The real Frida Kahlo beyond the pop culture icon
There are many Frida Kahlos. There is the popular Frida, hailed in Mexico as a national icon. Then there is Frida the artist, Frida the feminist, Frida the muse. But there is a lesser-known Frida: An icon and an inspiration in the world of fashion. She is instantly recognisable: the dark braids and bright flowers, the intricately embroidered blouses and froth of skirts, the chunky necklaces, the lace, the ribbons, the monobrow. Frida Kahlo is easily distilled to a number of defining details. Ones we can immediately place. We’ve seen them, again and again – on fridge magnets, t-shirts, postcards spinning in museum displays.
Independent and strong, Frida wrote her own rules and developed a unique personal style. She made a signature look of her thick eyebrows and ink-black hair centre parted and slicked into a bun. Frida used big, bold accessories and strong colourful makeup.
She dressed in rugged men's suits or color - soaked Mexican traditional blouses and skirts.
Conventions didn't stand a chance with Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s distinctive look – dark hair piled on top of her head, chunky earrings, a cluster of flowers, an unapologetic unibrow and a visible moustache – became part of her story.
Her personal style and her love of colour was as distinctive as her paintings. She combined traditional Mexican textiles with elaborate hairstyles and eclectic jewellery to create a remarkable look. Added to that was a flair for style: she dressed in tweaked versions of traditional Mexican clothing. A kind of corset-style bodice and long flowing skirt, both in vibrant colours and covered with rich embroidery, was a signature silhouette.
What she wore contrasted with the sleek aesthetic of the dominant fashion of the 1930s and 40s and she stood out on purpose.
Both her paintings and her personal style served as inspiration for many photographers and fashion designers around the world, such as Galliano and Lacroix. As such, she has consistently inspired fashion designers – Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Rei Kawakubo and Dolce & Gabbana included.
The story of her clothing is rather incredible, given that after Kahlo’s death in 1954 the majority of her wardrobe lay untouched for fifty years. Her bathroom and private dressing room – where her clothes were housed – lay through a door to the right of her bedroom at her home in Casa Azul. It was sealed shut on partner Diego Rivera’s orders and only opened again in 2004. Her wardrobe – a simple piece painted white and weathered by time, holding precious treasures. She consciously cultivated a style that set her apart and spoke to both her personal life and her artistic intentions. Her clothes were beautiful. They were obviously something she approached with great relish. But they were also canny: those details listed above contributing to how she was viewed in life and continues to be viewed now.
Her carefully assembled look was a bricolage of places and reference points. The regional costume she adopted was of the matriarchal community of Tehuana in southern Mexico. The style of dress worn by Frida was a highly constructed performance - a political statement of pride in indigenous Mexican culture and a camouflage for her physical ailments with Huipil blouses, Rebozo scarves, and any number of fabrics from both China and Europe. Many of these garments had strong associations with powerful women or particular manifestations of femininity. Alongside the obvious aesthetic pleasure they provided, this was a highly charged, symbolic uniform: speaking to Kahlo’s heritage and gender, whilst also allowing for a certain amount of myth-making.
They gave her room to tell stories about herself in fabric, as well as paint.
Kahlo really understood the power of image. She spent hours in front of the mirror, and regularly enjoyed the chance to shop - as well as commissioning the making of particular garments. Throughout her life she used her wardrobe choices as a means to play with perception, helping to define how she occupied space as a woman, as well as an artist. These garments formed a significant part of her often fraught relationship with her body too: part and parcel of framing and, more often than not, hiding various parts of it. Kahlo’s left leg was thinner and shorter than her right as the result of polio aged six.
When younger, she’d kept it out of sight under bandages and thick socks. Later those beautiful long skirts she’s now associated with were effective in both defining her identity, and concealing what lay beneath.
The next stage in the narrative is well known. At the age of eighteen, Kahlo’s physical world was changed forever when an electric trolley car hit the bus she was travelling on. The trolley’s metal handrail went through her body, and she sustained a horrific number of injuries to her ribs, pelvis, collarbone and spine, as well as her legs. The trauma of injury, recovery, and subsequent physical problems would dictate the parameters of the rest of her life, whilst also forming a major component in the themes she confronted in her work. Taking up painting when still confined to her bed, she’d repeatedly explore the dark consequences of pain and incapacitation.
This experience inevitably affected her mode of dress too: partly for very practical reasons. After the incident her spine required extra support, meaning she quickly became familiar with the constriction of full-torso plaster casts – as well as leather and steel corsets. Many are still on display in her home. They are extraordinary objects: part garment, part medical device. Many are also part artwork.
She famously took to them with her paintbrush, adding symbols and plants and fragments of scenes onto their surfaces. Perhaps her most famous is the red hammer and sickle daubed over the bust – clearly flagging her political allegiances.
Frida Kahlo’s image resonates to this day. She’s frequently referenced online, those startling portraits by reposted frequently and regularly emulated by others. She’s also been a major point of inspiration for fashion designers – full of layers, bright patterns, and boxy tailoring, many of the models’ looks topped off with a pair of thick-set brows. Details like a black bondage-style buckled top contain echoes of the back brace worn by Kahlo.
In fact, Kahlo’s corsets are among the most consistently referenced elements of her attire.
Her corsets were also, apparently, one of the sources for Madonna’s famous cone bustier devised by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Madonna was a vocal admirer and collector of Kahlo’s work. It’s a neat summary of an individual for whom clothes were both creative and responsive. Her choices were bold, brilliant, and often joyous: part armour, part mirror, part performance, part visual language we remain keen to decode today.