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The Legacy of a Cultural Provocateur

It’s Fashion Friday and Pride Month, so we’re highlighting the work of gay Black designer Patrick Kelly.

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954, he was a self-proclaimed Francophile who mixed Parisian influence with the creativity and fashion sense of his female relatives, who often embellished store-bought garments with found objects. As a young adult, Kelly moved to Atlanta, where he sold recycled clothes, and he eventually moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design. It was in Paris, during the late 1980s, that Kelly found his greatest success. He was the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, the governing body of French ready-to-wear. 

Kelly’s designs were exuberant and humorous, as seen in this silk women’s suit (c. 1988), and some of his most memorable garments used masses of plastic buttons, wild animal prints, and suggestive embroidery. But perhaps most notably, he was known for his potent referencing of folkloric racism in his work. Kelly used to give out handmade picaninny doll pins at his fashion shows. He deliberately grappled with the images of systemic racism that were widespread in his native Deep South and translated them into a blatant commercial statement. Kelly’s creations proved to be powerful and original contributions to the field of fashion, and he was a cult figure during his brief career that was prematurely and tragically ended by AIDS in 1990. 

Patrick Kelly has been in the headlines again recently as the namesake of the The Kelly Initiative. Organized by editor Jason Campbell, creative director Henrietta Gallina, and writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall, the petition is a response from 250 Black fashion professionals to The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s anti-racism efforts and a call on the trade organization to use its status to hold the industry accountable on hiring and promoting Black people. The initiative also seeks to start The Kelly List, an annual index of 50 Black industry professionals who will be given exposure and networking opportunities, and who will pledge to hire Black professionals throughout their careers.

See more items from our renowned Costume and Textiles collection, which has more than 50,000 artifacts dating from the eighteenth century to the present. Explore the collection.

Silk women’s suit, c. 1988. Patrick Kelly, France. Gift of Ms. Dorothy Fuller. 2008.174.1a-b. Photographs by by CHM staff

Founded in 1974, the Costume Council supports the Chicago History Museum’s work to care for, conserve, interpret, and display items in the costume collection. Through the Council’s efforts, the Museum has been able to maintain and grow one of the world’s premier collections, with pieces dating from the eighteenth century to the present. The Council also generously supports the Museum’s costume-based exhibitions, furthering the public’s understanding of history through clothing. Learn more.

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