Appearances Can Be Deceiving, Frida Kahlo Museum

We couldn’t have found a better, more complete, or more timely muse to inspire us all. Her characteristic and hybrid Tehuana style, featuring extraordinarily elaborate hairstyles, multicolored ribbons, and braids, has captured the attention of feminists, photographers, stylists, artists and fashion designers, not to mention contemporary culture as a whole. From Mexico to San Francisco, from Paris to New York, Frida Kahlo caused a sensation with her enigmatic, flirtatious, dark brown eyes, capable of holding gazes for extended periods of time: controlling, even inquisitive, yet fragile. Her characteristic monobrow and those brilliant, daring Tehuana dresses formed the personal elements of a contemporary icon.

It was the Tehuana dress, originally brought in from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec located in southeastern Mexico, that Kahlo chose as her most characteristic ensemble, eventually defining both her identity and her cultural heritage. Carlos Fuentes recalls in his introduction to the Diary of Frida Kahlo how the artist arrived at the Palace of Fine Arts in her tinkling jewelry, how she succeeded in surpassing this architectural marvel, its paintings, and even the concert music performed there with her intense presence. Some of her closest friends describe the special care Kahlo took in selecting each of her garments and accessories. She would often ask her closest friends, “Does this work?”

And yet Frida put a lot of effort into creating her own style from head to toe, bedecking herself in spectacular silks, shawls, ties, and skirts always accompanied by pre-Hispanic jewelry in silver or gold. When children in the street would ask her, “Where’s the circus,” she would merely smile and gracefully continue on her way. This artist, who has left such a lasting impression on us through her work, has also bequeathed images that will remain indelibly marked on our retina, thanks to her personality and style.

First came Vogue in October 1937, a significant date in terms of Frida’s future influence on fashion. Edna Woolman, the visionary director of the magazine from 1914 to 1952, portrayed her for the first time in its pages. Through his lens, Toni Frissel captured the image of a woman who would become one of the most emblematic artists of the 20th century. Obsessed with this visual dimension of herself, even before her first individual exhibition Kahlo captured the attention of fashion magazines with her personality and artistry, and she has continued to do so over the past 75 years, providing inspiration to a great many designers.

In 1939, André Breton organized the first exhibition of Kahlo’s work in Paris titled Mexique, where her Tehuana ethnic dress caused a great sensation among the European elites. It is said that Elsa Schiaparelli, a star designer at the time, created a dress called the Robe Madame Rivera (the Madame Rivera Dress) in her honor. Over the past 20 years, Frida’s image has spread everywhere like wildfire.

In 1998, the international designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix would pay homage to Frida Kahlo on their Spring-Summer runways. Inspired by her painting The Broken Column, Gaultier portrayed her in one of his most iconic examples of haute couture. Gaultier has his own views with regards to the significance of Kahlo’s image. His is the perfect example of post-modern deconstruction, creating a burlesque exoticism of sorts while at the same time, portraying one of the many symbolisms Kahlo represents today.

For his prêt-á-porter collection in Fall 2002, Kris Van Assche presented a subtler collection inspired by Kahlo, using light cottons, piqués and silks. To Van Assche, Kahlo represents something more fanciful than the usual imagery of pain and torture; hence he chose to capture some of the more amusing facets of her personality. Frida laughed a lot in spite of it all, a fountain of joy that counterbalanced her passionate intensity as shown by her use of bright colors: sky blue, yellow, orange, and white.

After Fridamania took off in 2005, the British designers Clements Ribeiro and Temperly London showed a more surrealist side of Kahlo in their collection of vintage dresses, platforms with butterflies, Mexican boots, big bags, high heels and hair ornaments in red velvet, recreating the painter’s exuberant style. Ribeiro’s use of platforms and short boots remind us of the aftermath of Kahlo’s bout with polio and how she wore boots with a special heel in order to conceal her physical imperfections.

