Style Focus Frida Kahlo
To mark the belated birthday of our Bohemian style icon Frida Kahlo, we take a look back at her life and the experiences that shaped her ground-breaking and eclectic style.
Words by Danielle Morgan
In celebration of everyone's favourite Mexican style icon, we couldn't help delving into the life of Mexico's most prolific creative Frida Kahlo de Rivera, artist, socialist and feminist. Her instantly recognisable paintings, most of which are self portraits, are a reminder of her distressing inner turmoil and eccentric individual style. In a nod to her Mexican heritage, Frida defied contemporary fashion trends for traditional Tehuantepec and Bohemian dress. She defied societal constraints in all aspects of life, perhaps none more so than through what she wore.
"Kahlo adapted the traditional clothing of women from Mexico's matriarchal Tehuantepec society to fit her own needs."
Clair Cohen, The Telegraph
Frida was very feminist in her approach to dressing; although her long flowing skirts and pretty peasant blouses might seem a contradiction to this, she dressed with individual panache incorporating big colourful hair flowers and ethnic jewellery into her everyday look.
Physically, Frida was not a well woman for much of her life. When she was a child, she contracted Polio which rendered her right leg considerably thinner than her left. As a result, she was increasingly self conscious and opted for long skirts that hid the irregularity. Following a tragic bus accident in her early '20s, Frida was left wearing back braces and surgical corsets for the rest of her life, unable to have children.
Frida underwent a series of extensive surgeries throughout her life frequently left bed ridden, battling her daemon's. She would often use a mirror whilst lying flat to paint her casts with decorative murals and Communist images.
The full skirts and loose peasant blouses Frida wore veiled the back brace, corset and prosthetics she had to endure, covertly revealing a life of pain behind beautiful embroidery and intricate detail. Months before she died in 1954, part of Kahlo's leg was amputated. Never one to cower in the wake of her physical disabilities, Frida celebrated her eccentricity by designing her own prosthetic leg, complete with red leather boot and bells.
Frida was dressing to please no one but herself. Although her style choices were partly a by-product of her body dysmorphia, they were also uncommon and outlandish for her time. She blended traditional and feminine dress in a way that was empowering and thought provoking; you could be a woman 'in a man's world' and still retain your own sense of identity. The folk embroidery, loose peasant styles, full maxi skirts, fringed shawls and lavish hair flowers were not just what Frida wore, they made her who she was.
"I painted myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."
The beauty of her artistry, from what she wore to the subjects she painted, are bittersweet when we consider the pain and suffering from which they derived.
The subject of much of her work was personal; using bright colours and a primitive painting style she wove Mexican mythology and symbolism into most of her works. Her small scale oil on metal paintings defied convention from material to subject matter, almost surrealist in style, although Frida was quoted 'I never painted dreams. I painted only my reality.'
She often painted herself with her monkey, Fulang-Chang, a gift from husband Diego Rivera with whom she had a turbulent relationship marred by a number of adulterous affairs. Mexican Folk symbolism featured heavily in the majority of her works, mostly as an allegory for her physical and psychological wounds. Often Monkeys and dolls were painted to represent Frida and Diego's inability to conceive children, and the inner torment of her numerous miscarriages. Dead hummingbirds were painted around her neck to symbolise love, whilst black cats were emblematic of bad luck.
Artistically, nothing was taboo and this mentality resonated in every aspect of her life, right down to what she wore. In life, Frida was the canvas and her clothing was the art.
It might be difficult to understand how Frida was so forward thinking in her political views and sexuality, but when it came to her clothing she was very much a traditionalist. It was not so much modernity Frida was opposed to, but authenticity. During her stay in New York, she commented "I'm not painting or doing anything. I dislike the "high society" here [in New York where she had travelled with Rivera] and feel a little rage against all these fat cats, since I've seen thousands of people in terrible misery." Frida felt stifled in the big apple, demonstrated through her unusual painting style during her time there. On her return, she resumed working on My Dress Hangs There, a painting in which the focal point of so many of her works is missing; herself. Filled with modern industrial symbolism, at the centre Frida's traditional Tehhauntepec dress hanging empty and lifeless, devoid of the wearer, it is a statement about where her soul and being truly belonged, her native Mexico.
Works like this, perhaps more than any of herself portraits, demonstrate just how much Frida's clothing defined her as a person. From the way it masked her body dysmorphia to the ways it represented her cultural heritage, Frida without the self expression and empowerment of her clothing just wasn't Frida.
"From traditional Tehiana dresses, elaborate headpieces, menswear inspired suits, to even a high heeled red lace up boot for a prosthetic leg, Frida's style always made a statement both culturally and politically."
Frida was the Queen of multi-culturalism and diversity. Mexican, Jewish, Catholic and bi-sexual, she used her clothing to express her zealous liberalism. Born in 1907, Frida would actually tell people she was born 3 years later than she was to coincide with the Mexican Revolution and the birth of New Mexico.
At college, Frida joined a socialist clique, remaining vocal about leftist politics throughout her life. So much so that in 1937, she started an affair with refugee Leon Trotsky, a Marxist who shared similar communist views with Frida, proving that the most head strong women could mix politics and pleasure
Feminism and female empowerment was a large part of what Frida encompassed into her works and lifestyle. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this was her facial hair, which she refused to remove to comply with societal ideals of femininity. Her monobrow and upper lip hair was a defiance against pressure to look and behave in a certain way, a value Frida carried throughout everything that she did. This defiance too was mirrored in her clothing, partly in the overtly feminine yet highly unusual skirts, dresses and headpieces she wore.
"I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim."
Every aspect of Frida's life fed into how she dressed, from her sexual liberation, to her physical injuries and artistic output.
She was unhappily married to Diego de Rivera for 10 years until they divorced in 1939, before remarrying in December 1940. Their marriage displeased no one more that Frida's parents, who scorned their 20 year age gap and referred to the couple as 'the elephant and the dove'. Neither was their rekindled marriage a success, often the couple slept in separate quarters and both continued the affairs that marred their first marriage.
Affairs throughout their marriage were rife, Diego was a prolific romantic just not, it seemed, when it came to Frida. She returned the sentiment by exploring her bi-sexuality. Her affairs with both men and women were numerous, perhaps most notably was her affair with Leon Trotsky, who the Rivera's accommodated whilst he was in exile in Mexico. Her affairs with women Diego could stomach, her affairs with men however he grew wildly jealous of.
Despite this, their love for each other was unwavering; during the later years of her life Frida increasingly found herself bed bound and Diego never failed to tend to her during these moments of darkness. Their relationship had been turbulent throughout, but in his autobiography Diego wrote that she was the greatest love of his life.
STEAL HER STYLE
Floral prints and clashing patterns featured heavily in Frida's wardrobe of ecclectic tastes and styles. Contrast florals with ethnic prints and layer on silver bangles for a Bohemian inspired look.
Frills and Spills
High neck ruffled blouses catered to the feminine aspect of Frida's style that carried itself throughout almost everything that she wore. Muted palettes did not often feature, but when they did jewellery was layered to compensate for the lack of colour. Bright beads were essential to completing Frida's traditional Mexican style.
Prints For Days
Colours were an essential part of Frida's look, they masked her pain in a completely autonomous and individual approach to dressing. Ethnic bohemian style patterns and maxi styles were a constant feature whilst colourful beads were layered over feminine frills and ruffles.
Folk style embroidery was a traditional feature of Tehuana dress that Frida frequently wore. The maxi was a favourite of Frida's, with bold jewellery frequently taking centre stage.