Frida Kahlo was considered one of Mexico’s greatest artists. 64 years after her death, her wardrobe will be seen outside of Mexico for the first time as part of Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, a major V&A exhibition.
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon was born at La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacan, a town on the outskirts of Mexico City, in 1907.
Her father Wilhelm Kahlo was German, he had moved to Mexico at a very young age and remained there all his life. He eventually took over the photography business from Kahlo’s mothers’ family. Kahlo’s mother Matilde Caldderon y Gonzalez was of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry. She raised Frida and her three sisters in a very religious and strict household. Frida also had two half-sisters from her father’s first marriage - they were raised in a convent.
Kahlo had a very troubling childhood, with certain events aﬀecting the rest of her life. At age six Kahlo contracted polio, it took her a long time to recover and left her with permanent damage to one of her legs causing her to walk with a limp. Following her illness, her father enrolled Frida into a German college in Mexico - it turned out to be a terrible experience, she was sexually abused and subsequently forced to leave.
Fortunately, at this time the Mexican revolution and the Minister of Education had changed the education policy, from 1922 girls were admitted to the National Preparatory School. Kahlo was one of the very first girls accepted at the school, she excelled academically and studied botany, medicine, and social sciences. She also became very interested in Mexican culture and became politically active. It was at this school Kahlo first met the already famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.
On September 17th 1925 Kahlo and Alejandro Gomez Arias, a school friend she was in love with, were travelling on a bus when the vehicle collided with a streetcar. Kahlo suﬀered several serious injuries including fracturing her spine and pelvis. Kahlo stayed at the Red Cross Hospital for several weeks, she returned home to fully recuperate. Her parents made her a modified easel with a mirror above her head, so she could see her own reflection and make self-portraits. She finished her first self-portrait the following year and gave it to Gomez Arias.
In 1928 Frida Kahlo reconnected with Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera, he was very encouraging with Kahlo’s artwork. They began a relationship and eventually married in 1929. After some time in New York City they left and returned to live in Mexico in 1933.
Against tradition, Kahlo and Rivera had separate but adjoining homes and studios in San Angel. Kahlo soon learned of her husband's Aﬀairs, including her sister Christina. Saddened by her sister's betrayal Kahlo cut oﬀ most of her trademark dark hair, it was also during this time Kahlo had more heartache when she miscarried in 1934. They were divorced in 1939 but not for long and remarried in 1940, though they led largely separate lives and were both romantically involved with other people over the years.
Kahlo died on July 13, 1954. Oﬃcially the cause of death was pulmonary embolism brought on by pneumonia, however, there is speculation she may have overdosed on painkillers.
Despite a life of tragedy and her many physical ailments, the legacy and talent of Kahlo cannot be underestimated. Her husband, describing her to Picasso once said, “I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, Acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.”
Since her death, Kahlo has become an international icon. Influencing many artists and fashion designers throughout the 1950’s and beyond.
Diversity is becoming the norm in fashion - and rightly so. Frida Kahlo celebrated her own mixed heritage and identity as mestizaje (Mixed European and Mexican) by wearing traditional garments. After Kahlo’s death most of her wardrobe lay untouched for fifty years, it was sealed shut on her partner orders and only opened again in 2004.
Kahlo’s distinctive look derives from her adoption of the Tehuana dress. The Tehuana dress comes from the Tehuanatepec Isthmus, which is in the southeast part of Mexico in the Oaxaca. If you were to visit the Tehuantepec Isthmus, you would find all women are dressed in this traditional style. The dress is made from three parts, a very heavy headpiece usually with flowers, pleats and ribbons. A short blouse called a huipil with lots of jewellery and lastly a long skirt.
The Tehuantepec Isthmus society is a matriarchal society, the women dominate the culture and administer the society. Kahlo intentionally chose a dress that symbolises very powerful women.
Kahlo has been the inspiration for several designers, Jean Paul Gaultier's SS98 was full of layers and bright patterns with many of the models sporting mono-brows. More recently, Roland Mouret and the New York Label Cushnie et Ochs have taken influence. Indeed, her iconic face can now be seen on mugs, t-shirts and cushions. To mark International women’s day Mattel released a Frida Barbie, part of a new collection depicting inspirational women.
Frida Kahlo: Making Herself UP can be seen at the V&A until Nov 2018