As one of the most significant and recognisable artists of the twentieth century, the impact of Mexican artist Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón – AKA Frida Kahlo de Rivera (1901–1954) just grows and grows like the roots and vines in her self-portraits. Her posthumous popularity has spread like wild Mexican fire-water to an almost cult like following in popular culture and fashion. Her drama-punctuated bohemian life has almost been mythologised to immortalise her as an enduring symbol of tragic heroinism and to this day she stands as a revolutionary icon to LGBT culture, not only for her open bisexuality but also for her non-conformist and defiant nature.
The ‘Mexotica’ of her own iconic look has been inspiring to so many through the decades, that even during the course of her own artistic life, she became a kind of muse to movers and shakers of art and fashion and to the intelligentsia and cultural elite of the twentieth century. In one of Kahlo’s letters to her husband, the renowned muralist and painter Diego Rivera, she even acknowledged her own impact: “(…) 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 (…)”.
In 1937, Kahlo appeared in American Vogue magazine for a photoshoot by Toni Frissel entitled “Señoras of Mexico”. In New York she was perceived as the “height of exotica” with her colorful Mexican dress causing an absolute sensation. The Italian avant-garde Surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli, the great fashion nemesis of Coco Chanel, was also inspired to pay homage to her signature look – the traditional Mexican tehuano style traditional costume – with her design of a dress which she called “La robe Madame Rivera”. (Incidentally, Kahlo’s own choice of fragrance was said to be Schiaparelli’s own perfumed creation, ‘Shocking’.)
Kahlo’s art belonged to the post -revolutionary Mexicanidad movement which strived to define a Mexican identity and similarly, just as her art showed strong autobiographical elements using her distinctive Magic Realist naïve style of folk art, the way she expressed herself through her style was also significant. Kahlo’s look was at once inspired by and emblematic of Mexican traditions and indigenous folk culture as well as being both an exploration of her own and her national identity.
With her diverse Mexican folk costumes – long flowing tehuana dresses, ‘huipiles’ (traditional blouses), ‘kalis’, ‘pavartis’, ‘rebozos’ and ‘zaropes’ – Kahlo was a riot of colour and texture, with imported French silks and Spanish cottons set against more traditional Mexican textiles. Her hair was always braided and embellished with flowers and ribbons and her entire look was pulled together with traditional and pre-Hispanic jewellery.
Above left and Below: Frida Kahlo jewellery range by Love Boutique instore at Larks – Brooches; Necklace; Earrings
Just as her art expressed the many painful and tragic aspects of her life, in some way her manner of dress also revealed a certain truth from beneath her beautiful outer appearance . The garments and styles she chose in her own distinctive way were said to be conscious attempts to best enhance her physical appearance – to distract from the deformities and limitations of her physical form having been seriously injured in an accident in her early life. Due to severe spinal problems, she wore a total of twenty-eight varying supportive corsets – made from steel, leather and plaster – underneath those beautiful flowing garments for over 14 years until her death in 1954. Like her self-portraits, her dress could tell a fascinating story too…