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Essay: Exploring Frida Kahlo’s Fashion, Lifestyle and Identity Evolution in “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” Exhibition

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In this essay I will focus on issues raised by ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, particularly looking at lifestyle, fashion and identity within the exhibition.

The exhibition raised many issues associated with Kahlo’s lifestyle surrounding the imagery and context for much of her art work and fashion. Addressing her physical pains and fragmented body through a display of “plaster corsets to prosthetic legs” (Cumming, 2018) the exhibition is “an extraordinary testimony to suffering and spirit”. (Cumming, 2018) Contracting polio at six and surviving a bus accident at eighteen, Kahlo internally damaged her uterus, fractured her back and leg. On the wall of the exhibition, Kahlo stated “I have suffered two major accidents in my life, one was when a street car knocked me down and the other was Diego” (Kahlo s.d. in V&A, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018), illustrating the pain Kahlo had endured through her experiences and relationships; discounting her own ill health that formed the basis of her artwork. Additionally, we learn Kahlo’s father Guillermo allowed her to help him as a photographer with retouching, preparing glass plates and taking self-portraits; it’s probable that her fascination with the self originated here. Through her experience with self-portraiture, Kahlo could emulate the still sincerity of her gaze, creating more intimacy whilst conveying emotion. Confined to her bed for almost a year, a mirror was added into the canopy; here she began painting as a form of distraction and self-expression, stating “I’ll paint myself because I am so often alone.” (Walter, 2005)

Living with a disability for most can be inhibiting, but known predominantly as an artist Kahlo’s disabilities were relatively unknown, yet they were all consuming for Kahlo who collected Ex-voto paintings. Translating into “the vow made” – a contrast to her abandonment of Catholicism – Kahlo sought paintings depicting road accidents, even altering an existing one in order to reflect her own. (Kahlo, Frida, s.d. in V&A, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018) As Kahlo came from a middle class background, high quality prosthetics could be provided whilst other amputees at the time imaginably suffered a lot more, recalling that “papa and mama began to spoil me a lot and love me more.” (Collins, 2013) Studies show a negative stigma attached to disability in the Latino/Mexican community, “Hispanic families tend to overprotect and paternalize their disabled. Even if a disabled individual wants to learn to be independent and self-sufficient, he [or she] is seldom allowed to do so". (Smart, 1991) Evidence suggests that a lot of the Mexican community delay treatment until illness becomes severe. “Illness can be seen as weakness of character, and the need for treatment is viewed as disgraceful, indicating a loss of pride”. (Smart, 1991) These theories can be directed towards Kahlo who didn’t have her leg amputated until it became gangrenous in 1953, despite living with the effects of childhood polio and fractured right leg, reiterating her choice of costume. Towards the end of her life in a diary entry dated 11th February 1954, she writes “They amputated my leg six months ago, they have given me centuries of torture… Never in my life have I suffered more.” (Budrys, 2006)

In 1953, Kahlo had a prosthetic leg made with red Chinese style embroidered boots, reflecting her eccentricity. Whilst serving as a medical device, these shoes with added bells, dragon motifs and bows were “arguably the most enigmatic and modern objects in the collection.” (Henestrosa, 2018) Additionally, on display were Kahlo’s orthopaedic corsets. With an internally shattered body, corsets held her in place so Kahlo would transform them “into items of great beauty by painting them.”(Jansen, 2018) Instead of ill health defining her, the corsets were fashioned into artwork that she had chosen to wear. One that stood out in the exhibition was her plaster corset depicting the communist logo, and a cut out circular hole around the stomach highlighting the absence of a foetus, reflecting her political views and her inability to have children. Whilst the display of such objects could be perceived as invasive, Kahlo “was prepared to uncover her disability unflinchingly through her art.” (Henestrosa, 2018) This was a contrast to her self-fashioning of Tehuana dress, made up of a long skirt (enagua) and loose blouse (huipil), enabling Kahlo to detract attention from her lower body. This traditional costume provided inspiration for many designers of the time and although it was rarely worn outside of Mexico, Kahlo did. Consequently, she became a fashion icon due to her eclectic style, considered to be a “Mexicanidad approach challenging the largely Eurocentric fashions of the time”.  (André, 2005)

