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London museum exhibition focuses on Frida Kahlo as a style icon

Frida Kahlo wore headdresses and indigenous flowers to emphasize her Mexican Mestizo identity and heritage. (Nickolas Muray Photo Archives)

It is perhaps ironic that a woman who eschewed popular fashion and beauty norms is now adored by the mainstream as a style icon. “At the time in Mexico,” says Salma Hayek, who played Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic, “what was fashionable was to look French. When everybody was trying to dress like that, Frida did what was unimaginable,” Hayek says in a phone interview.

Nearly 65 years after her death, not only does Kahlo’s singular creative oeuvre continue to inspire, but so does her extraordinary sense of style, the focus of an unprecedented exhibition in London. “Making Her Self Up,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design, provides an intimate look at how Kahlo cultivated her image and the ways in which she used fashion and makeup to do so.

In examining Kahlo’s stylistic legacy, curators Circe Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox have looked to Casa Azul (the Blue House), Kahlo’s childhood home in Mexico, where she died in 1954. Working in collaboration with the Museo Frida Kahlo, they have brought to London more than 200 objects, some of which haven’t traveled outside of Mexico before, and some that have never been exhibited at all. Just a few days after Kahlo’s death, Diego Rivera, her husband, locked up Casa Azul for good — or so he intended to. “We were tremendously excited to think that the Blue House would allow Kahlo’s costumes to travel outside of Mexico for the very first time,” Henestrosa says.

If there’s one thing the exhibition makes clear, it’s that Kahlo’s style was carefully coordinated and purposeful. As Wilcox explains, one of the show’s objectives is “to show how Frida constructed and controlled her identity, her singular strength in the face of illness and adversity.” The traditional huipil tunics, enagua skirts and resplandor headdresses she wore, for example, were used to emphasize her Mexican Mestizo identity and heritage. Similarly, the indigenous flowers she wore in her hair and the native jewelry she used to bedizen herself with were also reflections of her love for Mexico and her nationalist stance. Kahlo “would take her inspiration from the different cultures within Mexico,” Hayek says. “That’s not how people were dressing, even indigenous people. . . . Frida would take inspiration from them and then [make] her own creations that [went] against the trends of fashion.”

Kahlo also looked to fashion to conceal the deformities on her body wrought by polio and gangrene, as well as to express her allegiance to communism, as in the case of a hammer-and-sickle-adorned corset, one of many she had to wear as a result of a near-fatal accident at 18 involving a bus. As Henestrosa puts it, her style “combined . . . the fundamental effects of her disabilities and her political beliefs.” It was also through her appearance that the bisexual artist expressed her androgyny. Among the objects on display in the exhibition is a pencil Kahlo used to conjoin and exaggerate her eyebrows. Along with her conspicuous facial hair, her brows (or brow, rather) further distinguished her looks and distanced her from prevailing notions of female beauty, harking back to the time in her youth when she dressed as a man. Doing so “was extremely daring,” Hayek says of the period. ‘All of this was impossible to conceive in Mexico at the time; and yet, she was celebrating the androgynous part of herself.”

Given her fervent belief in communism, her nationalist stance and her rejection of mainstream beauty ideals, one would expect to see nothing but Mexican objects in the exhibition. As with her sexuality, however, Kahlo wasn’t so black and white when it came to her style. The aforementioned eyebrow pencil was manufactured by Revlon — Kahlo’s favorite brand, which opened a Mexican factory in the late 1940s — as was the Everything’s Rosy shade of lipstick she would playfully kiss her letters with, and her vibrant Raven Red nail varnish, both of which are also on view.

Contrary to popular rumor, Kahlo never graced the cover of Vogue Paris. “That doesn’t exist,”Henestrosa says, and although she did make it into an October 1937 edition of the magazine’s American edition, her approaches to fashion and beauty were far less appreciated than they have been in recent years, especially since the start of “Fridamania” in the ’90s. Take Jean-Paul Gaultier’s homage to Kahlo, his SS 1998 collection, for instance, or, as Henestrosa also points out, Riccardo Tisci’s 2010 Kahlo-inspired designs for Givenchy and those of Etro, Gucci and Roland Mouret for AW 2017. According to Hayek, her visual presence is just as tangible today, if not more so.

“We went through a really neutral, long period, and right now, [Kahlo’s style] is the craze: color, embroidery . . . hands full of rings, braids,” Hayek says.

Why, well into the 21st century, are people still taking stylistic cues from Kahlo? How has she remained relevant, and why will she probably continue to do so?

“She saw herself as her own work of art,” Hayek says. Fashion, to Kahlo, “was a form of expression — which to me is what true fashion is. She made it her own. . . . And this is also something that right now is very fashionable.”

It’s difficult to disagree with Hayek. However, as Henestrosa notes, it’s when her sense of style is considered in the context of her tumultuous and trying life that it truly becomes phenomenal. She has “all the appropriate elements of an icon, an ultimate modern-day icon,” Henestrosa says. “As a woman of color that had disabilities and was politically radical, she is also someone that speaks to groups that have been traditionally disenfranchised, giving [them the] hope and courage to say, ‘This is how I am.’”