Lessons in Self Creation with Frida Kahlo

Where to begin when discussing Frida Kahlo? Her’s is an image that we know so well. Her trademark braided hair decorated with flowers and ribbons, her brightly coloured dresses and her distinctive monobrow are all so familiar to us. Perhaps so much so that she herself even feels familiar. And everyone seems to want a piece of her.

She was well-known in life, but became iconic in death. Pop culture’s fixation on Frida commenced not long after she died, the “second coming of Frida” beginning in 1983 with Hayden Herrera’s biography propelling her into the pop culture limelight. The 20th Century artist’s striking image has cast a long shadow over the fashion industry since then, with designers from Jean Paul Gaultier to Dolce & Gabbana taking inspiration from her, and Givenchy sending Frida-inspired dresses down the runway as late as 2010, 56 years after her death.

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, 2002 photographed by Annie Leibovitz

In 2002 Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida brought the artist to the big screen, right on queue; just 2 years later a Pandora’s box of her personal belongings was opened and put on display at La Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán. Her popularity may have reached it’s apex in 2018 when some of the most famous and significant pieces of her wardrobe were put on display at the V&A in London. Meanwhile, Designer Roland Mouret dedicated his Spring 2018 catwalk show to her and in March of the same year Mattel launched a Frida Barbie to mark International Women’s Day. There was even a Frida snapchat filter. Yes, “Fridamania” is well and truly in the mainstream.

But isn’t all this appropriation and commodification, the Frida t-shirts, the Frida fridge magnets, the Frida vinyl bags and the plastic flower crowns, a distasteful encroachment on a woman who stood steadfastly against Capitalism? Is it not an insult to the very core of her identity? Maybe. But perhaps it does not have to be.

Memory, the Heart, 1937, Frida Kahlo (public domain)

Jess Cartner-Morley, in an article for The Guardian, explores this idea, quoting the curator of the V&A exhibition, Circe Henestrosa: “I’m not at all sure that fashion has glamourised or sanitised [Kahlo], I think she was incredibly glamorous and sophisticated already…Kahlo loved to shop for clothes, revelling in colour and fabric; she was always strikingly made up.” It is even said that she is “so intimately associated with the clothes she wore that staff at the Blue House in Mexico City, where her clothes are now displayed, have come to believe that the brocade skirts and embroidered shawls get heavier after dark, and to infer from this that her spirit comes back to possess them.”

Clothing and self-adornment were actually mediums through which Frida could express herself: her identity, her culture, her politics. She was very much, to quote the V&A, “making her self up.” If we treat her memory and her image with respect and understanding, if we take the time to learn about her life and the philosophy behind her look, if we don’t reduce her to a tacky t-shirt, a barbie doll or socks, then we can really learn a lot from her.

She used her aesthetic to take control of her own identity not just as a woman but also as a painter, as a Mexican, as a bi-racial person, as a Marxist and as a person with disabilities. None of it was accidental. Every part of her image had a philosophy behind it. With this in mind, Frida Kahlo becomes all the more inspirational. She was truly original, truly inimitable but we can still learn from her some valuable lessons in self creation and meditate on the importance and the potency of taking control of the image of the self.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937, Frida Kahlo

3 lessons in personal style from Frida Kahlo

Roots, 1943, Frida Kahlo (public domain)

Frida was nothing if not a proud Mexican. Whilst still at school she engaged deeply with Mexican culture, political activism and issues of social justice. Her school promoted the concept of indigenismo “a new sense of Mexican identity that took pride in the country’s indigenous heritage and sought to rid itself of the colonial mindset of Europe as superior to Mexico.” That love for her country and her connection to its history and culture manifested in her appearance.

Interestingly, Frida appeared to have this experimental, introspective approach to her clothing before she was even an artist. Photographs from her youth reveal that she was experimenting with her self image from a very young age. For example, in one family portrait of the Kahlo y Calderón family, Frida appears dressed in her father’s three-piece suit. Frida toyed with gender expression through her clothes, without stagnating or feeling the need to commit to any stringently gendered aesthetic. Her decision to don ostensibly masculine clothing at one point, did not hinder her ability to take on the ultra-feminine historic clothing of indigenous Mexican women at another point in time.

