Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is instantly recognizable. Her rosy cheeks, famed unibrow, and tightly coiled hair make up an iconography that has found its footing on runways, in jewelry collections, on postcards and magnets, a high-grossing film, in museum collections, and even a Barbie doll. However, amidst the pop cultural frenzy, the contextual details of Kahlo’s life and work are easily lost in translation–like the fact that she loved to get dressed, and used her style as a means of personal and political expression.
Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 straddling cultures: the daughter of a German-Hungarian father and a half Spanish, half indigenous Tehuana mother, she was a proud mestiza, “mixed race woman,” from the start. Her childhood in an upper-middle class Mexico City home was far from easy due to a run-in with polio at the age of six, which left Kahlo with a shorter right leg and limp. Kahlo began experimenting with fashion in grade school after being bullied by classmates for her gait. She wore long dresses and layered socks on her right foot to regain her balance, cultivating a quiet armor in her way of dress.
At the age of 18, tragedy struck Kahlo again, this time as a bus accident that left her severely injured with over 20 bone fractures, particularly in the spine. The accident would go on to affect Kahlo’s life until her death in 1954 at the age of 47, after 30 operations and the amputation of her right leg in 1953. According to museum curator Circe Henestrosa, who put together the V&A’s Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe exhibition, “[the accident] is the beginning of the art, and of the deterioration of her body.”
Personal style became another creative outlet for Kahlo, who began painting during her recovery from the bus accident. The purpose of her clothing choices fell two-fold after the collision: to effectively conceal her physical disability, and to showcase her radical political beliefs. An adamant leftist, Kahlo joined the socialist party at the age of 16, and the Mexican Communist Party in her early 20s. She made a point to surround herself with freethinking people, including muralist Diego Rivera, who became her husband in 1929.
Per Rivera’s suggestion, Kahlo began branching out sartorially to show her Mexican pride by wearing Tehuana dresses derived from the matriarchal society located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca State. The style featured full skirts, embroidered blouses, and elaborate hairstyles, and when Kahlo combined these indigenous garments with the contemporary elements of her wardrobe, the tension showcased her cross-cultural identity, and honored Mexican women of the past and present.
Another reason why Kahlo took a liking to Tehuana clothing was because of its ability to distract from her physical ailments. The layers of fabric at her feet danced when she walked, hiding her limp. The square necklines and intricate patterns of the dresses framed her head and shoulders, drawing attention away from the lower half of her body, while the boxy silhouette of her huipil blouses provided extra room for torso casts and back braces, which Kahlo had to wear for most of her life. Forced to sit down while painting, Kahlo preferred the short crop of the blouses which allowed for maximum comfort.
The artist also had an affinity for accessories, including the long, rope-like torzal necklaces native to Mexico. She often combined pre and post colonial jewelry to make political statements, like wearing contemporary silver earrings with a Mexican jadeite pendant necklace. Another favorite accessory of Kahlo’s was the rebozo scarf, which symbolized the Mexican fight for freedom. First introduced in the time of Columbus by European colonizers, the scarf was quickly adopted by Aztec artisans, embellished with embroidery, and dyed bright colors. Kahlo preferred to wear the rebozo around her shoulders or threaded through her braids with flowers pinned to her hair, again focusing attention on her shoulders and face.
Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, Kahlo’s style became synonymous with Mexican culture, and her image made waves in the mainstream fashion world. In 1938, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli created “La Robe de Madame Rivera” (“Mrs. Rivera’s Dress”) based on Kahlo’s Tehuana costumes, which featured red floral beading and sheer black sleeves. The message of female empowerment associated with the Tehuana style soon infiltrated high fashion. Since then, many other designers have referenced Kahlo’s wardrobe, from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring/Summer 1998 collection to Valentino’s floral prints and ruffles for Spring/Summer 2015.
All the attention did not phase Kahlo, who was excited to be causing a stir with her political clothing. On a trip to San Francisco in 1930 for an exhibition, Kahlo wrote in a letter home to her mother, “the gringas really like me a lot and pay close attention to all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me, their jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces.” That same trip, Kahlo elevated her closet, taking home cloth and embroidery imported from China and Guatemalan sashes and coats, frilly shirts, and heavyweight jewelry made of jade and coral.
Though well-known, Kahlo’s wardrobe remained inaccessible for decades until 2004, when it was rediscovered and inventoried at the Casa Azul in Coyoacán, where she lived with Rivera until her death. Rivera had kept Kahlo’s personal artifacts, including clothing, jewelry, and artwork locked up since 1954. Among the items discovered was a self portrait by Kahlo that stood out from her many others. This drawing in charcoal and crayon depicted the artist’s injuries, with a tarnished Grecian column for a spine, a medical corset around her waist, and a weathered right leg. Scrawled on the bottom were the words “appearances can be deceiving,” proving that while Kahlo may have used fashion in part to distract from her disability, she unapologetically expressed it in her artwork.
Kahlo’s artistic skills often came in handy when it came to matters of dress. She decorated her metal-reinforced braces and casts with political symbols, including the Communist Party hammer and sickle, and made her own lace-up boots by hand. One such pair included extra padding in the right sole, and a leather brace for her right leg that extended above the knee. Technically savvy, Kahlo was the mastermind of both her paintings and her wardrobe.
Behind the iconic artist we know today is a story of tragedy, adversity, and ultimately triumph. Kahlo’s clothes reflect her refusal to conform to any one culture or identity, and the subtle power she found in her own body instead of succumbing to disability. According to historian and cultural critic Oriana Baddely, Kahlo’s legacy deserves reconsideration. “The cartoon characteristics of Fridamania so easily become parody obscuring the intelligence underpinning the work of one of the 20th century’s great artists,” she wrote. “It remains important to remember that it was Kahlo who first created Frida.”END
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