Frida: a life adorned
From the intricately coiffured hair, carefully applied makeup, multiple earrings, necklaces and rings, down to the flounces of her long Tehuana skirts, Frida Kahlo’s heavily constructed image retains a powerful resonance.
Her identity was so tied up in her chosen decorations – even her gold teeth were studded with diamonds – that when the artist was on her deathbed in Mexico, age 47, her nurse knew the time was near when Kahlo could no longer muster the energy to adorn herself.
Claire Wilcox, senior curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum and co-curator of its new exhibition ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, reflects that Kahlo’s unique look was a construct, an armour against the physical frailty she suffered.
The artist had polio as a child and then, at the age of 18, was involved in a devastating tram accident that would leave her in abject, restrictive pain for the rest of her life. Yet, as Wilcox observes: ‘When you looked at her, you didn’t see a sick person, her limp or scars or special shoes. You were struck by her beauty.’
Kahlo’s exquisite eye created a highly personal style combined of traditional, regional adornment and precious elements. Her singular sartorial choices were also a symbol of her and her artist husband Diego Rivera’s fierce sense of Mexican nationalism. On one necklace she strung together tiny tin arms and legs with votive charms offered in Mexican churches between chunky coral beads. The artist was also a champion of local contemporary designers such as Matilde Poulat, whose bold, silver and stone pieces are still collectible today.
Among Kahlo’s favourite possessions was a string of outsized pre-Colombian jade beads, which she frequently wore. ‘The Mayans had buried their dead with these beads,’ says Wilcox, ‘In choosing them, Kahlo was quite literally wearing her country’s history around her neck.’ §