Frida Kahlo: The story behind the style of an icon

Frida Kahlo

Credit: Eddy Opara

Frida Kahlo’s style has long been celebrated and even a subject of cult, almost turning her into a mythological creature. Sure, everybody knows her for her savage character, her monobrow, her canvases and even her catastrophic yet extraordinary life.

But very few know what’s behind her style, the reasons that made her adopt the signature look we are all familiar with (the traditional “Tehuana” dress with a very long skirt, along with braid and flowers on her hair). It was all a conscious choice. Frida built her identity straight from her incapacity and tradition. You can see that from taking a look at her wardrobe and luckily, more than 300 new pieces went on show for the world to see for the first time last year.

Frida Kahlo

Credit: Ishiuchi Miyako

To begin talking about Frida’s clothing we must go back to her tragedies. She first faced disease at the age of six – polio left her with one leg shorter than the other. Twelve years later, a traumatic car accident resulted in her having a broken clavicle, broken column and a broken right foot. Ten years later, her body’s deterioration forced doctors to amputate her right leg.

Both situations influenced the artist’s aesthetic, who began seeing clothes as a resource to construct her identity, and allowed her to cover her imperfections. Since she was very young, she began wearing very long skirts, used three or four socks and one shoe with higher heel on her right foot. Her fragility confined her for long periods to two beds (one for the day and one for the night), a wheelchair and cast corsets she cleverly decorated herself.

Frida Kahlo

Credit: Ishiuchi Miyako

That search to find clothes that covered traces of disease and her accident was the primary force that led the Mexican artist to reconnect with and find comfort in her native heritage. The traditional and stylistically rigid forms of the “Tehuana” (traditional dress from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, southeast of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, where Frida’s mother was from).

The ornamental concentration of the dress directs the attention to the upper body and what she herself called “a less than perfect body”. But she did not settle just with covering her physical imperfections, she went even further and turned the “Tehuana” into an ideological and cultural statement. As the dress came from a matriarchal society, managed and dominated entirely by women, this traditional dress a powerful symbol of female strength and independence.

Frida Kahlo

Credit: Ishiuchi Miyako

But even patriotism and political convictions were not the only reasons for Frida to adopt this aesthetic seal. It was also a search for self-affirmation, related to her and her mother’s relationship and, secondly, an intuitive ability to position herself in the world of art at a time when female artists were struggling to gain recognition in their own right.

It was certainly a great stylistic resource created from a complex combination of her communist ideas, her need to belonging, her traditions and a radical response to her disability. So, there’s a lot more than just fabric and embroidery on a “simple” dress – don´t you think?

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