Frida Kahlo Fashion Icon

Inspired by the efforts of Vogue, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and the Frida Kahlo Museum to launch a new book of Frida that confirms her as an emblem of her country and generation, as well as a fashion Icon, with her own personal style, we decided to pay homage to the great Frida Kahlo. As Pierre Berge once said “Fashion is not art, but fashion cannot live without art”

Frida Kahlo and her Context

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6 1907, but she always said she was born on 1910, the year the Mexican revolution started. If we want to understand Frida as an icon, we first need to consider her biography: a life full of struggle and suffering; her local context in a revolutionary and post-revolutionary Mexico, and the international context with a world full of changes and wars.

The Mexican revolution with it’s major political changes in the country, as well as in it’s values and national culture deeply transformed the lives of the ones who lived in it. Octavio Paz (Mexican Nobel winner) said “…it was the Mexican revolution that reveled Mexico to us. It gave us back our eyes to see it. And it gave them back. And it gave them back above all to the painters, poets and novelists.” So once the armed struggled finished Mexico became a country full of artistic expressions. Frida was the product of the spirit of her time.

Most Transcendent events on the Frida’s life and in the global context:

·1907: Frida Kahlo was born.

·1910: Mexican revolution with renowned personalities such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata Started.

·1914: Frida had what at the time was considered to be polio, but nowadays it’s think it was a spinal malformation. World War I began.

·1918: World War I ended.

·1921: Mexican revolution ended.

·1923: Frida Kahlo started being known in the artist’s and intellectual’s circles. She started a very important friendship with the Italian Photographer Tina Modotti,

·1925: This could actually be the most life changing year for Frida: she had a bus accident, in which an iron railing was introduced through her body, impaling her and damaging her body for the rest of her life. During her long recuperation in bed, she starting painting.

·1928: Modotti introduces Rivera to Frida. Frida joins the communist party. Leon Trotsky is expelled from the communist party, and is exile from the Soviet Union.

·1929: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are married. Rivera is expelled from the communist party, and in consequence Frida leaves the party. “The black Friday”, the NYC stock market collapses and the Great depression starts.

·1931: Kahlo exhibits a painting for the first time at the sixth annual Exhibition of the San Francisco society of Woman artists.

·1934: Frida founds out that Diego has an affair with her sister. She cuts off her hair, dress in a somehow masculine way. Hitler is proclaimed Fuehrer.

·1937: Trotsky is given asylum in Mexico, and he started living in “la casa azul”.

·1938: Frida meets André Breton. Frida’s first solo exhibition in NYC.

·1939: Frida was part of exhibition organized by André Breton called Mexico. Frida separates from Diego Rivera. World War II begins.

·1940: Frida and Diego married again.

·1944: Due to a very decaying health, Frida starts wearing a steel corset.

·1945: End of World War II.

·1953: Frida’s first and only solo exhibit in Mexico. Her Right leg is amputee.

·1954: Frida died, the caused of her death is not yet clear, there is a rumor that says her death was an assisted suicide.

While alive Frida had his share of success, huge personalities such as Tina Modotti, Breton, and Picasso, recognized her work as magnificent, but as most painters she became really appreciated after she died. She was known in the circle of artists, revolutionaries, and intellectuals of her time, but even with the support of the most important artists of the moment, she only had a solo exhibition in Mexico (the other ones where shared exhibits) and another solo one exhibit in NYC. She lived all her lived on the shadow of her husband the great muralist Diego Rivera (ironically, nowadays Rivera is mostly known by being Frida’s husband).

Style: Uniqueness and duality

Frida’s work of art and her life are directly and indissoluble interwoven with one another. Thus is her unique style.

Frida broke the stylistic fashion conventions of the time. She wore huipiles (Mexican indigenous traditional blouses) and adorned herself with folk art Mexican accessories. She embraced her Mexican roots, but not copy the indigenous, she style herself in a way where she mixed a lot of folk culture, with her own style, and her most important accessory: a lot of her personality showing off. Her hair was always braided and decorated with fresh flowers and ribbons. She used a lot of gold and silver accessories. She imported textiles from Europe particularly French silk and Spanish cotton, to make some of her cloth, specially her skirts, and mixed it up with her multiple Mexican traditional costumes. Because of her accident, the corset she had to wear and the scars and deformations of her body, she learnt to dress herself according to her body type and silhouette. Frida’s accident even affected the way she dressed: she selected long skirts and flowing Huipiles (blouses): that hid her thin right leg and the corsets (that she had to use for her back pains).

While visiting Mexico André Breton, head of the surrealist movement, described the country as “suarrelist par excellence”. He was absorbed by Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s photos of Frida and described her as a “ribbon around a bomb” because of the power of her artistic work and her personality. Also as a duality between the fragile broken Frida and the femme fatale she was.

In fact this duality is one of the most important things we can say about her style. Frida’s father was German, Frida’s mother has half Spanish, half indigenous, so she only had little true indigenous blood, but still she embraced her mexicanity so much. Why? It was part of her style since the beginning of her life, but it became more evident after her accident. Also Diego Rivera loved when she mexicanalized herself, so she follow his guidance and influence. On the other hand whenever she was fighting with Diego, or she was traveling to Paris or New York without the love of her life she presented herself still with her indigenous Mexican style, but a little more in line with the zeitgeist of the moment. When she spent a long period in The United Stated, she started to incorporate in her wardrobe American stuff, also when she was in Paris, but she never lost her roots or her distinctive style.

