Frida Kahlo is wearing a long, tiered cotton skirt, teamed with a high-necked, ruffled blouse. The photographer has crouched at ground level to take the shot so that she looms larger than life in the frame, the defiant uptilt of her chin emphasised. She holds a vintage embroidered scarf, but bears it above her head in a way to suggest holding a banner or a flag rather than seeking shade or modesty.
That portrait appeared in American Vogue in 1937, but everything about the look – the silhouette, embellishment, hairstyle, attitude – would work on the magazine’s pages today. Eighty-one years after that first Vogue appearance – and 64 years after her death – Frida Kahlo is this year’s It girl. In June, her wardrobe will be seen outside Mexico for the first time as part of Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, a major V&A exhibition about the image of the most iconic female artist in history. She is the muse for several designers this spring, including Roland Mouret and the New York label Cushnie et Ochs. To mark International Women’s Day, Mattel released a Frida Barbie, one of a new collection depicting inspirational women.
This, then, is a proud feminist moment in which fashion is – finally! – glorifying a woman of substance as well as style. But, wait – is her depiction as a glossy style icon a disrespectful and distasteful makeover of a woman who challenged societal expectations of women by, among other things, emphasising her striking unibrow with a Revlon eye pencil in “Ebony”?
Kahlo is a poster girl for our age because her image represents a drive toward female self-determination. Unless her oeuvre is being reduced to flower crowns in gift shops, symbolic of pop culture repackaging feminism into sugary blandness? Which is it?
Kahlo is the only female artist whose own image is instantly recognisable all over the world. Susana Martinez Vidal wrote a book about Kahlo’s style, “attracted by the fact that a half-Indigenous woman, who didn’t belong to a first-world country, who wasn’t in showbusiness (she wasn’t an actress, singer or dancer) managed to become one of the most iconic women of the 20th century, next to Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas”. Kahlo’s image is almost cartoonishly bold, yet draws on a complex set of references. Mexican and European elements are mixed, as are male and female. Her disabilities, a legacy of childhood polio and a road accident, are sometimes on show, sometimes hidden away. The iconography of her self image is unique and utterly compelling. Madonna, whose passion for collecting Kahlo’s work raised both her prices and profile, feels a connection.
“I’m not at all sure that fashion has glamourised or sanitised [Kahlo],” counters Circe Henestrosa, curator of the V&A exhibition. “I think she was incredibly glamorous and sophisticated already.” In 1939, Kahlo’s visit to Paris inspired Elsa Schiaparelli to design the Madame Rivera dress in her image. Kahlo loved to shop for clothes, revelling in colour and fabric; she was always strikingly made up.
Her self-portraits are decorative, but never fussy. Like any great brand, she has an image that is almost childlike in its simplicity. The flowers in her hair become a crown, a motif that runs from politics to fairytales. Diego Rivera, who as a muralist was no slouch when it came to semaphoring visual messages, likened his wife’s famous eyebrows to hummingbird wings; they are as much a part of Kahlo as the swoosh is to Nike. It is a shame she wasn’t around for Instagram. She would have been a dab hand with a selfie and a provocative caption.
“You cannot separate Frida from her work. The two are inextricably linked,” says Carly Cushnie, one half of the design duo Cushnie et Ochs, who dedicated this season’s collection to Kahlo. “Her personality and spirit speak through her paintings. She’s inviting you into her mind.” She is so intimately associated with the clothes she wore that staff at the Blue House in Mexico City, where her clothes are now displayed, have come to believe that the brocade skirts and embroidered shawls get heavier after dark, and to infer from this that her spirit comes back to possess them. A rawness which has kept Kahlo vivid in the culture for almost a century makes her now seem more relevant than ever. She is “the very embodiment … of a society obsessed with tearing down the walls of the private self”, says Henestrosa.
“To channel Frida isn’t about copying a print, or putting her face on a T-shirt,” says Roland Mouret, whose spring 2018 collection was inspired by how Kahlo “deviated from the traditional depiction of female beauty in art and instead chose to paint the raw and honest experiences that so many women face.” A collection in tribute to Kahlo, he says, “has to be about who she was as a woman. Her spirit, the way she never accepted defeat. She resonates to me because I enjoy dressing women who love to be women, and Frida would not allow society to stop her enjoying her life as a woman, to stop her from portraying herself as womanly when her body was broken.” His curvy siren dresses might seem at odds with Kahlo’s aesthetic, but the point, he says, is that “when a woman wears my clothes, you don’t look at her ass or her tits. You look in her eyes.”
The second coming of Frida began in 1983, when Hayden Herrera’s biography raised her pop cultural profile. Fifteen years later, Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring 1998 collection was an eye-popping visual cocktail of Kahlo and Marilyn Manson. (You know you have truly arrived as a fashion reference when you get juxtaposed against a contrasting look on the first sentence of a sheet of show notes.) Salma Hayek brought Frida to the cinema in her 2002 biopic; in 2004, a room of her personal belongings, which had been sealed since her death, was opened, and its contents put on display at the Blue House – it is a real coup for the V&A to be able to borrow this collection. Riccardo Tisci’s couture collection for Givenchy in autumn 2010 had floor-length red-carpet dresses with the bones of the spine and rib cage picked out in bugle bead embroidery, which the designer said was a tribute to the plastercast corsets Kahlo wore to protect her damaged spine, handpainted with birds and monkeys. Since then, it has felt like Kahlo has seldom been far from the catwalk. To mark the opening of the V&A exhibition, the luxury fashion resale site Vestiaire Collective has curated a special selection of pieces inspired by Kahlo, including a flower crown headdress by Dolce & Gabbana. “There is a fragility and a reflectiveness about Kahlo that connects us as her admirers with all that it means to be a woman,” says Vestiaire Collective’s Charlie Collins.
Kahlo’s family have spoken out against the Frida Barbie, a criticism echoed by Salma Hayek and others. To portray Kahlo with light coloured eyes and with neatly arched brows invites accusations of crassness. Many ardent admirers of her work will feel that for her to be referenced on a catwalk, however well-meaning the context, reduces the self image that she created as an art project into something surface and scuppers the entire point. Such things are complicated and contradictory, as Kahlo knew better than anyone. Google “Frida Kahlo Vogue cover” and you will see the artist as she appeared on an edition of French Vogue back in 1939. Except, that magazine was never published. The cover is a modern mock-up, of unknown genesis, but widely reproduced. Is Frida a style icon?
This debate is not new. But it is very fashionable.
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