Frida Kahlo as style icon

Al­most 65 years af­ter her death, ‘Mak­ing Her Self Up,’ at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum in Lon­don, shows how the cel­e­brated artist cul­ti­vated her im­age, re­ject­ing the fash­ion trends of her day, and cre­at­ing a look that was dis­tinctly her own and that cel

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY JOOBIN BEKHRAD IN LON­DON style@wash­post.com

A Lon­don mu­seum show ex­am­ines the artist’s dis­tinc­tive look.

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.’”

NICKOLAS MURAY PHOTO AR­CHIVES

JAC­QUES AND NATASHA GELMAN COL­LEC­TION OF 20TH CEN­TURY MEX­I­CAN ART AND THE VERGEL COL­LEC­TION

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Cot­ton huipil with ma­chine-em­broi­dered chain stitch, printed cot­ton skirt with em­broi­dery and holán; en­sem­ble from the Isth­mus of Te­huan­te­pec. Pros­thetic leg with leather boot, ap­pliquéd silk with em­broi­dered Chi­nese mo­tifs. Frida Kahlo, “The Love Em­brace of the Uni­verse, the Earth (Mex­ico), Me, Diego, and Senor Xolotl,” 1949. The Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion aims “to show how Frida con­structed and con­trolled her iden­tity . . . in the face of ill­ness and ad­ver­sity.”

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