Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Frida Kahlo's Wardrobe

Frida Kahlo, June 15, 1919 (1919) by Guillermo KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo's Wardrobe

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Mexico City, the daughter of German-Hungarian photographer Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderón y González, herself born in Oaxaca of a Spanish mother and Mexican father. The artist, who has told us so much about herself through her paintings, has also left lasting impressions in our minds through her look and style. 

CorsetsMuseo Frida Kahlo

It seemed that there was little more to say or learn about Frida Kahlo, when in April 2004 her wardrobe was discovered here at La Casa Azul. In the upper part of the house, in the white tiled bathroom adjacent to the artist’s room, her wardrobe and personal belongings had been kept for more than 50 years by specific request of her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and later by their patron and friend Dolores Olmedo. Around 300 traditional and non traditional garments, jewelry, medicines and orthopaedic devices were discovered.

Installation view of Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibitMuseo Frida Kahlo

Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe displays these objects for the very first time and is a study of Kahlo’s construction of her own identity. The exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion and dress. It also shows how Kahlo’s personal style remains a source of inspiration for international artists and fashion designers.

Canadian-type crutches, designed for patients with poliomyelitis diseases, ca. 1954.

Right metal prosthetic leg lined in leather with red leather boot embroidered with Chinese motifs worked in silk thread. Two metal bells hang on a salmon coloured ribbon, 1953.

My dress hangs there

For Frida Kahlo, the Tehuana traditional dress was not only an object that she adapted to her body to hide her imperfections, but something she fused with and wore like a second skin. Frida Kahlo was able to perceive the semiotic quality of the clothing, which lies within its role as a metaphorical vehicle, and is also easily understood by the eye of the onlooker. 

Installation shot of Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibitMuseo Frida Kahlo

Frida’s use of this traditional dress to strengthen her identity, reafirming her political beliefs, and concealing her imperfections, also built on her own sense of heritage and personal history.

Juchiteco ´face huipil´ (1942)Museo Frida Kahlo

Frida, her style: Where is the circus? 

Her decision to embrace these women’s dress, with its intricate hand embroidery, and with braids and flowers in her hair, appears to have been a completely personal choice: on the one hand, it was a search for self-affirmation, possibly rooted in her mother-daughter relationship; on the other, as an intuitive ability to situate herself in the art world, at a time when women artists were fighting to win recognition for their work on its own merit; in her case as an autonomous figure distinct from her famous husband. 

Chinese blouseMuseo Frida Kahlo

It was the Tehuana dress that Kahlo chose as her signature dress; to define her identity and to portray her cultural heritage and political beliefs. Her wardrobe is mostly composed of Mexican traditional pieces from Oaxaca and other parts of the country. Nonetheless, there are also ethnic garments from Guatemala and China, as well as an interesting collection of European and American blouses.

Installation shot of Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibitMuseo Frida Kahlo

Cabinet of curiosities

From the day Frida had polio till the day she died, Kahlo was subjected to 22 surgical operations that left her with a disintegrating body. This physical fragmentation led to a material expression of her own self and its restrictive layers through a unique convergence of geometry and identity. 

Blouse (1938)Museo Frida Kahlo

The Tehuana dress is the pure representation of that meeting – the geometric focus on the heavily adorned upper body, the short square chain stitch blouses and the gender political statements that the dress implies. Frida and the Tehuana come together in a perfect union of identity, beauty and design.

BlouseMuseo Frida Kahlo

The adornment of the Tehuana dress is centred around the upper part of the body. Chain stitch blouses, flowers, highly decorated jewelry, earrings, necklaces and rings will always be concentrated from the torso up, obliging the viewer to focus on Frida's upper body and providing her with the opportunity to edit and fragment herself, distracting the viewer from her legs and lower part of her body.
The huipil, due to its geometric short square construction, would help her to look taller and, when she was seated, allowed the fabric not to bunch up around her waist, thereby avoiding discomfort or drawing attention to itself.

ShawlMuseo Frida Kahlo

As a visual artist and as someone who clearly dedicated much time and energy to the physical image she presented to the world, it is clear that Frida must have been aware of the flattering effect the Tehuana costume had.

NecklacesMuseo Frida Kahlo

If Frida's inspiration was always her own feelings, her reality and her struggle to find and defend her own identity, this exhibition makes evident the psychological effects of dress as a tool and origin of her comfort, strength and personal safety, that were extremely powerful.

BootMuseo Frida Kahlo

Right boot in red leather with grosgrain ribbon laces and embroidered with Chinese motifs worked in silk thread. A metal bell hangs from a royal blue silk velvet ribbon, ca. 1952.

Book-locketMuseo Frida Kahlo

Book-locket containing photographs of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, pressed flowers and two tufts of hair. The backing of the front cover is in wine velvet devoré.

ShoesMuseo Frida Kahlo

Right pump in black suede leather with wide heel and black silk laces. The front has been intentionally exposed.

Sunglasses (1950)Museo Frida Kahlo

Sunglasses, ca. 1950

Prehispanic necklaceMuseo Frida Kahlo

Prehispanic necklace with aqua green stone spherical beads.

CorsetsMuseo Frida Kahlo

The corset: Art and the Avant-Garde

Kahlo’s relationship to the corset is one of support and need – her body dependent on medical attention – but also one of rebellion. Far from allowing the corset to define her as an invalid, Kahlo decorated and adorned her corsets, making them appear as an explicit choice and including them in the construction of her looks as an essential piece.

Corset (0) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

Corset painted by Frida Kahlo.

