Frida’s clothes: A personal language

Excerpted from Frida Kahlo: Portraits of an Icon
Text Copyright © 2002, Margaret Hooks


Even as a child, clothes were a kind of personal language for Frida and essential to the construction of her many personas. Throughout her life she used an extraordinary variety of outfits as if going through a never-ending trunk of a portrait photographer’s props and costumes, starting with the denim overalls she wore as a child (then almost unheard of attire for a middle-class little girl), as well as boots, floppy ties and caps, men’s suits, period dresses in velvets and silks, blue jeans and regional costumes from every area of Mexico.

Her first persona seems to have been created at the age of fourteen when she enrolled in the “prepa”, the National Preparatory School, where she was one of only thirty-five girls among two thousand students. Frida soon became a member of a group of brilliant but irreverent students known as the Cachuchas after the large, peaked caps they all wore. They were a youthful band of merry pranksters who enjoyed being outrageous, and prided themselves in their punning and caustic witticisms, a sense of humour that Frida shared and employed from then on in her correspondence and conversation.

Photo by Guillermo Kahlo

An accident four years later and the months of convalescence that followed during which she was confined to her home, put an end to Frida’s Cachucha identity. She emerged from this period a serious young woman in search of a religious and sexual identity. She had already had her first homosexual experience, apparently with a teacher at the school – was reading extensively on Judaism and Christianity and had undergone confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church. Her clothing tended towards somber dresses with a Renaissance touch, made from luxurious materials, while her props were large crosses and books in Gothic script. Suddenly, however, she makes a startling appearance in a family portrait dressed in an elegant man’s three-piece suit with shirt and tie.

The images her photographer father made of his daughter as an adolescent show her in her search of an identity, trying out the many guises she would appropriate and discard throughout her lifetime. What she is wearing in these photographs is an indication of the changes within. In some she appears in men’s clothing, a nod to her sexual ambivalence, and in all of them she looks very serious. As if she was following the maxim she professed after her accident, “I knew a battlefield of suffering was in my eyes. From then on I started looking straight at the lens, unflinching, unsmiling, determined to show I was a good fighter to the end.”

Two of Guillermo Kahlo’s portraits of a youthful Frida vividly illustrate the battles raging behind that forthright gaze. Frida Kahlo at age 18 (1926), indicates Frida has embarked on a search for a new image. Gone is the tomboy look with tie and bobbed hair, as in Frida Kahlo as a schoolgirl (c. 1923), and ushered in is the young “Pre-Raphaelite” lady, elegantly attired in a crushed velvet dress embroidered at the hem, with esoteric symbols on the chest, silk stockings and buckled shoes, holding a bejeweled volume in her long-tapered hands. She wears no jewelry except for what seems like a gold wedding band on the index finger of her left hand…

Photo by Guillermo Kahlo

Frida was intrigued by religion and seems to have been unsure as to whether she was Roman Catholic or Jewish. Did she share her father’s religion, or her mother’s? A difficult decision for a young woman to make. She read, probably secretly, her father’s volumes on the Kabalah and perhaps such a book is one of those on her lap. At the same time, she avidly read her mother’s bibles and in Family portrait with Frida Kahlo (1928), looking every bit the dutiful daughter, she stands behind her mother with a solemn, almost stern look on her face and a large crucifix hanging from her neck. At the time of this photograph, January 1928, Frida was a practicing Roman Catholic, taking communion and going to confession with her mother and three sisters. Paradoxically, as evidenced by another image made the same day, what this photograph conceals is that the dress Frida is wearing to support her heavy cross is in fact a rather risqué tunic with a hemline well above her knee…

When she had recovered from the accident and was back in circulation again, Frida became more interested in revolutionary politics than religion and joined the Mexican Communist Party’s youth league. Modest linen skirts with martial-like blouses, leather jackets and pants became new items in her wardrobe integral to her new identity as a militant in the ranks of the proletariat. This is how she appears in a Tina Modotti photograph of her and her fellow artists marching in a May Day demonstration in 1929.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten

But, it was not until her marriage to Diego later that year that Frida would develop the image that is integral to the legend she has become. As she described it in an interview cited in the newspaper Excelsior, “In another period I dressed like a boy with shaved hair, pants, boots, and a leather jacket. But when I went to see Diego I put on a Tehuana costume. I’ve never been to Tehuantepec … nor do I have any connection to the town, but of all Mexican costumes this is the one I like best and that’s why I wear it.”

Diego had first visited the Tehuantepec Isthmus a decade previously and enthused about the rich cultural heritage he found there. He was particularly enamoured of the strong stately women of the region and their magnificent indigenous costume. When he returned to Mexico City he included depictions of them in his murals, which probably inspired Frida her to adopt their clothing as her own. By espousing the Tehuana costume Frida not only found a new self-image but created a new identity. From then on Mexican indigenous costume became symbolic of her mestizo roots of mixed Indian and European blood, and a new, wholly Mexican Frida was born, one who not only rejected things European but also glorified Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past.

