Emily Coleman considers Frida Kahlo’s influence, ahead of an exhibition of her clothing at the V&A.
From fashion to fiction, Frida Kahlo has left a lasting impression on the face of modern culture. Not only have her use of vibrant colours and iconic style motivated designers such as Louis Verdad and Jean Paul Gautier, but with the upcoming V&A exhibition, Making Herself Up, her wardrobe will be a hub of inspiration for the masses. Locked away in her home in Mexico for over 50 years, Kahlo’s wardrobe consists of an array of personal belongings, from eyebrow pencils to prosthetics to traditional Mexican clothes. Her husband, Diego Rivera, even once likened his wife’s iconic eyebrows to hummingbird wings. But how did this style icon develop a brand that makes her the only female artist whose image is instantly recognisable across the globe?
Born in Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo experienced a traumatic upbringing. Upon enrolling in the Mexico City Preparatory School in 1922, she realised that she was one of only a few female students. This fuelled her desire to succeed. However, in 1925, whilst travelling home from school, she was involved in a tram accident which left severely injured. Despite several serious injuries, including fractures in her spine and pelvis, the now bedridden Frida began to paint. She completed her first self-portrait the following year. Her accident also influenced her later work such as the world-renowned “The Broken Column” which shows her wearing a corset to aid her recovery. This is perhaps where the association of Kahlo within feminism and female empowerment in today’s society stems from.
As well as combating adversity Kahlo also defied other stereotypes set for women in the early 20th Century. She challenged gender stereotypes by refusing to alter her ‘masculine’ features such as her monobrow and moustache. She was also openly bisexual and had numerous affairs throughout her marriage to Diego Rivera, the most famous being with entertainer Josephine Baker.
Not only is Frida Kahlo a feminist icon, but also a style guru. Her outrageous mix of traditional Southern Mexican Tehuana dresses with Mayan huipil blouses and rebozo scarves from China and across Europe made her style completely unique. This extensive mix of cultures and traditions is what made Kahlo a true pioneer in the industry. She saw fashion as not only aesthetic but also a type of symbolic uniform regarding race, gender and heritage. As she got older Kahlo used fashion as a way of rebellion against the years she’d spent as a young child hiding out of sight. Her intention was to challenge western beauty standards with braided hair and bold brows, which eventually led to the creation of her trademark look. She even began to merge her professional practice with her individual style by painting directly onto the fabric that she would then wear. “My Dress Hangs There” is a perfect example of how she glorified and empowered fashion and self-expression. Kahlo had a love of fashion and would regularly go shopping or commission pieces to develop her look. Her 1939 trip to Paris even inspired Elsa Schiaparelli to design the Madame Rivera dress in her image.
Kahlo is still a key influencer in 21st Century fashion, with designers Rei Kawakubo and Alexander McQueen sighting her as their ‘muse’. Most recently the Chanel spring 2018 collection was inspired by how Kahlo “deviated from the traditional depiction of female beauty in art and instead chose to paint the raw and honest experiences that so many women face”. The collection acts as a tribute to the artist. Kahlo was also featured in Riccardo Tisci’s couture collection for Givenchy in autumn 2010, which saw floor-length redcarpet dresses with the bones of the spine and rib cage picked out in bugle bead embroidery and hand-painted with birds and monkeys. This was said to represent the plaster cast corset worn by Kahlo to protect her damaged spine.
As well as being an activist for women she also played a huge role in the recognition of the LBTQ community and for people with disabilities. She was openly bisexual and her paintings reflect her exploration of what it is to be a woman and her struggle to find feminity. Kahlo frequently used cross-dressing within her work and deliberately used male drag to project empowerment and independence. This is shown in a family photograph from 1925, in which she wears a three-piece tweed suit, complete with shirt and tie. Her hair is tied back. Her stance is assertive, with one hand in her pocket as she looks towards the camera.
Kahlo also had a strong political voice. Not only was she the face of a bracelet worn by British Prime Minister Theresa May in October 2017, but she was also a keen communist and Mexican Nationalist. Upon joining preparatory school in 1922 she joined the Mexican Communist Party, within which she befriended other likemined individuals. Further in her career she was not afraid to paint stereotypical taboos including her injured body and miscarriage. “Henry Ford Hospital” famously depicts her laying naked on a hospital bed following a miscarriage.
Due to growing up after the revolution, much of her cultural identity was dedicated to respect and appreciation for the pre-Columbian Aztec civilization. Her fascination with her mestiza (or mixedancestry) heritage meant that motifs such as Aztec symbols, including monkeys, skulls, and flowers, featured in many of her paintings. She even became part of cachucas which was an informal group which rebelled against everything conservative, played pranks and discussed philosophy.
Whilst living in the United States Kahlo experienced the oppressive nature of capitalism and imperialism which saw heavily enforced class divides and segregation within society. Her later works seemed to celebrate her enthusiasm for Marxism and Stalinism, which she hoped would lead to the adoption of nationalism in Mexico. Just before her death Kahlo is said to have attended a protest against US intervention in Guatemala.
Frida Kahlo remarkably overcame adversity, fought for the breakdown of gender stereotypes, empowered women and had a strong political voice, all whilst maintaining the thoroughly eccentric image that we all recognise to this day. Her use of fashion and art as a second voice spread the passion that she felt and was paramount in creating the largely culturally accepting socially in which we thrive today. Although the true extent of her influence is immeasurable, I think it is safe to say that Frida Kahlo was a true historical legend.
Photographs by Guillermo Kahlo