Marxism Will Give Health to the Ill (1954) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

Marxism Will Give Health to The Ill, 1954

The Freckles (2004) by Jean Paul GaultierMuseo Frida Kahlo

Elements of tradition: lace, flowers and white 

Many designers have taken this as their starting point for
interpreting Kahlo: the corset, her corset, as the perfect symbol of
her physical fragility and an ally to her resilient character. The styling is transferred to fashionable clothing, borrowing
from Kahlo’s use of the corset as medical contraption and as effort
to stylize and incorporate it. Rei Kawakubo, Dai Rees and Jean
Paul Gaultier use the idiosyncrasies of their own style to produce
carefully detailed pieces in the same way Kahlo created her
paintings at once personal and meticulously produced. 

Jean Paul Gaultier.
The Freckles, orthopedic corset in salmon worn over a short dress with a flesh colored silk ruffle printed with with brown freckles. Spring / Summer 2004.

Corset and skirt (2012) by Dai ReesMuseo Frida Kahlo

These designers have drafted parallels between fashion and disability, marrying these ideas through the haunting image of Kahlo’s corset in the avant-garde.1
The designers take their own stance on what is of value in Kahlo’s image, a perfect example of post modernist deconstruction and, in the case of Gaultier by creating a kind of burlesque exoticism, while for Kawakubo the meaning has an almost religious connotation. For Rees it is about the human anatomy.

1 Judith Clark, Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back, Londres, V&A Publications, 2004, p. 40.

Dai Rees.
Corset bodice in natural tanned leather and waxed cotton constructed from a flat a pattern and hand shaped wet moulding (Cuir Bouilli), 2012

Dress (2010) by Riccardo TisciMuseo Frida Kahlo

Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy

Kahlo’s style is celebrated as contemporary and relevant. Frida’s sense of self, reinterpreted through her family traditions and her disability, is clearly shown in Tisci's collection, her tormented memory represented through his materials and motifs. Flowers in lace make allusion to tradition, both as symbols of life and death; the memory of a skeletal silhouette in fine embroidery with the pelvis uncovered reminds us of the artist’s lifelong battle with
spinal pain, but also to her accident - it was then that Kahlo was left with the impossibility of conceiving a child. The jackets look like wings, the wings of a dove that recurred in Kahlo’s work, especially when in the throes of pain she would cling on to the hope of being able to escape from her own body.

Givenchy Haute Couture by Riccardo Tisci.

La Llorada, jumpsuit in blush coloured tulle embroidered with lace and silk satin motifs worn with a flesh coloured bodysuit in stretch tulle embroidered with lace appliqués and a jacket in silk gazar embroidered with matching hand cut silk fringes. Fall / Winter 2010.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (1934) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo

Appearances can be deceiving

The collection also reminds us of the intimate drawing "Appearances Can Be Deceiving", which is the origin of this exhibition and one of the treasures discovered when the artist’s bathroom was opened in 2004. The poetic drawing shows how Kahlo’s intimate relationship between body, corset and dress are assimilated as one, Frida’s life and work were a combination of passion, personal heritage, political conviction and practical response to her disability. 

Frida Kahlo Museum

The Frida Kahlo Museum, which was the house where she was born, lived and died, is located in the old neighborhood of Coyoacan, in Mexico City. 

Las apariencias engañan: El diseño de la exposiciónMuseo Frida Kahlo

Credits: Story

Dirección General: Carlos Phillips

La Dirección de esta exposición estuvo a cargo de:
Hilda Trujillo Soto

Coordinación Ejecutiva: Alejandra López
Curaduría e investigación: Circe Henestrosa
Diseño museográfico: Judith Clark
Fotografías: Miguel Tovar
Promotores del proyecto: Eva Hughes, Kelly Talamas, Sue Chapman Producción de la exposición: MDM Props Ltd, con agradecimiento especial a María Katehis
Producción de los maniquíes: La Rosa, Milano, con especial agradecimiento a Lella Sciortino
Estilización de tocados y maniquíes: Ángelo Seminara
Asistente de estilización de tocados y maniquíes: Anna Fernández, Akira Yamada
Asistente curatorial: María Elena González, Daniela Monasterios
Asistente de museografía: Lucie Layers
Conservación y restauración de textiles: Renato Camarillo
Manejo de archivos: María Elena González, Alejandra López, Mariana Cantú
Diseño gráfico:Charlie Smith Design
Edición de contenidos: Alessandra Grignaschi, Dave Ellison
Revisión de contenidos: María Luisa Cárdenas
Programa educativo: Luana López, María Luisa Cárdenas
Difusión: Patricia Cordero, Maricarmen Rodríguez
Coordinación de patrocinios:Ximena Gómez
Apoyo en montaje: Karla Niño de Rivera, Lucía Enríquez
Contenidos pedagógicos: Beatriz Ruiz, Bárbara Barragán
Material de apoyo del proyecto educativo:Luisa Fernanda Matute, Karina Bermejo
Administración: Laura Zavala, Gabriela López
Coordinación técnica: Teresa Hernández-Vela
Adaptación de los espacios:Alejandra López, Ximena Gómez, Construcciones Esmeralda
Apoyo de conservación: Esmeralda Corrales, Leticia Cruz, Rosario Hernández, Olivia Medina
Promotores del proyecto:Eva Hughes, Kelly Talamas
Préstamo de obra: Especial agradecimiento a Riccardo Tisci, Laure Aillagon y Elizabeth van Hammee en GIVENCHY; Jean Paul Gaultier y Thoaï Niradeth en Jean Paul Gaultier; Marilyn Porlan en Comme des Garçons; Dai Rees, Cibeles Henestrosa y Muriel Mercier.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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