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Fashion, Feminism and Art: the Legacy of Painter Frida Kahlo

With the publication of Frida Kahlo: Fashion as the Art of Being this month, we discover more about the woman who influenced contemporary fashion, challenged gender stereotypes and shaped our eyebrows

"I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.”

Like many before and after her, the artist Frida Kahlo wasn’t truly appreciated until she died, and even then it was several decades later that she received the recognition she deserved. She was born in 1907 but told everyone it was 1910, not for reasons of vanity, but because she loved her country so much that she wanted people to believe her birth coincided with the start of the Mexican revolution. 

Kahlo was light years ahead of her time, dismissing her family’s wish for her to marry and have children, and instead enrolling at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria to study medicine, where she became one of the university’s first female students. It was during this time that she discovered politics, and remained an active socialist campaigner until her death; just ten days before she died, she attended a public protest against American intervention in Guatemala.  

But her life was also marred by tragedy. At the age of 18 she was involved in a horrific car accident that resulted in a broken spine, collarbone, leg, rib and foot and left her in a full-body cast for three months and bed ridden for two years. It was at this time that she began to paint. For Kahlo, no subject was off limits.

During her lifetime, she would shock the world with artwork representing illness, sexuality, gender equality and heartbreak.

She was unable to have children due to her poor health, and her paintings often included references to abortion, infertility and miscarriages.    

Kahlo married, but she and her husband (the painter Diego Rivera) were far from faithful. She was open about her sexuality, had affairs with both men and women and spent some of her youth dressing as a man in tweed suits. Her clothes were an extension of her ideas, and it’s this that she’s remembered for most.

She fought hard against changing standards of beauty, and dressed in a way that was openly (and often abrasively) for herself and nobody else. It’s ironic that her appearance is what made her an icon in the end, but her clothes were emblematic of her beliefs, and this lives on in contemporary fashion. As a new book by Susana Martínez Vidal and Assouline celebrates the artist’s life and her influence on the modern world, we explore the moments that came to define her and the stories behind them.

The Jewellery

Fashionable jewellery tended to be small and delicate in Mexico at the time, but Frida opted for bolder items, selecting those that incorporated natural stones such as coral, jade and turquoise. She would wear local handmade pieces and heavy, pre-Columbian jewellery that her husband bought for her.

When her wardrobe was uncovered after her death, the strangest piece of jewellery said to be found was a hand-shaped earring given to her by Picasso, which is seen in her Self Portrait painting from 1940.

The Hair

Kahlo wore her hair centre-parted, braided and tied into a tight bun, a style that was deemed unfashionable at the time. She often wore a crown of flowers or a headpiece from her native country in celebration of her heritage.

Flowers were a big part of Kahlo’s life, and featured in many of her paintings. After her death, her house was turned into a museum, and a reproduction of her garden was shown at the New York Botanical Gardens.  

The Eyebrows

Long before Cara Delevingne made them her trademark, Kahlo was deliberately darkenening her brows in a stand against European standards of beauty.

While the rest of Mexico's female population were plucking their brows to match the Western idea of beauty, Kahlo grew hers and used special tools to fill them out and make them appear as bushy as possible. 

The Corset

At a time when women were ditching corsets, Kahlo embraced them, favouring the support they gave her weak spine. She didn’t see them as a restriction, but as a symbol of her strength and her ability to overcome her weaknesses, so she decorated hers with drawings.

There’s been speculation that Madonna’s famous Jean Paul Gaultier corset is modelled on that of Kahlo – both the singer and the designer are huge fans. 

The Shoes

As a child, Kahlo suffered from polio, which stunted her growth and caused her legs to be imbalanced. She used to add a lift to the soles of her shoes, an idea that was later mimicked by Salvatore Ferragamo.

She mainly wore huarache sandals, cowboy boots and high heels, until her right foot and right leg were amputated due to gangrene. She designed her own prosthetic: a red lace-up boot with embroidered flowers and a bell attached. 

The Traditional Dress

Kahlo and Rivera were seen as symbols of new Mexico thanks to their art and revolutionary beliefs and Kahlo altered her appearance to fit her role.

The Tehuana women were national symbols, known for their intelligence, beauty and bravery, so Kahlo adopted their traditional costume, and would wear the long, loose dresses – that conveniently covered her disability – with pride.

£130, available from Maison Assouline, 196A Piccadilly W1J, and Assouline London at Claridges, 49 Brook Street W1K, www.assouline.com