Frida Kahlo (far left) in a family portrait, c. 1924

By the 1920s Frida’s sisters and most young women in Mexico had their hair in the fashionable bobbed style and wore the contemporary waistless shifts. Meanwhile, Frida - ignoring the trends of the time - was busy carving out a unique visual identity for herself with long, centre-parted hair coiled up in ribbons and braids, and clothing inspired by her mother’s indigenous roots. In her early 20s, Frida started to wear a personalised version of the traditional Tehuana dress: “full skirts, embroidered blouses and regal coiffure associated with a matriarchal society from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was a proud assertion of her ethnic and national identity.

Frida Kahlo’s mother, Matilde Calderón y González, photographed c. 1897 by husband, Guillermo Kahlo

Frida’s apparent propensity for “dressing up” to reflect Mexico’s history and culture seems to have been a trait that she had inherited from her mother. Images of Frida’s family dressed in Oaxaca’s regional costume, and of her mother dressed as Adelita (a revolutionary heroine of Mexican lore) signal that this passion for embodying indigenous heritage through clothing was woven into the fabric of her family; in her blood.

Frida’s look became a physical representation the duality of her nature, mixing European and Mexican styles to reflect her own unique heritage. Her father was of German and possibly Jewish-Hungarian descent, while her mother was of indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent. Her refusal even to alter her striking facial hair, her monobrow and moustache, speak to her commitment to authentically representing her heritage. She appears to have inherited her characteristic monobrow from her paternal grandmother and wore this family trait like a badge of honour. Likewise, she wore vintage clothing before “vintage” was a concept, borrowing from her mother and grandmother. She used her own image to demonstrate her allegiance to her roots and particularly to her home, Mexico.

Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents and Me, 1936

Her devotion to her homeland is particularly evident in her jewellery. She liked to wear pieces from Pre-Columbian Mexico, historic pieces handcrafted by native Central Americans. For her, it was about more than simple aesthetics, it was representative of centuries of cultural tradition. It was a political statement. To be sure, it was not in keeping with the fashions of the time. In fact, Frida was often said to be the butt of jokes when she went out in public boldly wearing her colourful indigenous dresses and flamboyant jewellery. But her image was not intended to fall in line with the fashionistas. It was a message, a black-lash against cultural whitewashing and the intrusion of Capitalistic fashions from Gringolandia.

Self Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932 by Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with a necklace, 1933

The necklace Frida wears here is speculated to have been made from jade beads, excavated from a Mayan archaeological site in the late 1920s. It seems that she acquired these beads and made them into a necklace for herself, literally and figuratively wearing her country’s history around her neck.

Frida had been an avowed Marxist since her schooldays. She had even formed a group that put on plays, debated philosophy and discussed the Russian classics. Known as the Cachuchas (“the titled caps”), many members of this group would go on to be some of the leading figures of the Mexican intellectual elite. Her ideology was woven into the very fibre of her being. She even claimed that the year she was born was the first year of the Mexican Revolution, 1910 (rather than 1907), so that she could claim to be a “daughter of the Revolution”.

Self portrait with stalin, Frida Kahlo

She joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927 and was introduced to a circle of political activists and artists, including the exiled Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella and the Italian proto-feminist photographer Tina Modotti. Her political ideologies were encouraged and reinforced by this group of intelligentsia and by her passionate relationship with Diego Rivera — a Communist to his core — whom she was introduced to at one of Modotti’s parties 1928. She even hosted, and had a brief affair with, Leon Trotsky when he was seeking asylum in Mexico.

Mexican Nationalism and Socialism shaped Frida’s thinking. It was a hugely influential part of her life, which, as with every part of her identity, was revealed in her self image.

