racist iconography: watermelon hats and bandanas like those featured in representations of Mammy’s and Aunt Jemima pancake ads, maid uniforms stylized as those worn by Black domestic workers, on clothing racks, and perhaps most controversially, the logo of Kelly’s company — a golliwog, a character in British children’s literature reviled for the racism in the depiction of its features, with the company name Patrick Kelly Paris written around it. His work also mobilizes the aesthetics of the South’s Black poor and working classes with the joy and fantasy of nightlife, the value of noted works of visual art, and the glamour of celebrity and superstardom of Black pop icons. For example, Kelly would also reappropriate iconic images such as renowned entertainer and activist Josephine Baker’s “banana skirt” from her famous, and for some controversial performance, “danse sauvage” (“savage dance”). Baker, also a Black southerner who fled the U.S. and achieved fame in Paris, was a constant source of inspiration for Kelly. All of these things shaped his fashion design and personal style, showroom salesmanship, commentary on beauty and style, and perhaps most memorably, the unapologetic centrality of Black life and culture as he knew it in the showmanship and presentation of his collections. Kelly often began shows inviting his entire team to pray with him in the tradition of the Black church, his runway shows often featured a soundtrack of R&B, funk, soul, and house music, as a stage full of Black models stormed the runway. Similar to the “rent parties” in the Harlem Renaissance, and sometimes just for fun, Kelly loved to host gatherings with friends in Paris where the Vicksburg, Mississippi native would often create a menu and invite friends to share some of his favorite soul food dishes — fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, candied yams, and cornbread. These are just some of the oft-repeated details contributing to the narrative bricolage wedding Kelly’s fashion label to the racial, class, gender, and sexual politics implicit to Black representation.