A Costume Of Herself

On the Frida Kahlo Tchotchke Industrial Complex

A Frida Kahlo nail polish, for sale in 2018.

THE HAGIOGRAPHY AROUND FRIDA Kahlo tells us that she means something. She has become a symbol of feminism, of enduring pain, of indigenous identity and of redefining beauty standards. She is also a fridge magnet, a tote bag and a Halloween costume. She has been a beer bottle. There is a cartoon Frida Kahlo cat, ‘Catlo.’ A whitened, bland version of her was controversially a Barbie doll. Kahlo’s image proliferates; when I begin looking I see her everywhere. I go to a dinner and her head is hanging on a string above the mirror in the bathroom, like a talisman. ‘She’s been so overshadowed by her celebrity that her work has become lost,’ said Julie Rodrigues Widholm, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s 2014 exhibition Unbound: Contemporary Art after Frida Kahlo, the aim of which was to ‘restore [Kahlo’s] artistic legacy.’1 It’s a common reading, which pits Kahlo’s commercial ubiquity against her avant-garde artistic credibility. But such an interpretation ignores certain facts. Chief among them: Kahlo’s careful choreography of her own image. Like many who transcend into sainthood, she didn’t achieve it in life. When American Vogue interviewed her in 1937 it was as ‘Madame Diego Rivera, wife of the famous Mexican painter,’ and when she died seventeen years later, in 1954, aged forty-seven, she was still, according to The New York Times’ obituary, ‘Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.’ Since, her legacy has come to far surpass Rivera’s. Amy Collins, writing in 1995 for Vanity Fair, described Kahlo-devotees as ‘masses of late-twentieth-century idol seekers.’ The cult around Frida Kahlo shows no sign of letting up, and it’s as much around her work – she was a better painter than Rivera, after all – as it is about her; there are exhibitions soley about the kind of life that she lived. In 2015 New York’s Botanical Garden had one on her garden, this year London’s V&A hosts one on her possessions, namely her clothes, jewellery and makeup. ‘Style is character,’ Joan Didion wrote of Georgia O’Keeffe; she was considering how much we can expect that an artist is their work. With Kahlo, context is important; her work collapses the line between life and art. What she looked like is relevant; she made fifty-five self-portraits. She painted her pain: The childhood polio that left her with one withered leg. The freak tram accident when she was eighteen, and an iron handrail pierced through the side of the tram car and impaled her through the uterus.2 Her spinal column, collar bone, ribs and pelvis were broken, she sustained eleven fractures in her right leg, and her right foot was crushed. It meant she could never carry children to term, although she conceived three times. She painted her fat, irresistible husband Diego Rivera, who was so much older than her, and who most likely slept with her sister.3  She married him in 1929 and then again in 1940; it was the kind of love where you divorce only to remarry a year later. Her biography is relevant because she made it relevant. Picasso has not yet been honoured with a retrospective on his personal aesthetic, nor has the one-time Comme des Garçons model, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Brooklyn Museum did though, have one on Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern.’ Women’s work is still viewed through a different lens than men’s; their lives are more closely associated with their art, and their art is oft-seen as inherently more personal than their male counterparts. The men who have had recent shows of their belongings, Prince and David Bowie, have been known for their androgynous theatricality, and for explicitly creating a persona through their clothes: they were performers.4  Undoubtedly, part of Frida Kahlo’s work was the construction of Frida Kahlo. In her diary she nicknamed herself ‘the Ancient Concealer,’ perhaps in reference to this knack. Her name wasn’t quite Frida Kahlo, originally it was Frieda; she dropped the ‘e’ to sound less German. And she was born on July 6, 1907, not July 7, 1910 – the beginning of the Mexican revolution – as she often said she was. Clothing figured into these efforts: there’s an early family photograph of young Frida dressed as a boy. In the year she divorced Rivera, she painted herself wearing what’s instantly recognisable as one of his suits. Costume informed her everyday dressing, too: the Tehuana dresses, huipils (printed tunics) and rebozos (shawls) that she wore weren’t of their time. Children would stop her in the street to ask where the circus was. There’s a 1946 photo, ‘Frida On The Rooftop,’ taken by her lover, the photographer Nickolas Muray, that emphasises their incongruity. She sits vivid against the Manhattan skyline in an acid yellow and rich pink huipil, and a full powder blue skirt. It’s an outfit that’s simultaneously ahead of, in terms of colour, and behind, in terms of form, its