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The Enigma Of Frida Kahlo: How One Legendary Artist Exercised The Power of Clothing

In the Colonia del Carmen neighbourhood of Mexico City stands La Casa Azul, which translates to The Blue House in English. Named due to the striking blue walls that make it and now also referred to as The Frida Kahlo Museum, this is where one of the greatest female artists of all time lived. 

Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum
Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum

Frida—the woman who has been the subject of numerous books, films, editorials, photographs, brand imagery, and beauty kits, amongst other pop culture references, is someone fashion has immortalised over the years. But before the intrigue of the world set in, Frida was simply, just Frida.

At 18 years of age, she suffered in a deadly accident as a bus carrying her rammed into a wall, leaving her with a damaged spinal column, 11 fractures in her right leg, a metal rod punctured in her uterus and multiple injuries. It would affect her throughout her life, forcing her to wear prosthetics and support structures to correct her posture. It was after this incident that Frida Kahlo started painting herself, the beginning of what would become a series of self-portraits. "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best," she once stated. 

Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum
Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum

In a scene in the Julie Taymor-directed film based on the artist, a recovering Frida, portrayed by Salma Hayek, asks a veteran painter for advice. "If I am not good enough, I have to do something else to help my parents." It demonstrates the kind of self-awareness that she possessed, the wholehearted versions of which can be seen in her paintings. Sample, if you may, The Broken Column. Painted in 1944, it depicts Kahlo in bondage and tears, her spine erect with the help of a metal column. 

Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum
Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum

Speaking of awareness of the self without a mention of her sartorial choices is impossible. Embodying the power of clothing, whatever she wore came from deliberate decision-making; the long maxi skirts with detailed embroidery hid the prosthetic leg, her differently heeled boots cut at the toes so that she would be comfortable (she suffered from polio at the age of six, leading to legs of different lengths) and her distinct unibrow a symbol of her disregard for notions of conventional beauty.

A couple of her personal belongings formed the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, which was open from 16 June to 18 November 2018 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Uncovered after more than 5 decades of her death, the clothing and artefacts displayed in the exhibit were retrieved from her house, locked away for years.  

Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum
Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum

But then again, she truly did make herself, albeit, sans the narcissism that the current digital age instils. Through her clothes, Frida Kahlo not only empowered herself, using them as a reflection of her mind but also brought to the world frontier the traditional Mexican dressing. Her Tehuana dress, which originates in Oaxaca in Mexico was an ode to her mother's roots. Paired along with the flowery, Juchiteca headdresses that completed her maximalist style, Frida's imagery which was captured in the October 1937 issue of vogue titled Señoras of Mexico (ladies of Mexico), is nothing short of iconic today. That's not to say that European clothing did not form a part of her wardrobe; androgynous suits (in a time when menswear clothing was restricted to one gender) and European clothing were as much a part of her attire in the early days as her much-photographed style, something demonstrated in her 1939 portrait titled The Two Fridas

Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum
Image Courtesy: Victoria & Albert Museum

Another striking part of the exhibit is the prosthetic leg with a leather boot that she wore after her right leg had to be amputated. Lending her own distinct style to it, the artificial leg and boot is scarlet red in colour, featuring delicate Chinese-inspired embroidery in a contrasting green patch placed over the red. 

Exhibitions aside, Frida Kahlo's works of art and her equally distinctive style have found an enduring place both in the worlds of art and fashion. Her square-neckline Mazatec huipils are as memorable as her contribution to feminism, political landscape, and culture. “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world,” she once said.

Referenced over the years by Alberta Ferretti, Naeem Khan, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and numerous others, she is an enigma that more than 60 years of death couldn't erase. And that is the eternal power of the legendary Frida Kahlo. 

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