Fashion, Identity, Disability: The style of Frida Kahlo
At the death of painter Frida Kahlo, her husband (painter Diego Rivera) ordered her personal belongings, including nearly all of her clothes, to be locked up. It would be another 50 years before this wardrobe was opened up and this year, for the first time, it was exhibited in Mexico City.
Kenn and I were lucky enough to make the trip down to Mexico while this exhibit was going on at the Frida Kahlo museum, and to see some of her exquisite clothing and personal effects in person.
So many women are drawn to Frida, myself included. Here was a woman who endured unimaginable pain throughout her life due to her multiple disabilities, and yet was able to somehow render that pain into art. Pain and suffering were a large theme in her work, and clearly formed a big part of her identity.
Yet until I saw this wonderfully curated exhibit, I hadn’t thought much about the link between her iconic appearance, her inimitable style, and her disabilities.
My personal history has a lot to do with my own Frida obsession. I don’t talk about this much, but I have my own spinal deformity which was treated with spinal surgery at 12 years old. Though it was very painful and deeply affected my self image, my issues are nowhere near the scale of the trauma Frida Kahlo lived through. Yet, I cannot look at her painting The Broken Column without tears of sympathy welling up. It is for me the most wrenching of all her works.
Frida used her clothing to celebrate some aspects of her identity while disguising others. The long flowing skirts of her Tehuana dress represented her cultural heritage, but also disguised her withered (and later, after amputation, false) leg. It reminded me of the shame I felt about my body as a young teenager, how self conscious I was about my scars and covering them up, how mortified I was by comments on my body.
And even today, though I don’t think about these things as much, I surely don’t relish talking about them either. Who wants to draw attention to their flaws?
Yet some of the objects on display hinted at a different attitude towards the body that tortured her. The painted casts in particular suggested a kind of “dressing up” of the pain. It isn’t necessarily a celebration but, like her art, it is a direct confrontation of it.
And she was clearly fearless in her sartorial choices. She had no problems mixing traditional Mexican and European fashion in innovative ways. With her bright colors, bold jewelry, flowers in her hair and silk and lace everywhere, her presence was commanding and unmistakable.
I think nearly all women can relate to these two impulses, whether we have disabilities or not. There are times when each of us feels broken, imperfect, and ashamed. And there are times we fight through that to express who we are, not in spite of our imperfections but because of them.