So it was that more than 300 of the exceptional and eccentric garments of Frida Kahlo remained under lock and key, undetected for 50 years in the upstairs bathroom of the Mexican artists’ home, Casa Azul.
Tucked among the indigenous dresses in silks and satins, the corsets decorated by her own hand, the painted red boots and oversized jewelry was a small sketch of herself, naked beneath the layers of fabric and leather that hid her broken body. At the bottom, Kahlo scrawled, “Appearances can be deceiving.”
The first exhibition of the clothes, jewelry, orthopedic devices and other possessions discovered in 2004 takes its name from that line.
“Frida doesn’t just paint, draw, and write but rather she intervenes and transforms that which surrounds her, including herself,” Hilda Trujillo wrote in Vogue Mexico. “This way, the artist created her image and constructed her personality through her manner of dressing.”
Kahlo’s exotic style made an artistic and political statement in a post-Revolution Mexico of the 1930s and 1940s. But as much as a statement, her clothing was also a disguise to hide the disintegrating body beneath.
Kahlo’s life was fraught with physical pain. As a young medical student, she suffered a trolley accident in 1925 that sent a metal handrail through her abdomen, breaking her spine and pelvis and irrevocably altering her torso -– a recurring subject of her art. The bones of her right leg, already thin and weak from the polio she contracted as a child, were shattered in the crash. In 1953, she would lose the leg to gangrene and use a prosthetic limb.
Although Kahlo made colorful combinations of Chinese, Indian and Mexican fabrics and styles, the traditional dress known as a Tehuana became one of Kahlo’s signature fashions. The square, embroidered blouse; the long skirt over a lace slip; braids piled atop her head –- it was the dress of women in the Tehuantepec Isthmus in southern Oaxaca state.
The Tehuana dress served as a sort of palette to which she added layers, shawls, baubles and bracelets. (The writer Carlos Fuentes would say her arrival would be announced by the clanging of her bangles.) Folds of fabric would mask what was beneath: the thick buckles of a leather corset or painted plaster cast, designed to hold her battered torso upright.
The exhibit, on display through November 2013 at Mexico City’s Casa Azul, is the work of the Museum of Frida Kahlo and Vogue, the magazine in which the artist appeared in 1937 in a photograph by Toni Frissell. Circe Henestrosa curated the exhibit; the design is by British architect Judith Clark.
According to one text in the exhibit, Kahlo was “a cult figure appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers, and pop culture.” As proof, the exhibit features a handful of pieces by Jean Gaulthier, Dai Rees, Riccardo Tisci, and other fashion designers who were alternately inspired and influenced by Kahlo’s style.
Yet an “orthopedic” corset in salmon by Gaulthier for a spring-summer collection in 2004, rife with “burlesque exoticism” as the exhibit notes, reveals none of the battle scars suffered by those worn in desperation by one of the 20th century’s great artists.
Photos courtesy Museum of Frida Kahlo