time. These day-to-day clothes, currently on display at the V&A, had an intimate and specific relationship to her body. The full skirts of the Tehuana dresses, which she lengthened with thick strips of horizontal lace, covered her withered leg. When her leg eventually had to be amputated, as a result of gangrene, she used a prosthetic leg with a delicately painted, lace-up red boot, emblazoned with a Chinese dragon. The huipiles sat easily over the corsets that she had to wear in order to support her spine. She painted directly on to these corsets, so that they looked more like armour; her insignia was a womb and the Communist flag (a lifelong Communist, she had an affair with Trotsky in the brief period when he lived in her home while in exile). Its difficult to know whether these clothes were fashioned to normalise her appearance, or to highlight her body, as it existed, through ornamentation. The answer seems to be that she did both; she didn’t use clothes to become a totally different persona, but instead to more fully embody Frida, without the ‘e’, Kahlo. The practice of dressing as Frida Kahlo has, like her paintings, long outlasted the woman: At the V&A’s exhibition, there is a guide dressed as Kahlo. She wears a Tehuana dress, her hair is in plaits on top of her head, and her eyebrow has been shaded in at the middle. (I learn, anecdotally, that this is not normal practice at the museum.) In the gift shop you can buy miniature headless stickers wearing her trademark Tehuana dresses; their purpose is to stick over photographs, so that a figure in a photograph can be dressed as Kahlo. There are also real dresses that you can buy; many Kahloes sashay around a makeshift changing room. At what point does Kahlo-as-costume become problematic, insulting to the vision and legacy of the artist herself? The British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May apparently crossed the line last fall. When she stepped out in a Frida Kahlo bracelet, critics pounced: why would a lifelong Communist want to be associated with May?5  This spring, a Mexican court ordered toy company Mattel to stop selling the Kahlo Barbie doll, originally created as part of its ‘Inspiring Women’ series. Kahlo’s great-niece, Mara de Anda Romeo, contested Mattel’s right to use Kahlo’s image, which they had licensed from the Panama-based Frida Kahlo Corporation. Romeo’s biggest issue was not the creation of the doll, but the fact that Kahlo wasn’t represented faithfully enough; ‘I would have liked the doll to have traits more like Frida’s, not this doll with light-colored eyes,’ as she told AFP News Agency.6 Romeo didn’t want money, but for the doll to be redesigned as a more accurate likeness. This didn’t extend, though, to the doll’s body itself; little was said of Kahlo’s disability, by Romeo or Mattel. That the Barbie’s able-bodiedness didn’t figure largely in the Mattel controversy is telling. In the fashioning of Freida the woman into Frida the persona, the artist herself kept and caricatured certain elements; She emphasised her eyebrow with a Revlon pencil, for instance, and was rumoured to comb her moustache. But today, the persona has been flattened. Given that Kahlo’s work, and self-presentation, was so defined by her body, the oddest feature of the Frida Kahlo tchotchke industrial complex is that her specific corporeality is so rarely incorporated or addressed. The most knotty parts of her reality have been smoothed out, and the most essential bits lost. It’s easy to argue that Kahlo’s image is being warped by consumerism, a process to which the artist would have certainly been opposed. She cared very little about conventional beauty – in her self-portraits she almost de-beautified herself; flattening her bone structure and adding worn circles under her eyes. Kahlo created herself so specifically not according to popular standards, but to her own mind’s eye. It’s this that perhaps, more than anything, explains the protection over her image, that it was so specifically hers.

Holly Connolly is a London-based writer. She has written for The Guardian, Garage, iD, and Dazed, among others.

  1. http://www.artnews.com/2014/07/14/saving-frida-kahlo-from-her-own-celebrity/ 

  2. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/style/frida-kahlo-is-having-a-moment.html and https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/frida-kahlo-making-her-self-up-va-museum 

  3. https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/1995/09/frida-kahlo-diego-rivera-art-diary 

  4. See: https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/music/my-name-is-prince-at-the-o2-it-s-like-prince-is-right-there-in-front-of-us-a3668286.html and https://www.vogue.com/article/david-bowie-is-brooklyn-museum 

  5. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/theresa-may-frida-kahlo-bracelet-communist-cough-conservative-conference-a7982931.html 

  6. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2018/03/frida-kahlos-family-is-not-thrilled-with-her-barbie-doll