Rei Kawakubo’s disciple Tao Kurihara is always unpredictable. In her prêt-á-porter collection from 2009, she presented Scandinavian dolls that referenced Frida with their red monobrows. The representation of Frida in this collection is eclectic, enigmatic, and audacious. Rei Kawakubo herself presented White Drama, her prêt-á-porter collection for Spring-Summer 2012 for Comme des Garçons, with a touch of religiosity. Through color and materials such as white lace and satin, Kawakubo led the viewer on a journey into Frida’s universe.

Using fashion tailored from the 1950s and cages of lace, followed by flower-covered garments that recall Kahlo’s splendid hair ornaments -items that in the past, were used in Catholic baptisms- Kawakubo reflects different aspects of Kahlo’s life as well as the bond between body, form, and material that encompassed all her work.

In the arena of couture, the most impressive Kahlo-inspired collection in recent history was doubtless the Fall-Winter 2010 collection by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy. By presenting the most exquisite examples of ornamentation, as a result of this impeccable collection Tisci succeeded in positioning himself among the most important names in houses of haute couture today. As Tisci himself declared, this collection was inspired by “Frida Kahlo and her three great obsessions: religion, sensuality, and human anatomy as a result of her life-and-death battle with back pain.” Examples of the mastery of this collection may be found in the Chantilly petit-pointe, dégradé, hair ornaments, and fringe exhibited in the show “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The dresses of Frida Kahlo.”

Simply put, this exhibition is the first to present the artist’s wardrobe. It seemed that there was little more to be said or learned about Frida Kahlo when in April 2004, the wardrobe of Latin America’s most renowned female painter was rediscovered in the Blue House, today the Frida Kahlo Museum. For 50 years, by order of her husband, Diego Rivera, the artist’s dresses and personal items remained locked in her bedroom, located in the upper part of the house adjacent to a white-tiled bathroom, where nearly 300 personal accoutrements were found in relatively good condition: accessories, traditional and non-traditional dresses, jewelry, shoes, medicines, and orthopedic devices. A treasure trove!

Now, 75 years after her first appearance in Vogue, this is the first exhibition to display Kahlo’s personal items and moreover, examine the construction of her identity through her handicap as well as the use of traditional elements, fashion, and dresses. Divided into five thematic salons, the exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through handicap and ethnicity, showing the artist’s original ensembles and personal items that form part of the Frida Kahlo Museum collection. The discovery of Kahlo’s personal items has opened up a series of new possibilities for the interpretation not only of her oeuvre, but also of her multi-faceted personality through her choice of dress and its relationship with her own body. In this way, a complex identity is established that casts a new light on Kahlo’s art, generating novel lines of research.

Frida never lacked motivation. Much has been said about love as the main impulse behind her choice to wear Tehuana dress as a characteristic identity trait, and most experts have suggested that Frida Kahlo dressed in the Tehuana style in order to please her husband, Diego Rivera. While the thesis of the exhibition does not deny this fact, it explores other intrinsic reasons for the use of this form of dress. Of vital importance in this sense is the rediscovery, once the wardrobe was opened, of an image depicting her maternal family. This image shows Frida’s mother and her family dressed in the Tehuana style, revealing thus a relationship sustained by Kahlo with that form of dress long before she met Rivera. The search for identity in Frida thus becomes more evident; likewise, her sense of identity reinterpreted through family habits, political convictions and also, Mexican tradition.

The discovery of this photograph leads us, therefore, to reexamine other traumatic events in Frida’s life, advancing a far stronger argument with regards her decision to wear traditional Mexican dress. She did not do this to please Rivera, or at any rate, not only because of that. Kahlo’s style and form of dress were the result of her strong sense of identity, an identity carefully constructed out of physical pain, something so obviously reflected in her work. Indeed, why should her wardrobe be any different than what she painted?

