Friday, June 28, 2013

Style Icon: Frida Kahlo

I  used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you. —quoted in Diary of Frida Kahlo

How a great artist deals with personal tragedy: Frida Kahlo was stricken with polio at the the age of six, and her right leg was significantly shorter than her left. At the age of 18, she was nearly killed in a street car accident, and her body deteriorated from that point on, while her art came to life.

Kahlo painting one of her plaster body casts.  Photo by Juan Guzmán.
In constant pain, Kahlo wore casts most of her life because her spine was incapable of supporting her body. Each of her casts she transformed by painting them, making them expressions of herself. In 1953, when she had to have a leg amputated, she had a beautiful prosthetic leg made, including a red leather boot with a bell.

Photo by Miguel Tovar.

Frida Kahlo’s dress was an extension of her self expression.

Kahlo was the daughter of a German father and a Mexican mother, specifically a Mexican from Tehuana. This area of Oaxaca is matriarchal, and Kahlo chose to dress in her native region’s style to portray power, as well as hide her disabilities.

Traditional women’s garments from Tehuana exhibited at the Museo Frida Kahlo. Photo by Miguel Tovar.
Women’s dress from Tehuana is in three parts, with flowers and ribbons or a headpiece emphasizing the face, a shortened blouse and a long skirt. There is a concentration upwards, including dramatic jewelry. For Frida, this was a way of distracting from what made her weak, and putting the emphasis on her feminine power, her uniquely beautiful face, her socialist beliefs and the pride she felt in her heritage. Her distinctive dress was not something often seen in the forward-looking and urbane 1920s-40s, and wherever she went, Kahlo stood out for her expressive style.

While she wore European items too (as in the white outfit she wears in her painting Las Dos Fridas), the same basic formula remained the decorations in the hair, the strong jewelry, the shorter blouse and the long skirt. Her colorful clothing often featured embroidery and lace.

I don’t think I’ve ever found an article of dress from Tehuana, but in striving to find the obtainable in Kahlo’s style I concentrated on some broader principles:

1. I was struck by the symmetry of her looks and if a sort of wholeness could be found in that center. Her famous eyebrows seem to anchor the concept that there is something in the center that is not only not diminished, it is flourishing. She looks focused and complete.

This isn’t so easy for me, with my very asymmetrical face (one eye is 3mm farther from my nose than the other). I rarely look straight at a camera for this reason. However, there is something beautiful about formal symmetry that seems fresh to me after years of asymmetry and a certain amount of fashion-dictated dishevelment.

2. Embellishment is a strong feature of Kahlo’s dress, and of Tehuana dress. I love the mixture of patterns, colors, embroidery, ribbons, jewelry, fringe, flowers. It’s a very textural, effusive visual richness.

3. Upward momentum seems very important to the look, especially with Kahlo’s flowers, ribbons, and hair poised like a crown.

4. Kahlo always looks regal in her photos, with a dignity that I find very compelling.

Photographed for US Vogue in October, 1937
In New York, 1946
5. This is both very general and very important: It has been said that Kahlo dressed her very best when she felt her worst. I’ve not been subjected to the sort of chronic pain she experienced, but I know the transformative power of style. I believe she strove to heal herself spiritually through her art and style. She rewrote her narrative through beauty.

Recently Frida Kahlo was pictured on the cover of Vogue México, coordinating with the first exhibition of Kahlo’s garments, at the Museo Frida Kahlo. She looks as unique and original as the day the photo was taken, ca. 1937.
Nikolas Muray photo

Right now I have a small collection of items in my Etsy shop which I chose to represent aspects of Frida Kahlo’s style:


Carrie said...

Fabulous post, Maggie! You've shone some fascinating light on a fascinating woman...

Anonymous said...

That was the best thing I've read on the internet in a long time - informative and beautiful and persuasive. I never liked Frida Kahlo's paintings and I get tired of the cult of Kahlo. But now I feel I can appreciate her as a person, and I'm curious to read more about her.

I also need to go look at your shop!

denisebrain said...

Thank you both so much.

Val, I had to somewhat persuade myself, but the more I read about Frida Kahlo the more I appreciated her.

The Elle Diaries said...

What an inspiring, sweet commentary. You have a lovely face and i am taken with your artistic style
Thanks for sharing that.
XX, Elle

denisebrain said...

I'm so happy to hear that Elle, thank you.

Jonathan walford said...

You HAVE to do a series of photos dressed as fashion inspirations - LOVE the Frida Kahlo shot - MORE MORE MORE

denisebrain said...

Jonathan, you've got me thinking about it!

Charlotte Issyvoo said...

This is a wonderful post. I too have always felt strange and different, and my social and political views have been similar to hers. But my affinity with Kahlo is now in large part due to my own struggles with chronic pain caused by a back injury. (As I write this, I'm lying on my back, using a hospital table to hold my laptop above me.) I am amazed to hear that, like me, she used dressing up as a way to deal with her pain. And, as she did with art, I use the creativity in my writing as another means of getting a handle on the pain. Both of these things are big parts of why I started my blog.

denisebrain said...

Charlotte, You make me sad with your comment, but lift me up too. Keep on!