Upon her death in 1954 Diego Rivera, the husband of iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, ordered for her entire wardrobe to be sealed in a bathroom of their home, now museum, ‘La Casa Azul’ in Mexico City. Rivera’s death some three years later saw their long time friend and patron Dolores Olmedo become trustee of the property. Olmedo too kept both the wardrobe and a whole host of other personal belongings locked away until her own passing in 2004. Therefore it has only been in the last decade that we have been able to gain access to what can be understood as a uniquely personal portrait of Frida Kahlo.
The exhibition, entitled ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo’ housed at La Casa Azul, is a wonderful way to experience the personal artefacts and garments which created Frida Kahlo’s persona as an artist and a women. Preserved for so many years after her death, these items still seem to hold some of the vitality of their owner. Housed in a small annex separate from the main house, this exhibition enables the viewer to peel back the carefully constructed layers that made up Kahlo’s identity.
When looking at the clothes, it becomes apparent that for Kahlo, her dress formed another method of communication through which she could present herself albeit an idealistic version to the outside world. The wife of celebrated Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, it is not hard to see how she may have felt the need to stand out against the immense figure of husband. Although the likelihood of this for Frida is disputable, her strength of character, her undeniable talents and the raw emotion that her work evokes it is hard to believe that she would have been forgotten. Nevertheless, despite her talent, her unique sense of style has become emblematic of Frida Kahlo, the legend. Like her paintings, her dress was a vivid but deeply personal reflection of her heritage, interests and experiences.
Frida was acutely self-aware, the daughter of a well-known photographer it is clear that Frida had become accustomed to appearing in front of the lens. Then after her accident, she was required to recuperate in bed, as she said of her work, ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best’. Her dress therefore can be understood as an extension of her work, it enabled her to create a unique and striking visual identity for herself, a costume, which like she did with her collection of dolls, she could plan and prepare during the time she spent convalescing between various medical treatments.
Her adoption of the traditional Mexican dress, specifically taking inspiration from the Tehuantepec Isthmus, an indigenous tribe based in the state of Oaxaca in south – east Mexico, can be seen through this exhibition, to be a means by which Frida solved various problems facing her.
Commonly it is understood that she began to wear this style of dress after her marriage to Diego Rivera in 1929. Rivera was already extremely popular and considered one of the most important Mexican artists of the twentieth century. Therefore we can assume that both Frida and Diego became a part of the Mexican Government’s attempts to promote traditional Mexican practises and values that they felt were being lost due to the popularity of American and European fashions. For Frida, this most clearly can be seen in her dress, through which she was able to reaffirm her Mexican cultural identity and feel a part of the ‘pueblo’ or people.
Her dress, therefore can be seen as a means by which she could portray her socialist political beliefs and national pride. Although Frida was a ‘mestiza’ meaning her heritage was mixed, her father was German and her mother although Mexican came from both a Spanish and indigenous background. Frida embraced her indigenous Mexican heritage, specifically her connection to the traditions of the Tethuantepec Isthmus through her maternal relations. The influence of which can be seen very clearly in Frida’s dress, much of which is in the ‘Tetuanas style’ reflected in the extravagant headpieces and the structure of the pieces themselves. In addition to the adoption of their dress it is also interesting that the indigenous ‘Tetuanas’ are a matriarchal society and their women are know throughout Mexico for their assertiveness and strength of character, qualities which Frida may have wished to emulate in her own life.
Although her romantic and political motives for dressing in this way are clear, it has been suggested in recent years that there was too a much more practical and personal reason behind her preference for the traditional style. Composed of three different parts, typically a heavy headpiece constructed through a combination of pleats, flowers and ribbons. A loose square shaped shirt called a ‘huipil’ commonly accompanied with large amounts of jewellery and long skirt were extremely forgiving and flattering of her small frame. Additionally the bright colours, heavily embroidered collars, jewellery and extravagant headpieces drew the eye up to her face and torso, detracting from her feet and legs.
The results of childhood polio and the serious injuries she suffered as a result of a bus accident when she was 18, to her spine and legs left her severely disabled and in huge amounts of pain for the rest of her life. Throughout her life she had as many as twenty-two operations on her back, right leg and right foot the results of which she endeavoured to conceal through her dress. The loose shirts enabled her to hide the multitude of plaster cast and leather corsets she had to wear to support her shattered spinal column and the long skirts allowed her to hide her withered right leg from polio and later the effects of the numerous operations on both her back and right leg throughout her life resulting in its amputation in 1953.
The loss of her leg is understood to have been an extremely traumatic experience for Frida. In many ways it can be seen to have been for Frida that this was her body’s final betrayal. Nevertheless, when looking at the prostheses that she wore, such as the red leather platform boot she had made (pictured), we can see how she refused to allow her body to stop her from being beautiful. Her clothes enabled her to retain strength, and a completeness, that her body did not allow, they conveyed the boldness, beauty of character and much like her art they provided a means by which she could communicate her own, extremely personal reality.
_____________________________________ Circe Henestrosa quoted in Hunter Oatman-Stanford, ‘Uncovering Clues in Frida Kahlo’s Private Wardrobe’, Collectors Weekly, 1st February 2013, accessed 2nd September 2014, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/uncovering-clues-in-frida-kahlos-private-wardrobe/  Circe Henestrosa quoted in Hunter Oatman-Stanford, ‘Uncovering Clues in Frida Kahlo’s Private Wardrobe’, Collectors Weekly, 1st February 2013, accessed 2nd September 2014, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/uncovering-clues-in-frida-kahlos-private-wardrobe/
Elizabeth Coulson –
Elizabeth came to the V&A/RCA course after completing her undergraduate degree in History of Art at the University of Glasgow. Her interest in fashion and dress history came from a lifelong obsession, collecting Vogue magazine, being addicted to online fashion and beauty blogs and a somewhat unwise decision to write her undergraduate thesis on early twentieth century designers Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny. For her final year dissertation, she has decided to look at the rise of ‘Casuals’, a subcultural fashion elite rising out of the football terraces in the late ’70′s and early ’80′s.
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