frida-kahloFrida Kahlo chose herself as the object of most of her paintings, exploring her gender and identity through her art. Her clothes and looks were an important prop, not only in her portraits but also in her life. Jen Newby takes a look at a woman whose style continues to fascinate us today.

Frida Kahlo made herself, as much as any of her paintings, into a work of art. With ornate brightly coloured costumes and immaculate makeup, she constantly used herself as a subject, transforming her identity through her appearance, and recording it on canvas. “I am the subject I know best”, she said, painting herself over 55 times; and each one a different Frida.

From exotic traditional Tehuana outfits and elaborate hair arrangements to deliberately unfeminine touches, like men’s clothes and her famous signature monobrow, Frida’s image constantly altered. But her fixed expression in the self-portraits gave nothing away.

Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in 1907, Frida began studying medicine, yet became an artist by chance. When a horrific bus accident left Frida bed-ridden for months at 18, she started painting to pass the time. Leaving her medical studies for the art world, Frida became involved in the artistic and intellectual movement promoting Mexican national identity, meeting many famous figures, among them the mural painter, Diego Rivera.

Her keen political interest drove her to become a firm Communist later in life, and her last painting is an unfinished portrait of Stalin.
frida-kahlo-and-pet-hawkWhen she married Diego in 1929, her work, and her clothes, began mirror their tempestuous relationship. Frida veered from hyper-feminine traditional costumes to masculine dress when she wanted to assert her independence. “I dressed like a boy with shaved hair, pants, boots and a leather jacket. But when I went to Diego, I put on a Tehuana costume,” she said.

Frida’s Tehuana clothes were very feminine and full of rich colours, long skirts and hand-stitched designs. Dressing in traditional Mexican clothing seemed on the surface to be submitting to stale gender stereotypes, but Frida’s choice of clothing worked more to establish her feminine power. In the Tehuantepec region matriarchal traditions still survive, and Frida’s adoption of richly decorative Tehuana clothing was a form of empowerment, celebrating a culture of female-dominance.

But outside Mexico Frida felt alienated. In 1933 on a visit to America, her Communist sensibilities were appalled by the industrial capitalist society, and she was an outsider.

She represents these emotions in My Dress Hangs There (1933), where her simple hand-embroidered Tehuana dress hangs as a symbol of Mexican values and rejecting the mound of garbage, factories, burlesque posters; images symbolising American excess.

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5 Responses

  1. Tara

    Thanks for this great article, Frida Kahlo really was a genius & her own work of art – if you browse Ebay, there’s an incredible amount of Kahlo memorabilia out there. She inspires creativity in others too… 🙂

  2. Viviane

    No other woman like her in the world, Kahlo is amazing.

  3. John Bentley

    My partner is as wonderful and as creative as Frida Kahlo such amazing women in this world.

  4. sky

    Love Frida!Thanks for the great article,she was an amazing woman & artist!

  5. Brandi

    No doubt she has made an unforgettable mark on culture and that her work is something to be celebrated, but I always find the blind adoration rather distasteful. She had many faults that seem to be glossed over in her biographies, including her ardent adoration for Joseph Stalin. Admittedly for those of us who recognize this, it is hard to view her work without at least a margin of disdain.