Photo by Gisèle Freund

There were also political reasons for wearing such clothing, as it immediately identified one with the Mexican revolution and its goals of dignity and land for Mexico’s indigenous peoples. It also helped that the Tehuana costume with its flowing skirts and midriff-length blouses in vibrant colours and variety of patterns, materials and embroideries is one of the world’s most beautiful. In Frida’s case, indigenous clothing allowed her to conceal the signs of polio and other problems with her legs and feet that resulted from her accident, and was a perfect foil to her ugly “frog prince” Diego who, despite his love of the folkloric, never wore indigenous costume.

When Frida’s mother died suddenly in 1932. Frida was grief-stricken and so was her father who briefly lost his powers of reason. She spent a lot of time with him as a result, talking to him and taking him for walks. He made the portrait Frida Kahlo following her mother’s death (1932), within a month of his wife’s demise. In the portrait, Frida is in mourning; she is simply dressed in a black wool sweater and pinafore, her hair is tied up with a small black bow and she wears no jewelry. Her normally beautifully groomed nails are bitten and broken and her face has a haunted expression; all life appears gone from it except for the eyes which are full of the darkest sorrow…

Photo by Lola Álvarez Bravo


For Frida, clothes were a means of communication with the outside world and every day she selected from her lexicon the elements that would best represent the image she wanted to project. Some of those who had the privilege of watching her dress describe it as being present at a cross between a ceremonial ritual and the creation of a work of art… Choosing combinations from a vast assortment of skirts, blouses and belts, dresses, shawls and petticoats, all in a wide variety of colours and textures, plus footwear that ranged from pointed-toed cowboy boots, to huarache sandals and even, her one concession to western style, four-inch high-heeled pumps. She sometimes took hours over the process carefully choosing and combining items of clothing after making sure that each item was in perfect condition. She thought nothing of making adjustments on the spot with a needle and thread or having one of her servants re-press an item that had the slightest rumpled pleat. If in any doubt about the final overall effect, she would ask the opinion of those she trusted as to whether it looked good, and start all over again if it did not.

Then she would choose from the jewelry which she adored and was lavished on her by Diego. Pre-Colombian necklaces of huge jade beads, long gold chains that could amount to the dowry of an Aztec princess, a string of simple beads she had found on a market stall and enormous rings that she wore on every finger. Make-up was also integral to Frida’s creation and it was copiously but skillfully employed right down to her fingernail polish which could be green, purple or fire engine red depending on what she was wearing.

Photo by Nickolas Muray

But the most spectacular part of Frida’s dressing process was the arranging of her long, dark hair which she also wore in the styles of different Indigenous regions of Mexico. This was such a sensual and seductive ritual that some of her lovers and intimate friends liked to be present when she was carrying it out. On one of her visits to the United States, gallery owner Julien Levy made a remarkable series of photographs of Frida dressing her hair while naked. After brushing it vigorously until it gleamed, she usually swept it upward and braided it. Then she would choose between extending the braids with thick coloured wool piled on top of her head in the manner of the women of the Otomi region, weaving ribbons into it and affixing it with tortoiseshell combs or decorating it with fresh flowers.

She seemed to derive a perverse pleasure from painfully pulling and twisting her hair tightly, digging combs into her scalp, sticking in hairpins and tying ribbons and bows until she achieved the dramatic outcome. When she finally emerged from this theatrical process Frida had created a work of art. If she had done so for a photographic session, the photographers could choose from an assortment of props and backdrops. For many the latter was the Casa Azul, itself another of Frida’s creations, replete with Mexican iconography. Others chose her pets or her paintings, beside which she would pose with palette and brush in hand.

Photo by Gisèle Freund

Towards the end of her life Frida tried her utmost to conceal her pain and physical deterioration by distracting from her condition with increasingly flamboyant costumes, heavier make-up and more lavish hairstyles. With a few exceptions she still managed to maintain this elaborate packaging in front of the lens. In some of these photographs her vivacious personality is concealed beneath a tight mask but her eyes seek out the viewer with a gaze that continues to challenge and captivate…

The final photograph, Frida Kahlo on her deathbed (1954), was taken by Lola Alvarez Bravo after she and some of Frida’s other closest friends had dressed Frida’s corpse. Following her instructions, she has been dressed in her white Yalalg huipil adorned with ceremonial tassels and a long dark skirt. Her hair was braided with ribbons and flowers and her coral and jade necklaces were draped around her neck. Her nails were painted bright red, as she liked them to be, and her favourite rings adorned each finger… In this last photograph, the image of Frida Kahlo the icon is preserved. Even in death Frida has managed to project the image she desired and look as sartorially elegant as she was in life. Nevertheless, the woman behind the legend remains elusive. In the end the “great concealer” has triumphed.
 
 
 
Copyright © 2002, 2018 Margaret Hooks.
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