Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

A forthcoming exhibition of clothing at the V&A hopes to shed new light on the legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. City Countdown gets the lowdown.

A woman wearing traditional Tehuana style clothing
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The V&A is currently playing host to a major new exhibition dedicated to the painter Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe. The exhibition, which includes a variety of the artist’s personal possessions never before seen outside of Mexico, began on the 16th June 2018 and will run until the 4th November 2018.

Kahlo is as well known for her personal style as she is for her art. For the Mexican artist, the two were inextricably linked. Her flamboyant style features heavily in her paintings with the artist even going as far as to hand paint some of her dresses. This collection feature clothes, letters, photographs and jewellery and several of the artist’s works that include reference to her clothes and personal style.

Many of the items were discovered in a bathroom at her house (the Blue House) in Mexico City in 2004. The room had been sealed on the strict instructions of her husband Diego Riviera shortly after her death in 1954. The artist, famous for his colourful frescos, demanded that the room remain sealed until 15 years after his own death. In fact, the room was to remain locked for another 50 years, even though Riviera passed away only three years after Kahlo.

Following Riviera’s death, Kahlo’s life long friend and patron Dolores Olmedo became a trustee of the house (by now a Museum dedicated to the life of Kahlo and Riviera) and Olmedo kept the items under lock and key until she passed away in 2004.

Then, in the aftermath of the trustee’s death, the museum’s curators decided to unseal the room to catalogue its contents and there, to their immense surprise and delight, they found a veritable treasure trove of Kahlo related goodies.

Hundreds of the artist’s clothes including several of Kahlo’s signature traditional Mexican dresses, many of the artist’s shoes, several of her letters, a comb with strands of her hair still entwined, a half-used bottle of perfume – all were retrieved from this most humble of hiding place. These items now form the basis of the new exhibition.

The collection gives us a fascinating insight into the cultural underpinnings of Kahlo the artist and woman. The painter was acutely aware of her own heritage, born to a German father and a mixed-race Spanish/Mexican mother, however the artist was also fiercely proud of being Mexican. This pride is often reflected in her choice of clothes.

Many of the garments found in the Blue House highlight the artist’s love of traditional Mexican dress. Kahlo was particularly inspired by the Tehuantepec Isthmus, an indigenous Mexican tribe from the south east of the country.

The tribe seems to have held a special place in the artist’s affection, possibly because of the Isthmus’s reputation for being strongly matriarchal and for having strong and assertive females. Known as “Tehuanas” these women do little domestic work but are the communities principal traders. The Tehuanas are famous throughout Mexico for their flamboyant dress, strength of character and assertiveness.

The V&A show marks the first time that Kahlo’s wardrobe has left Mexico and the collection will further cement the artist’s reputation as a style icon. Kahlo is regularly held up as an influence by artists as diverse as Beyoncé and Salma Hayek with the former so taken with the Mexican artist’s style that she once dressed as Kahlo at a fancy-dress party.

Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe is now on at the V&A and the exhibition will continue until the 4th November 2018.

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