Nearly 65 years after her death, Frida Kahlo’s singular creative oeuvre continues to inspire — as does her extraordinary sense of style.
“Making Her Self Up,” now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design in London, provides an intimate look at how Kahlo cultivated her image and the ways in which she used fashion and makeup to do so.
In examining Kahlo’s stylistic legacy, curators Circe Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox have looked to Casa Azul (the Blue House), Kahlo’s childhood home in Mexico, where she died in 1954. They have worked in collaboration with the Museo Frida Kahlo to bring the exhibition to life.
Kahlo’s style was carefully coordinated and purposeful. As Wilcox explains, one of the show’s objectives is “to show how Frida constructed and controlled her identity, her singular strength in the face of illness and adversity.”
The exhibition consists of 200 objects, some of which have never traveled outside of Mexico before. Certain pieces have never been exhibited at all. Here are three that speak to Kahlo’s life as a bisexual artist who took pride in her native Mexico.
One of objects on display is an eyebrow pencil manufactured by Revlon, Kahlo’s favorite brand, which opened a Mexican factory in the late 1940s. Kahlo used the pencil to used to conjoin and exaggerate her eyebrows.
Along with her conspicuous facial hair, her brows (or brow, rather) further distinguished her looks and distanced her from prevailing notions of female beauty, harking back to the time in her youth when she dressed as a man. Doing so “was extremely daring,” Salma Hayek, who played Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic, says of the period. “All of this was impossible to conceive in Mexico at the time; and yet, she was celebrating the androgynous part of herself.”
The traditional huipil tunics, enagua skirts and resplandor headdresses Kahlo wore were used to emphasize her Mexican Mestizo identity and heritage. Similarly, the indigenous flowers she wore in her hair and the native jewelry she used to bedizen herself with were also reflections of her love for Mexico and her nationalist stance.
Kahlo “would take her inspiration from the different cultures within Mexico,” Hayek says. “That’s not how people were dressing, even indigenous people. . . . Frida would take inspiration from them and then [make] her own creations that [went] against the trends of fashion.”
Kahlo also looked to fashion to conceal the deformities on her body wrought by polio and gangrene, as well as to express her allegiance to communism, as in the case of a hammer-and-sickle-adorned corset, one of many she had to wear as a result of a near-fatal accident at 18 involving a bus. As Henestrosa puts it, her style “combined . . . the fundamental effects of her disabilities and her political beliefs.”
Well into the 21st century, people still taking stylistic cues from Kahlo. The artist has “all the appropriate elements of an icon, an ultimate modern-day icon,” Henestrosa says.
“As a woman of color that had disabilities and was politically radical, she is also someone that speaks to groups that have been traditionally disenfranchised, giving [them the] hope and courage to say, ‘This is how I am.’”