Two tragedies that Frida experienced even before she reached adulthood would have an influence on her wardrobe, afterwards forming the cornerstone of her existence and her art. At the age of six, she came down with polio, a disease that would leave her lame for life with a useless right leg. As if her bout with polio were not enough, at the age of 18, on September 17, 1925, she suffered a terrible accident. She was traveling in a bus when it collided with an electric streetcar. One of the metallic tubes passed through the left side of her body, exiting through her vagina. Her collarbone was fractured, as were her right leg and foot. Two ribs and her spinal column were broken; her left shoulder was dislocated.

From that time on, Frida’s life became a struggle against the relentless deterioration of her body. Her worsening handicap and fragility confined her for long periods of time to a wheelchair or left her bedridden, forced to wear corsets of leather and plaster. This had an influence on her wardrobe, just as polio had already and her political beliefs, relationships, and Bohemian spirit would afterwards.

Room 1
Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Mexico City, the daughter of German-Hungarian photographer Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderón y González, herself born in Oaxaca of a Spanish mother and Mexican father. The artist, who has told us so much about herself through her paintings, has also left lasting impressions in our minds through her look and style.

It seemed that there was little more to say or learn about Frida Kahlo, when in April 2004 her wardrobe was discovered here at ‘La Casa Azul’. In the upper part of the house, in the white tiled bathroom adjacent to the artist’s room, her wardrobe and personal belongings had been kept for more than 50 years by specific request of her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and later by their patron and friend Dolores Olmedo. Around 300 traditional and non traditional garments, jewellery, medicines and orthopaedic devices were discovered

Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe displays these objects for the very first time and is a study of Kahlo’s construction of her own identity. Themed into five rooms the exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion and dress, showing the original ensembles and objects drawn from the Museum’s collection. It also shows how Kahlo’s personal style remains a source of inspiration for international artists and designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Comme des Garçons and Riccardo Tisci.

Room 2
Tradition: My Dress Hangs There

For Frida Kahlo, the Tehuana traditional dress was not only an object that she adapted to her body to hide her imperfections, but something she fused with and wore like a second skin. The Tehuana dress comes from the Tehuantepec Isthmus located in the south eastern part of Mexico in the region of Oaxaca. This matriarchal society is administrated and dominated by women and, as such, their traditional attire is a strong symbol of female power and independence. It has been said that the painter adopted this image to please her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, who was fond of the powerful ‘Zapotec’ women from this region of Mexico.

Nonetheless, this exhibition proposes that far from being a simple act of love, her use of a hybrid dress was a calculated stylisation, her logo; Frida Kahlo was able to perceive the semiotic quality of the clothing, which lies within its role as a metaphorical vehicle, and is also easily understood by the eye of the onlooker. Frida’s use of this traditional dress to strengthen her identity, rea!rming her political beliefs, and concealing her imperfections, also built on her own sense of heritage and personal history. A revealing photograph appeared among the objects discovered in the bathroom in this house: the photograph is of Frida’s mother at the age of seven, sitting with Frida’s maternal family, dressed in the traditional Tehuana dress taken years before Kahlo met Rivera

Her decision to embrace these women’s dress, with its intricate hand embroidery, and with braids and flowers in her hair, appears to have been a completely personal choice: on the one hand, it was a search for self-a!rmation, possibly rooted in her motherdaughter relationship; on the other, as an intuitive ability to situate herself in the art world, at a time when women artists were fighting to win recognition for their work on its own merit; in her case as an autonomous figure distinct from her famous husband. The adoption of this dress was wise styling, a remedy that derived from the complex combination of her communist ideology, her desire to belong, her traditions and as a reaction to her disabilities.

Frida, Her Style: Where Is the Circus?

Saint, muse, lover, mistress, bisexual, victim and survivor. Frida Kahlo is the very model of the bohemian artist: unique, rebellious and contradictory, a cult figure appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers and popular culture. From Mexico to San Francisco, Paris to New York, Kahlo continues to cause sensation with her enigmatic coquettish gaze and deep, dark brown eyes holding the viewer for a moment too long; commanding but fragile. Surrounding her, the trademark unibrow and her bright, bold Tehuana dress; all the appropriate elements of an icon, an ultimate modern day icon.

