With her imposing jewellery, elaborate hairstyles and colourful clothes, Frida Kahlo forged a fashion persona that was recognisable as her artworks, but there is deeper meaning behind her style choices.
Like her paintings, Frida Kahlo's fashions were eccentric and colourful, but loaded with meaning. Born to a German-Hungarian father and an indigenous Tehuana mother (from the Isthmus region of Tehuantepec in Mexico known for the eponymous dress), Kahlo (1907-1954) was proud of her mixed origins and intentionally combined Western trends with traditional Mexican pieces.
Using fashion as a means of expression, Kahlo created a very marked political and cultural identity, imbued with the same duality present in her paintings, displaying both her nationalist and feminist inclinations and her love for tradition.
Kahlo would spend hours in front of her mirror polishing her outfits and loved to wander through boutiques (as well as the Chinatown area during her time in San Francisco) in search of new finds. But her aesthetic of thick eyebrows, fabric overlays, and flower-adorned hair not only referred to her culture, but were a way to combat the obstacles in her life.
Suffering from polio at the age of 6, Kahlo survived, but the disease left her with one leg shorter than the other, and the walk of a cripple. Mocked by her classmates at school, the young girl found solace in the art of clothing. Already very inventive, she put on three or four socks to thicken her too thin calf and compensate for the imbalance, and wore long skirts.
When she was 18, a terrible bus accident left her with about twenty broken bones and made it impossible for her to bear a child. After a year in bed, she recovered, but the event signalled the gradual deterioration of her already weak body. Kahlo underwent more than 30 surgeries in her lifetime, including the amputation of her right leg in 1953, to stop gangrene. These injuries are fundamental to understanding the image of strength and determination that Kahlo projected. Her appearance was so bewitching (going so far as to make photographers like Andre Breton and Edward Weston completely obsessive) that she managed to take all eyes off her disabilities.
Though she suffered from an early age, Kahlo developed a unique sense of fashion. Her approach was mostly defined by her 'weaknesses': the heels of her shoes were cut to different sizes, her corsets to support her spine were decorated, and her hair accessories were personalised in bright colours and flowers to attract attention to her face.
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Her relationship to the corset, which she had to wear throughout her life, was complex. Her body needed it, so she would paint her corsets (often made of plaster) while she was wearing them. A very difficult exercise, but not impossible. This process allowed her to make them appear as an explicit choice rather than as a constraint.
Beyond her talent for personalisation, her style was also a vector of political beliefs and opinions. Around age 20, Kahlo adopted the traditional Tehuana dress, a garment associated with the matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Tehuana outfit consists of three parts: a large square blouse, a long skirt, and an elaborate headdress that only shows the face.
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Her re-interpretation of the outfit was both a tribute to her indigenous origins, an affirmation of her feminist ideas and, according to experts, a way to hide her body. The loose pieces could be easily put on and concealed her corset, while the long skirt covered her legs. Kahlo took great pleasure in sporting the dress, and revelled in its effect even more when she visited San Francisco in 1930. As she recounted in a letter to her mother: “The gringas here love me very much and are fascinated by all the dresses and rebozos that I have brought, their jaws drop at the sight of my jade jewellery."
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Her amputation in 1953 eased her suffering, but plunged her into depression. Once again, she found a way to deflect her handicap by putting on a bright red boot decorated with patterns on her prosthesis. This gesture shows how coquetry was important for the inner peace of the artist, whose long skirts hid the prosthesis from all eyes. The heels of her shoes could finally take up a similar canvas. Despite her declining morale, she said of her situation: “Feet? Why would I want it, when I have wings to fly. "
After Kahlo's death, her image became part of popular culture, inciting 'Fridamania', but her feminist and political beliefs crucial to her identity were somewhat forgotten. Her dresses, headwear, and jewellery were reduced to the superficial, and few knew the true meaning behind her style choices. Fifty years after her death, her personal belongings kept on her property were made public, revealing a multitude of dresses, shoes, accessories and, letters and writings that did justice to her creative spirit.
Many designers have been inspired by Kahlo, such as Maya Hansen with the 2013 Skully Tulum collection, Dolce & Gabbana with a line of boots inspired by the one that adorned her prosthesis, as well as Carolina Herrera, Alberta Ferretti and Etro.
On her own, Kahlo has redefined the notion of style, showing that clothing is an art of all possibilities, a vehicle of values, and certainly a way to shield and strengthen oneself to face life's challenges.