Artisan Style: Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo in traditional dress with flowers in her hair
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

If there is an artist with a more famous wardrobe than Frida Kahlo, I couldn’t name them. Kahlo’s clothing is legendary enough to have inspired entire books on the subject (such as Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe from 2007), dedicated museum exhibits (like 2012’s Appearances Can Be Deceptive at the Frida Kahlo Museum in the Mexico City), and an untold number of lookalikes. In the latter case, one particularly memorable occasion organised by the Dallas Museum of Art in July 2017 saw between 1 100 and 1 500 people gather in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the most Frida Kahlo lookalikes in one place. The event commemorated the artist’s 110th birthday and, in order to qualify, each participant had to give themselves a unibrow, put flowers in their hair, and wear a below-the-knee dress with a red or pink shawl.

There are any number of reasons to be enamoured of Kahlo’s wardrobe. There is, of course, its singular beauty, immediately obvious to anyone who has ever seen a photo of the artist or taken a moment to consider any of her self-portraits. Because, of course — and this is the second reason to harbour a fascination with her clothing — Kahlo prolifically depicted her unique garments in her work. 

But while this is all true of any number of other artists, in Kahlo’s case we also have an unusually well-preserved catalogue of her wardrobe. This is because Kahlo’s husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera ordered that from the moment of her death in 1954 her bathroom/dressing room in their residence (known as La Casa Azul) could not be opened for a period of fifty years. The request was honoured and so, half a century later, a trove of some three hundred-plus pieces of clothing, as well as jewellery and accessories, was rediscovered by museum curators and an eager public audience. 

Frida Kahlo by Guillermo Kahlo
Image credit: Guillermo Kahlo / Public domain

To look through the various items numbered among Kahlo’s legendary effects is to see clothing that perfectly mirrors her sensibilities as an artist. As Terry Newman put it in Legendary Artists and the Clothes They Wore (the cover of which features none other than Frida Kahlo herself):

Her clothes perfectly matched her character. She often wore a traditional Mexican wardrobe of the huipil — square-necked tunics embroidered with tapestry, beads, flowers, and gems — and starchy lace Juchiteca headdresses that enveloped her face. Her clothes were marvellously multitextured. Flouncy, floor-sweeping satin skirts were matched with frilled aprons wrapped around her waist; she wore her hair in braids, plaited with multicolored wool and blossoms, and rings on every finger. Kahlo’s dress wasn’t costume, though; rather, it was a statement about her heritage and identity. She didn’t limit herself to traditional Mexican clothing but carefully mixed and matched cultural attire from Guatemala and China as well as silk chemises from Europe and America. Gold cat’s-eye sunglasses are classic Kahlo, but she wore them only with her favorite Chinese blouse, embroidered in gold and sequined with dragons and pre-hispanic sea green stone necklaces. 

As in her artwork — which eagerly incorporated disparate elements to create a kind of voracious, kinetic gestalt — Kahlo had a magpie-like approach to assembling her multifaceted wardrobe. It meant that she assembled such diverse garments as silks shawls and worker’s caps, velvet capes and denim chore coats. It’s often said that she started wearing indigenous clothing in 1929 when she married Diego Rivera, from which point on she gradually transforms herself into a Tehuana, wearing mostly clothes of ethnic origins, including those from outside of Mexico as cited above.

If all of this variety sounds at all chaotic, the results are precisely the opposite. Looking through the Museo Frida Kahlo’s wonderful compendium on her wardrobe, everything feels considered, painstakingly so even, and imbued with significance — curated, you might say, as though they were always intended to become the museum pieces they now are.

Toni Frissell Frida Kahlo standing next to an agave plant
Image credit: Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

Apart from the various conceptual and creative underpinning of Kahlo’s clothing choices, there were also attendant practical considerations. Kahlo’s longtime struggles with injury and poor health are well known. She contracted polio as a child, leaving her with a withered leg that eventually had to be amputated later in her life after it became gangrenous. At the age of eighteen, she further suffered a serious injury to her spine and pelvis in a bus accident, which meant that she had to wear back supports for the rest of her life. Kahlo’s response to these physical constraints was to transform them through elaborate decoration, including brightly coloured orthopaedic shoes, corsets painted in elaborate swirls, and a prosthetic leg wearing a bright leather boot decorated in colourful Chinese motifs.

In this way, dressing perhaps became a way to assert her independence and transcend the confines of her situation. Even prior to her accident, she relished in transforming herself. A family photograph from 1924, for instance, shows Frida wearing a man’s suit with her hair plastered down and centrally parted in a masculine style. Similarly, upon learning of Rivera’s affair with her younger sister, Christina, Frida cut her hair short and did so again when he asked her for a divorce. She further ‘desexed’ herself (as she put it) by donning baggy jackets and trousers. Of her own appearance she once said ‘The most important part of the body is the brain. Of my face I like the eyebrows and eyes. Aside from that I like nothing. My head is too small. My breasts and genitals are average. Of the opposite sex, I have the moustache and in general the face.’

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940
Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)
Image credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / CC BY 2.0

Given the fame and fascination surrounding Frida Kahlo’s sense of style, it is little surprise that she has influenced fashion designers from at least as far back as Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘La Robe Madame Rivera’ dress back in 1938, all the way through to contemporary designers like Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Comme des Garçons. 

And then there are her many enduring and devoted admirers. For those who love her art and her clothing alike, Kahlo’s wardrobe represents the freedom, creativity, and possibility inherent in the act of getting dressed. So, if you’re at all in need of the powerful lift afforded by an act of self-expression, just think of Frida the next time you open the doors to your closet.

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