Writer Carlos Fuentes described how Frida’s arrival at the Palacio de Bellas Artes would be announced by the sound of her jewellery and how the architectural grandeur of the palace, its paintings and the captivating music of its concerts would be instantaneously outshone by her striking presence1 . Some of her closest friends have described how Kahlo would take special care in choosing each one of her garments, styling herself from head to toe, with the most beautiful silks, lace, shawls and skirts, some of which can be admired in this gallery. On the street, children would ask her “Where is the circus?”2 and she would just smile graciously and continue walking.

October 1937 marked a major step for Frida’s future influence in the fashion world, when Vogue featured her for the first time in the pages of the magazine. Later, in 1939, André Breton organised Kahlo’s first exhibition in Paris. It was called Mexique and her Tehuana dress became an instant sensation among European elites. It is said that star designer of the day Elsa Schiaparelli created a dress in her honour that was named ‘La Robe Madame Rivera’.

It was the Tehuana dress that Kahlo chose as her signature dress; to define her identity and to portray her cultural heritage and political beliefs. Her wardrobe is mostly composed of Mexican traditional pieces from Oaxaca and other parts of the country. Nonetheless, there are also ethnic garments from Guatemala and China, as well as an interesting collection of European and American blouses. Kahlo used to combine these pieces to style herself and her favourite colours were red, green, blue, black and white. The development of her distinctive style as a blend of traditional Mexican and European fashion, as well as the fundamental e”ects of her disabilities, is represented through this selection of Kahlo’s most iconic looks. Kahlo as a bohemian artist, a Tehuana, a hybrid – representing her own mixed European and Mexican blood – and as a wife are all portrayed here.

Room 3
Cabinet of Curiosities: Fragmentation, Geometry, Composition

This room is about visual composition. From the day Frida had polio till the day she died, Kahlo was subjected to 22 surgical operations that left her with a disintegrating body. This physical fragmentation led to a material expression of her own self and its restrictive layers through a unique convergence of geometry and identity. The Tehuana dress is the pure representation of that meeting – the geometric focus on the heavily adorned upper body, the short square chain stitch blouses and the gender political statements that the dress implies. Frida and the Tehuana come together in a perfect union of identity, beauty and design.

The composition of the dress consists of three main sections from head to toe: the hairstyle, the blouse – huipil – and skirt or enagua.

Tehuana hairstyle: Composed of braids, and highly adorned with flowers, fresh or made of paper or silk.

Huipil: from the Nahuatl language huipilli for ‘shirt’, a short loose fitting tunic made from two or three rectangular pieces of fabric which are sewn together and adorned with ribbons or fabric strips, with an opening for the head and openings for the arms.

Enagua: a long skirt with a waistband that has a ru#e sewn to it.

The adornment of the Tehuana dress is centred around the upper part of the body. Chain stitch blouses, flowers, highly decorated jewellery, earrings, necklaces and rings will always be concentrated from the torso up, obliging the viewer to focus on Frida’s upper body and providing her with the opportunity to edit and fragment herself, distracting the viewer from her legs and lower part of her body.

The huipil, due to its geometric short square construction, would help her to look taller and, when she was seated, allowed the fabric not to bunch up around her waist, thereby avoiding discomfort or drawing attention to itself.

As a visual artist and as someone who clearly dedicated much time and energy to the physical image she presented to the world, it is clear that Frida must have been aware of the flattering e”ect the Tehuana costume had.

Room 4
The Corset: Art and the Avant-Garde

Kahlo’s relationship to the corset is one of support and need – her body dependent on medical attention – but also one of rebellion. Far from allowing the corset to define her as an invalid, Kahlo decorated and adorned her corsets, making them appear as an explicit choice and including them in the construction of her looks as an essential piece.

