The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo fascinated her contemporaries with her attire and inspires still today many tailors and creatives around the world. Whether wearing exuberant indigineous traditional clothing, cross-dressing man or proudly wearing her orthopedic corset as a bustier, not many painters have put on scene her wardrobe like her. But for an engaged artist, clothing is more than a simple bundle. It is a second skin which mutates throughout life revealing one’s identity and ideological choices.
It is with this purpose that the illustrator Maud Guely and the writer Vine-Krupa created the book ‘ Un ruban autour d’un bombe’ (A ribbon around a bombe) which was given to me as a present in the past from a person I reflected and respect a lot.
The book tracks the life of the artists in lifetime chapters versus clothing choices analysing the relationship between both and ending up with a chapter called ‘My clothes,it’s me’ where I’m going to focus my post about.
This is the portrait about a woman conscious about her appearance and concerned about how to sublime her image by a well orchestrated performance. Not many painters have include fashion in their artwork where it stars even the tittles of her paintings like ‘Self-portrait in a velvet dress,1926‘. During a period of time it looked like she wanted to highlight her European descent inherited from her German dad. In the same process her signature was adopting at the time the German orthography, Frieda.
It’s her painting ‘Time flies, 1929‘ the piece that can be considered her first transitioning one in the building of her image where for the first time she presents herself as a young modern Mexican claiming her mixed background and her Indian descent. In this process she looks like embracing the ideas of the Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio in 1916: “To integrate the Indian don’t want to turn it European but the opposite, lets get them a bit Indian to present them, once mixed in their culture, our civilization which non longer will seem to them exotic, harsh, bitter and understandable”. Her simplicity participates in the building of an image which sees herself close to the people aligned with her Marxist politic convictions.
All self-portraits from then onwards present a broad range of Mexican textile creations, from modest to sophisticated. If in her art as well as in her wardrobe, clothing from different regions of Mexico are represented, it is the one from the indigineous women from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca in 1930’s her favourite one. In the Post-revolutionary Mexico, wearing Tehuana clothing was an assertion of identity. The interest of Frida for this kind of clothing coincides with her meeting with Diego but it is only during her first travel to USA she started to wear it regularly. ‘My dress hangs there‘ in New York 1933 is her first painting including Tehuantepec clothing as the main character. Even if she is not present on it her clothing identifies her and it could be considered as a self-portrait. Manhattan, world’s first financial capital during the big depression, is the decoration around her dress. This context stimulates her social and political art where she critiques strongly American society and capitalism. For her, introducing clothes from oppressed Mexican Indians during New York mundane nights out has a strong political dimension. ‘Self Portrait with Stalin, 1954‘, illustrates this ideological and aesthetic relationship.
From her marriage, Frida ties her hair up with braids she roles around her head like a diadem. To give them more volume she mixes them with silk ribbons, wool and flowers. She also loves no matter their value, big jewelry she wears on a daily basis. Like her clothing, hair and jewelry borrowed from Mexican indigenous women represent a strong cultural mark. All together let her reaffirm her identity.
Frida was an extraordinary beautiful woman, not only of a trivial beauty but of an exceptional beauty present in all she produced. She expressed her personality in her hairdos, attire, and her taste. Her painting is too an embodiment of national splendour. She never betrayed her spirit and he claimed it wherever she travelled to.
‘To remember or the heart, 1937‘ is a painting where Frida is frames in between of two dresses that symbolize two different periods of her life tied by a red ribbon which in her iconography represent a blood and life line. This painting states how her style evolutes like a chronology. An identity close to Alex Muchielli’s definition (sociologist):
Identity is not a fix thing. It’s a reality that evolutes in its own process of identification,assimilation and selective rejection. It gets elaborated progressively, reorganizing itself and endlessly changing while defining a living being.
When she got divorced that affected not only her style but her rapport of gender like we can see at ‘Self Portrait with cropped hair, 1940‘ expressing her male side as other artists like Marcel Duchamp or Man Ray made before exploring the fact of becoming , and being, other.
As every artist in my opinion, she became one through lots of suffer, where this strong need of reaffirmation came from.
‘Two Fridas, 1939‘ where Frida duplicates her own image is the painting which better represents her duality feeling.
Meanwhile one wears an indigenous attire the other one wears an style imported by European colons to portrait her own biological and cultural miscegenation using the metaphor of transplantation.
The idea of fashion as rampart against the degradation of her body it manifests clearly in her ‘Self Portrait with Dr Farill, 1951‘. It was with the same dress she was incinerated being her fashion which will let her control her image and affirm the singularity of her identity until her last breath.
Even if it is evident that clothing does not make a person, it projects the image that the wearer wants to transmit through it. It is like a second skin which differently from the one of the body, can be chosen, created and modified freely in function of material, confection, ornamentation and way of wear it. In all fashion codes resides a performance, conscious or unconcious, through which each person manifest her/his own self. ~ Annegret Hesterberg