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On November 2012 the Frida Kahlo Museum La Casa Azul (translated to English as The Blue House) announced the showing “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe”, reason enough to pack my things and travel to Mexico City to visit the picturesque house at Coyoacan neighborhood, and see the exhibition where some pieces of her wardrobe were exposed for the first time after its discovery in 2004.
In this trip I was not looking for an article, though I admit I was very surprised after getting closer to this strong, rebel and avant-garde personage, and I also cleared the interrogations about why she is recognized worldwide as and icon and one of the most important Mexican artist; this is how I justify my post. I must say, I don’t intend to write as an historian but as a fashion analyst; I will go over the objective of this exhibition which is to interpret the connection between the situations she lived and the construction of her identity through the clothes she wore, considering her disabilities, the emblematic elements of the Mexican culture she used to defend, and what happened in fashion in that period of time.
Getting to know her better: Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo was born in 1907, at the age of 6 she caught poliomyelitis affecting her right leg and foot which grew very thin; at the age of 18 she had a dramatic car accident keeping her in bed for a month; at the age of
22 she married the artist Diego Rivera and during her marriage suffered miscarriage 3 times due to the pelvic damage after the accident; at the age of 27 she had a surgery to amputate some toes from her right foot; at the age of 39 she had her first surgery on her backbone, when she turned 43 she had 7 more surgeries and spent 9 months at the hospital, and when she was discharged she left on a wheelchair; at the age of 46 her right leg was amputated up to the knee; after only 3 exhibitions of her painting work in Paris, New York and Mexico, she died at the age of 47.
After these events, a deep suffering is expressed in her self portraits, happenings that also explain that given her physical condition she used ornaments that reflected her pain and at the same time her spirit strength, nevertheless her accidents she kept happy. Frida through time builds her image and a hybrid tehuano– bohemian style for which she is recognized, as Circe Henestrosa, the exhibition curator, quotes on the museum official website: “she achieves her style with elaborated hairdos, vows and multicolor braids, capturing the attention of feminists, photographers, stylists, artists, fashion designers and the contemporary culture n general”.
Characteristic elements of her outfit are identified: the tehuana skirt and the corset (besides her emblematic full eyebrows of course). There are many sources that expose the theories about why she used these pieces, in summary they say that initially she picked this skirt to hide her thin leg after the poliomyelitis, years after there was a believe she used them to please her husband Diego, and finally it is known she aimed to also express the proud she felt about her origin. We shall not ignore that, this skirt allowed her to continue her style after she lost her leg, there was no change to her clothing after the traumatic incident, if to her was so important to hide a physical defect, it is very possible she felt the same way about a leg replacement she had to use to continue walking.
The injury to her backbone after the car accident forced her to use leather and plaster corsets, the second emblem of her outfit. Frida to decrease the “ugliness” to this orthopedic object completed her clothing with personal touches like pre-hispanic jewelry, exotic headdresses, shawls, and other garments made with foreign fabrics that were acquisitions or gifts she used to create pieces regionally, achieving this way an eclectic style.
Frida caused commotion on her trips outside Mexico as at that time the fashion influence came from Europe and a very glamorous Hollywood, she opposed the trend the women of society used to follow, always defending her roots. She impacted designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, who designed a dress on her honor named La Robe Madame Rivera (translated from French as The Mrs. Rivera dress), as well as Edna Woolman, editor in chief of Vogue magazine who in 1937 took a photograph of her and published it on an article where she mentioned her distinctive Mexican style.
Vogue Mexico quotes that dressing like that, Frida not only went against the current of the fashion but also expected to be the centerpiece, proved in one of her letters to Diego Rivera as she expressed with great pride and satisfaction: “(…) in every reunion I attend and everywhere I go, I am the center of attention with my beautiful embroidered dresses, with my headdresses made with flowers (…)”.
She was always conscious to create an image and that is what this fascinating exhibition pursues to transmit, even if we don’t find a large amount of dresses, it has the objective to evidence trough her attire her disability, her loyalty to the communist ideology and her beliefs, and how she coherently printed them on her image. I am sure she did not dimension the transcendence she would generate after her death, and I am referring to her dedication to build her own identity.
After becoming interested on her story, it now makes sense to me why she is so worshiped, regardless of her physical pain she showed herself to the world as a strong woman, and it is clear that is the reason why she evokes inspiration to many. To me there is a Frida before and after the exhibition, I feel very proud a Mexican woman is the muse of designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Comme des Garçons, Purificación García, BCBG Max Azria and Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy; as well as artists from other genres like Emile Sande, Dita Von Teese, Jack White, Peter Gabriel and the great Carolina Herrera, as we see documented their visit to the museum at the official website and Instagram profile.
I appreciate we can enjoy the sad and at the same time, happy story of her life shared at the museum and in this exhibition, I reckon the goal of the shown was well accomplished.
Learn more about La Casa Azul at www.museofridakahlo.org.mx
Read at Vogue Mexico the articles related to the exhibition:
Additional sources: Andrea Kettenmann, 2008. Kahlo. Taschen