Many designers have taken this as their starting point for interpreting Kahlo: the corset, her corset, as the perfect symbol of her physical frailty and an ally to her resilient character. In this room, the styling is transferred to fashionable clothing, borrowing from Kahlo’s use of the corset as medical contraption and as e”ort to stylise and incorporate it. Rei Kawakubo, Dai Rees and Jean Paul Gaultier use the idiosyncrasies of their own style to produce carefully detailed pieces in the same way Kahlo created her paintings at once personal and meticulously produced.

These designers have drafted parallels between fashion and disability, marrying these ideas through the haunting image of Kahlo’s corset in the avant-garde.1 The designers take their own stance on what is of value in Kahlo’s image, a perfect example of post modernist deconstruction and, in the case of Gaultier by creating a kind of burlesque exoticism, while for Kawakubo the meaning has an almost religious connotation. For Rees it is about the human anatomy.

Room 5
Elements of Tradition: Lace, Flowers and White

Continuing with the contemporary theme, in this room Riccardo Tisci pays homage to Frida Kahlo through his Couture collection Autumn-Winter 2010, for Givenchy. With exquisite craftsmanship, cut and ornamentation, showing his signature work in Chantilly lace, dégradé, and fringe work, Riccardo Tisci assimilates traditional gestures through the use of lace, flowers and white, bringing a new aesthetic which is further from Kahlo but recognisably an homage to her.

Kahlo’s style is celebrated as contemporary and relevant. Frida’s sense of self, reinterpreted through her family traditions and her disability, is clearly shown in Tisci’s collection, her tormented memory represented through his materials and motifs. Flowers in lace make allusion to tradition, both as symbols of life and death; the memory of a skeletal silhouette in fine embroidery with the pelvis uncovered reminds us of the artist’s lifelong battle with spinal pain, but also to her accident – it was then that Kahlo was left with the impossibility of conceiving a child. The jackets look like wings, the wings of a dove that recurred in Kahlo’s work, especially when in the throes of pain she would cling on to the hope of being able to escape from her own body.

The collection also reminds us of the intimate drawing Appearances Can Be Deceiving, which is the origin of this exhibition and one of the treasures discovered when the artist’s bathroom was opened in 2004. The poetic drawing shows how Kahlo’s intimate relationship between body, corset and dress are assimilated as one, Frida’s life and work were a combination of passion, personal heritage, political conviction and practical response to her disability. The spectre of these themes are integral to Riccardo Tisci’s contemporary vision.

Frida Kahlo Museum
La Casa Azul (The Blue House) was the place where Frida Kahlo, the most renowned Latin American artist in the world, came into this world, lived, and took her last breath. The building, which dates to 1904, was not a large-scale construction.

As one explores Frida Kahlo’s work more deeply and enjoys the privilege of getting to know her home, one begins to discover the intense interrelations between Frida, her work, and her house. Her creative universe is to be found in the Blue House, the place where she was born and where she died. Following her marriage to Diego Rivera, Frida lived in different places in Mexico City and abroad, but she always returned to her family home in Coyoacán

Located in one of the oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods in Mexico City, the Blue House was made into a museum in 1958, four years after the death of the painter. Today it is one of the most popular museums in the Mexican capital.

Today it has an 800 m2 building surrounded by property measuring 1200 m2. Diego and Frida filled it with color, folk art, and pre-Hispanic pieces to show their admiration for the peoples and cultures of Mexico. The construction underwent two major modifications. When Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida in 1937, the property today occupied by the garden was purchased. In 1946 Diego Rivera asked Juan O’Gorman to build Frida’s studio. The interior of the house has been maintained virtually intact. This was respected by the poet and the couple’s friend, Carlos Pellicer, who designed the museum display for the space after Frida’s death. Therefore, the house and its contents preserve that intimate atmosphere.