Self portrait with Red Cap by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo), c.1925 by Frida Kahlo

Acknowledging Frida’s Communism makes the commercialisation of her image all the more bizarre. In 2017 the Conservative former prime minister Theresa May strangely thought it appropriate to wear a (pretty tasteless) plastic chunky bracelet featuring Frida’s face on all sides. Ironic given that, to quote Ayoola Solarin in her article for Dazed, “ austerity has led to a worse standard of living for disabled people, ethnic minorities, and women in the UK, so how the Conservative PM could think that her fashion moment was a good move is indicative of how far Kahlo’s appropriation has gone.” All the more reason to wear what is symbolic of your actual beliefs, as Frida did. Her left-wing ideologies are observable not just in the anti-colonialist Mexican dresses, but also in the Cachuchas’ red berets and her more modern and more masculine outfits.

Frida pictured with husband Diego Rivera and wearing a sombrero (Unknown photographer)
Emiliano Zapata (seated, centre) with staff, c. 1912. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Frida’s uncharacteristically plain and masculine outfit here, complete with sombrero, is reminiscent of those worn by the Zapatistas, headed by Emiliano Zapata, one of the leading figures of the Mexican Revolution and now considered a national hero. Her commitment to socialism was also displayed in her adoption of non-Mexican articles of clothing such as the Russian headscarf.

Frida Kahlo protesting whilst wearing a Russian-esque headscarf (Unknown photographer)

Nevertheless, as Historian Alejandro Rosas asserts, “Mexicanness, socialism, and even certain touches of the Mexican Revolution were not Frida’s greatest source of inspiration. The origins of her creativity can be traced back to 1925, when the bus she was traveling home on one day was hit by a streetcar. Her fractured body filled her life with pain until the end of her days.”

Frida was often the subject of her own art, about a third of her paintings are self portraits in part due to the vast amounts of time she was forced to spend in solitude recovering. She famously said:

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

&

“I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.”

Frida painting The Two Fridas, 1939, photographed by Nickolas Muray

Themes of pain, of being injured, fractured, mutilated are often present in her work. She had suffered from Polio as a child, which had made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left. Then, at the age of 18, she was involved in a violent bus accident that killed several people. Frida’s own injuries were near fatal, her ribs were fractured, both her legs and her collarbone broken and she was impailed through the pelvis with a handrail. The accident destroyed her dream of becoming a doctor, her ability to have children and left her with lifelong pain and immobility.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944 (public domain)

Despite all this pain, her clothing, her art and her appearance served as creative mediums through which she could express the pain and overcome the challenges of living with disabilities. The traditional blouses she wore, the loose skirts and the elaborate hairstyles served to demonstrate her dedication to indigenismo, but also to cover what lay beneath. In an article for the New York Times, Hettie Judah discusses the dual purpose of Frida’s wardrobe with curator at the V&A Claire Wilcox: “The last thing you’d be thinking of when you saw her were her disabilities. The flamboyance was distracting.” The boxy shape of her huipil blouses could drop loosely over a back brace or plaster cast, while her long flouncy skirts could disguise her wasted leg and their motion helped to hide her limp.

Frida used her clothing and her self image to conquer her disabilities and physical imperfections; “she masters them, she supersedes them, she transcends them.” She even used a cast, something so uncomfortable and so restrictive, something that made it difficult to breathe, as a vehicle for self expression. She literally wore her political allegiances, the Communist hammer and sickle, on her heart.

Frida Kahlo wearing a cast decorated with a hammer and sickle, c.1941 photographed by Florence Arquin

Ultimately, the greatest lesson we can take from Frida Kahlo’s distinctive and inspiring sense of style is how transformative the power of self creation truly is. We can learn from Frida not to allow ourselves to be defined by or dictated to by anyone but ourselves. Instead we must ask: How do I want the world to see me? What story do I want to tell?

“I am nothing but a ‘small damned’ part of a revolutionary movement. Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless”

- from The Diary of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo’s legacy, her very own revolutionary movement, may never die. Until it does, Viva la Revolución.

History | Travel | Culture | Film | Exploration

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