Androgyny was also part of her dual style: when she was only an adolescent she dressed herself as a boy, but with a feminine glare, this was for a for a family portrait, (If Yves Saint Laurent or Saint Laurent Paris saw this Frida, they would have for sure been inspired by her.) The androgynous didn’t stop there, her well-known unibrow, and her little mustache, gave her that androgynous touch, although her wardrobe was for the most extremely feminine. When she discovered Cristina Kahlo, her own sister had and affair with Diego she cut off all of her hair, started dressing as a man, and also stopped painting for a period of time. She didn’t want to attract man anymore, so she hid herself on an androgynous place, much more masculine, where she felt very confortable.

Both Kahlo’s art and her “public self staging” were flavored with an intense dose of mexicanity: indigenous backgrounds and its own natural culture that appear in the development of the Mexican revolution. Drenched with pre-Colombian codes and of everyday culture of Mexico, her works of art make not just a aesthetical statement but above all a political one, just as Frida’s own styling of herself with her colorful and diverse types of Mexican folk costumes: tehuana dresses, huipiles, kalis, pavartis, and zaropes, as a woman deeply rooted in Mexican peasant and indigenous culture.

Currently on the Frida Kahlo’s museum, which is “La casa azul” (The blue house), there’s a temporal exposition called “Las apariencias engañan: los vestidos de Frida” (Appearances can be deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s dresses). This exposition shows Frida’s wardrobe that was discovered on her locked bathroom on 2004. The exhibit opened in 2012 (and will be open until 2014), it displays over 300 items of clothing, jewelry and headpieces worn by the artist. Also featured in the exhibit is a Kahlo-influenced corset designed by Rei Kawakubo (Commes de Gaçons).

Magazines and Covers

Frida’s beauty was not an obvious one, she had a unibrow, a little moustache, and a very tough face, but as we cannot say she was a classical beauty, there was beauty all over her. Perhaps because there is exquisiteness in everything that is unique, that’s why she was portrayed by so many photographers of her time, without her being a famous artist: she was nothing else than Diego’s wife. Frida’s character and personality transcended into her style, and make her the center of attention everywhere she went. Photographers all over the world wanted to capture her image. Us that consider Frida’s pictures as opportunities to look closely into her life, grow into witnesses of her time, and that lets us rebuild parts of her personal history and in particular her noteworthy style.

There is a rumor that Frida was the cover of French Vogue in 1939, but is actually not true, Frida’s cover on Vogue was in Mexico as a supplement on November 2012 special edition. The picture was taken by Nickolas Murray in his New York studio in 1939. Nickolas Murray and Frida had a long love affair.

But she did appear in the American Vogue (not in the cover) in 1937. She was portrayed by the lens of Toni Frissel.

Frida’s Legacy in Fashion

Frida has always being a great inspiration for a lot of designers, but the Fridamania is not new. In 1939, after her American Vogue Appearance The great Elsa Schiaparelli created a dressed in her honor, called “La robe Madame Rivera”, since then she’s been present on the runways all over the world. Here I mention some examples that I consider relevant throughout the years, and some present ones. Some collections have more obvious Kahlo symbols, some other are more subtle.

1. Ricardo Tisci FOR Givenchy Fall-Winter 2010

2. Jean Paul Gaultier “HOMENAGE À FRIDA KAHLO” 1998

3. Comme des Garçons by Rey Kawabuko called White Drama 2012

4. Tao Kurhihara for Comme de Garçons 2009

5. Dolce & Gabanna Spring-Summer 2012

6. Alexander McQueen 2010

7. Tom Rebl Spring-Summer 2013

8. Maya Hansen Spring-Summer 2013

Some other very important designers that have to be mention are: Christian Lacroix spring-summer 1998. Kris Van Assche Prêt-á-porter 2002, he’s the one designer that didn’t tried to capture Frida’s pain, but Frida’s will to live. The artist also inspired Temperly London on 2005.

Other inspirations: celebrities and fashion editorials:

Lana del Rey inspired by Frida’s flowers and Vogue’s Russia and Latin America, Harper's Bazaar and so many others.

Dual but convergent, imaginative and surrealist, raw and sensual, this was Frida Kahlo. There are three elements that characterized her paintings and her life as well: the overwhelming love for her husband, the well-known muralist Diego Rivera, the suffering and pain of a body irremediable damaged because of an accident and the passion for the politics of her country, Mexico.

Who was truly Frida Kahlo and why is there so much buzz about her?

Frida herself once said, "They thought I was a surrealist but I’m not. No, I never paint dreams. I painted my own reality" the reality of a woman with a strange but magnetic beauty. The cruel existence of a woman who was a fighter: she fought for her country, she fought for her love, but most of all se fought for her life, everyday was a battle for survival.

Her style is as unique as she was, and has brought inspiration not only into the fashion world, but also into many domains. That is what a real icon is, someone that leaves a print and touches people’s lives beyond their time. She’s venerated by so many: fashionists, people with health struggles, art lovers and collectors, loners, people with dramatic love stories, addicts, people that feel different and embrace that uniqueness, people like me that apart to love her art and style are empowered by her.

The way you look takes a lot about you, the main question is: do we want to be? Or do we want to belong? Belonging might prove easier than to be unique. Icons always have a personal style signifier, in Frida’s case it would be easier to say that it was her cultural fusion between the indigenous Mexican clothing and her own flair, but is not as simple as that. Her flirt between androgyny and femme fatale, between the Mexican Frida, and the more cosmopolitan one….her dualities while maintaining her stylishness, would be her style signifier.

The way Frida dressed, talked about her culture and identity, her creativity and her amazing use of color (the same she used in her paintings) broke any time frame. That's why several international brands know her as an iconic fashion influence, even in the present on social media she is a trend topic with the hashtag #FridaKahlo. She had a unique visual identity, and made the most out of everything, her clothing besides hiding her physical shortcomings, showed her personality, and her distinctive way of being. That’s way almost 60 years after she died we are still inspired and talking about her.

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