WHEN we arrived at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan, Mexico City, also known as Casa Azul (the Blue House—yes, it’s almost all blue) and the most visited museum in Mexico (the magnificent Museo Nacional de Antropologia comes only second)—the queue was only along one side of the corner building. Tickets require advanced reservation, and we saw many (hard-headed?) tourists still taking a chance and going away perplexed.
My travel buddy Christine and I had reserved tickets long before our February trip, and I was glad we did; by the time we left the Museum, a couple of hours after our 12:30 pm schedule, the line snaked around the block.
Both art enthusiasts and celebrity chasers cannot help but find this cultural icon irresistible, arguably the leading light of Mexican art—not just because of her stark, unapologetic works, but also for a lifestyle and a charisma that disarmed anyone she met. She was a survivor, a patriot, a feminist, and a style maverick who did most everything her way. “Frida Kahlo is the very model of the bohemian artist: unique, rebellious, and contradictory,” read the exhibit notes at the museum. “…From Mexico to San Francisco, Paris to New York, Kahlo…caused a sensation with her enigmatic coquettish gaze and deep, dark brown eyes holding the viewer for a moment too long; commanding but fragile.”
Born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderon to a Mexican mother and a German father in 1907, Frida lived a life ravaged by pain and illness, from when she contracted polio at age six, which left her with a shorter right leg—which would later in her life be amputated—to a terrible car accident when she was 18 where she was literally impaled by metal, rendering her unable to bear children and leaving her bedridden for months. On her sickbed was when she started to paint in earnest. She underwent 22 surgeries throughout her life.
A terrible car accident when Frida was 18, where she was literally impaled by metal, rendered her unable to bear children and left her bedridden for months
The house is filled with stunning artworks by Frida, such as the sexually-charged Naturaleza muerta (Still life, 1942, oil on metal plate), supposed to hang in the dining room of the Mexican president but deemed too suggestive of female genitalia, as well as self-portraits and photographs of her. The most stunning, hands down, is the famous 1939 photograph of Frida by Hungarian-American photographer Nickolas Muray, with whom she would carry on a 10-year affair that gave her philandering husband, muralist Diego Rivera, a bitter taste of his own medicine.
There are also various household implements, the furniture they used and lived in, and even Frida herself—her ashes are in a frog-shaped urn placed nonchalantly on her bedroom dresser. The choice of vessel? A reference to the love of her life, Diego, who sometimes described himself as a “toad-frog.” (This couple actually divorced but remarried just a year later, even if one of Frida’s greatest sources of mental anguish was the fact that Diego had an affair with her own sister. But that’s another story.)
Yet, as culture aficionados know too well, Frida was also a master of the image, attested to by the undying vision of her famous unibrow, braided hair, and colorful wardrobe. Writer Carlos Fuentes recalled how Frida’s presence would often be announced by the clinking of her jewelry, at which moment all eyes would be on her, and friends recalled how she took great pains to dress up for occasions in the most colorful of finery. The ongoing exhibition at the Casa Azul, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe, proves this mastery beyond any doubt.
The wardrobe was discovered in Frida’s bathroom at Casa Azul only in 2004, with several personal items that had been kept for more than 50 years upon Diego’s instructions (he outlived his wife by three years), and later, those of their patron Dolores Olmedo. Found was a treasure trove of 300 garments, jewelry, medicines, and orthopedic devices.
As the notes on the exhibition, directed by Carlos Philips, designed by Judith Clark, and curated by Circe Henestrosa, stated, it “focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion, and dress.”
Frida chose the traditional Tehuana dress worn by Zapotec women from Tehuantepec, in Mexico’s southwestern Oaxaca region, as her uniform of choice—a tribute to a traditionally matriarchal society where women had their own power and economic means. Henestrosa likewise noted a smattering of “ethnic garments from Guatemala and China, as well as an interesting collection of European and American blouses,” and noted that Frida favored red and green (the colors of the Mexican flag), blue, black and white.
The Tehuana dress was a nod to her roots, as well as a practical means to conceal her damaged leg through the outfit’s long skirts, drawing the eye towards the intricate embroidery on the bodice. Frida reinforced this further with her lavish braids or floral headpieces, colorful shawls, dramatic jewelry, and makeup. Other observers noted how the bright hues gave her a separate identity from Diego, who was often monochromatically dressed, and made her stand out more in an art world where women were not recognized on their own merit.
The Tehuana dress was a practical means to conceal her damaged leg through the outfit’s long skirts, drawing the eye towards the intricate embroidery on the bodice
And then, there was the corset, which Frida initially had to wear for medical reasons, to support damaged bones and muscles, but which she characteristically made her own by painting on them and embellishing them. “Far from allowing the corset to define her as an invalid, Kahlo decorated and adorned her corsets,” read the exhibition notes, “making them appear as an explicit choice and including them in the construction of her looks as an essential piece.”
Frida wears a corset in her 1954 oil-on-masonite self-portrait-cum-manifesto, El Marxismo dara salud a los enfermos (Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick). Another famous photograph shows her bedridden, but painting on her plaster corset the hammer and sickle of communism—Frida and Diego identified as socialists—and an image of an unborn child she would never have.
Frida’s status as a fashion icon was cemented by a feature on her in Vogue in October 1937. After a Paris exhibition of her works, the Tehuana dress took Europe by storm. According to the exhibition notes, Elsa Schiaparelli even made a dress for her, “La Robe Madame Rivera.”
Frida’s status as a fashion icon was cemented by a feature on her in ‘Vogue’ Magazine in October 1937
Other designers who were inspired by Frida took off from the corset as a central piece, a reference to the fascinating dichotomy of fragility and fortitude. For his Spring/Summer 2004 collection, after the discovery of the clothes, Jean Paul Gaultier created The Freckles, a salmon-colored orthopedic corset worn over a short dress, with flesh-colored silk ruffles dotted with brown freckles. For Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci created La Llorada (The Crying Woman) for Fall/Winter 2010, a blush-colored tulle jumpsuit with lace and silk satin, worn over a flesh-colored bodysuit with lace appliqués and a jacket in silk gazar embroidered with silk fringes. “The jacket looks 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,” the exhibit description read. Both pieces are on display at Casa Azul.
After we had learned so much more about this remarkable woman, her very last painting, finished the year she died in 1954, a rich oil-on-masonite still life of bright red watermelons entitled Viva la vida (Long live life), took on even more poignant meaning. Even as her body betrayed her, this unforgettable woman still celebrated life, as she inscribed the title right on the fruit.
As the exhibition notes concluded, “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.”