THE MADE-UP CHAR­AC­TER

The props left be­hind tell the story of a fas­ci­nat­ing per­sonal cat­a­logue of in­tense in­ven­tion

Sunday Times - - Dress - WORDS BY As­pa­sia Kar­ras

We are all to some ex­tent our own in­ven­tions. The sto­ries we tell about our­selves are a care­fully crafted short­hand of sym­bols for pub­lic con­sump­tion. Our ap­pear­ance is like a pow­er­point pre­sen­ta­tion with an­i­mated bul­let points for sig­ni­fy­ing at­tributes. More so now that we can cod­ify our vi­su­als on Instagram and Face­book (even those of us who aren’t so-called in­flu­encers). In a sense we are all rum­mag­ing in the dress-up bas­ket of our lives — choos­ing the cos­tume that best ex­presses that strange amal­ga­ma­tion of id and super­ego — the per­son­al­ity.

Even peo­ple who think they are free of such con­sid­er­a­tions are mak­ing choices all the time — demon­stra­bly so. You might think that in­nocu­ous check shirt and chino combo is free of se­man­tics, but you are scream­ing from the hill­tops, my friend. What’s more, our so­ci­ety most val­i­dates those who do the ex­er­cise in self-cre­ation re­ally well. Con­sider the ret­ro­spec­tive that has just opened in Lon­don cel­e­brat­ing the sar­to­rial choices of Frida Khalo. Here are her na­tion­al­ist skirts and dresses, her Mex­i­can blouses, her jew­ellery, her beau­ti­fully em­bel­lished pros­thetic leg, her painted med­i­cal corsets, her bells and whis­tles — all on pub­lic dis­play af­ter years of un­tram­melled preser­va­tion hav­ing been locked up in a room of the house she shared with Diego Rivera. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing and slightly un­nerv­ing per­sonal cat­a­logue of in­tense in­ven­tion that has lain in per­pe­tu­ity like Ms Hav­isham’s wed­ding, since her un­timely death at 47. Here are all the parts that made up the whole, even her used lip­stick, her dark eye­brow pen­cil for the in­fa­mously con­sid­ered uni­brow. Here in these al­most tal­is­manic ob­jects re­sides the spectral ghost of Frida Khalo. Hear her howl.

As any ac­tor will at­test, to put on the cos­tume is to put on the char­ac­ter. To see Khalo’s Mex­i­can flam­boy­ance is to un­der­stand the char­ac­ter she cre­ated. A larger-than-life icon, in the old re­li­gious sense of the word. Some­thing like a pa­gan statue made to be wor­shipped, and car­ried along in the imag­i­na­tion. A char­ac­ter she thor­oughly en­joyed in­hab­it­ing, she wrote to her mother back in Mex­ico from her first New York ex­hi­bi­tion de­scrib­ing the rous­ing ef­fect the clothes where hav­ing on the grin­gos up north.

Her clothes were like a mag­nif­i­cent dis­guise — in­vented to draw at­ten­tion away from her phys­i­cal ail­ments and onto her newly minted self, ris­ing like a phoenix — cel­e­brat­ing her Mex­i­can oth­er­ness in a world of West­ern con­form­ity. Her cos­tume is like the iconog­ra­phy of a new reli­gion — each item, like re­li­gious relics of St Frida. In­stantly recog­nis­able and wor­shipped around the world. So en­meshed with her art that it is hard to tell where the art work ends and the per­son be­gins.

Years ago I re­mem­ber be­ing struck by the oddly amus­ing sight of one of

Queen Vic­to­ria’s mourn­ing gowns. She was not a tall per­son, and her girth was wide. She had loomed over the Bri­tish Em­pire for the bet­ter part of a cen­tury, but to wit­ness the tiny round dress she once em­bod­ied, pre­sented in­nocu­ously in the fash­ion mu­seum in Bath, was to un­der­stand some­thing ter­ri­bly hu­man about this hugely sym­bolic wid­owed queen. She seemed stolid yet frag­ile, and the black was very much a full stop. This dress spoke reams — like a mes­sage some­one had sent into space 200 years ago — a tinny echo from the past liv­ing in the present. Just like Khalo’s clothes, still shout­ing loudly at us from wher­ever she her­self has gone: “Look at me, here I am.”

Frida Kahlo: Mak­ing Her­self Up opened at the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum, Lon­don, last week and runs un­til 4 Novem­ber

HERE RE­SIDES THE SPECTRAL GHOST OF FRIDA KHALO

PIC­TURE Gallo/Getty

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