From a mixed heritage background, a Mexican mother and German father – Kahlo’s mother mixed European and Mexican fashions around Frida, predominantly from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec – a matriarchal society that Kahlo embraced due to her own maternal heritage. Many criticised Kahlo for wearing traditional costume and caused a stir amongst much of the public in Mexico. Meeting Kahlo for the first time in the 1930s, Edward Weston states that Kahlo “Dressed in native costume even to huaraches, she causes much excitement on the streets of San Francisco. People stop in their tracks to look in wonder.” (Herrera, 2018) On one occasion, Kahlo also attracted the attention of a group of children asking her “Where is the circus?”. (Kahlo, Frida, s.d. in V&A, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018) Although Kahlo enjoyed combining cultural costume, much of her style borrowed from traditional Tehuana dress that to most Mexicans was an exaggerated representation of Mexican dress. Occasionally toying with American fashions when visiting New York, it was believed

Kahlo didn’t begin wearing traditional dress before meeting Diego Rivera yet, an image of Kahlo’s mother depicts her dressed fully in Tehuana costume and, “the myth that Diego encouraged her to assume this attire began to crumble with (this) discovery”. (Henestrosa, 2018) This idea of ‘fashion’ reflects Kahlo’s identity as an individual who “enjoyed being contradictory” and used clothing as a method of solidifying her identity and political beliefs drawn particularly to the “high rank economic and political positions” (André, 2005) the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec hold within their society.

In 1998, Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection reimagined her look, presenting a postmodern Frida Kahlo combining European, Latin American and traditional Mexican styles, reinterpreted under the label of “primitiveness” and “exoticism”. This highlights Western associations between the ‘exotic’ and exclusivity – which carries many negative connotations – commodifying Kahlo and catering to “the demands of novelty seeking customers” which is essentially what Gaultier has done.  Again, drawing to the theory by socio-critic Mirko Lauer that “the value of indigenous art and culture is only limited to its primitivism and exoticism in relation to the Western perspective”. (André, 2005)At the time Kahlo was developing her relationship with fashion, Mexico started rediscovering its pre-Columbian heritage. One article suggests that Kahlo “appropriated the clothes of the peasant class” (Moore, S. 2018) and during her lifetime, regional diversity was celebrated with an indigenous population of 29%. This is reflective of the costume Kahlo adopted, originating from the region of Oaxaca – one of the poorest states in Mexico. Therefore, it could be perceived that Kahlo wanted to ‘align’ herself with this, and decided to given her Communist stance.

Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera occasionally travelled to America where Rivera often painted murals in different art institutes such as the San Francisco and Detroit Institutes of Art. Accompanying Rivera to the USA for the first time in 1930 however, Kahlo wasn’t completely impressed with ‘Gringolandia’ and often felt unhappy away from Mexico. In the painting ‘Self portrait of Borderline between Mexico and USA’ (1932), Kahlo is dressed as Carmen Rivera (Frida’s baptism name alongside her husband’s surname) in an uncharacteristically elegant pink dress and white gloves. This false demure pretence is also noticeable at a dinner Kahlo and Rivera attended in New York in 1933; she wore a French 1900s cape and skirt made of French silk, velvet and elements of embroidery.

Many of Kahlo’s friends, wives of artists such as ‘Señora Miguel de Covarrubias’ as she is referred to in a 1937 Vogue article – also adopted traditional costume (Figure 8). As an American, Rolanda’s decision to wear it reflects her desire to assimilate with her husband’s Mexican heritage, changing her name from Rosemonde Cowan to Rosa Rolanda, similar to Kahlo as Carmen Rivera. Rolanda also expressed many feminist themes within her paintings, notably traditionally dressed Mexican women demonstrating “the independence and strong character of the Tehuantapec woman.” (Mirkin, D. 2008) Fashion, style and strength of character are prominent in Kahlo’s and other female artists work, demonstrating Kahlo’s role as a catalyst behind these trends. However, according to Mexican art critic and historian Teresa Del Conde, many middle classes in the 20s and 30s wore regional dress, but none as frequently as Kahlo so her adoption of Tehuana dress was careful and considered. (Rosenzweig, D & M. 2015) Previously, Kahlo would dress like a boy “but when I went to see Diego, I would wear my Tehuana outfit. I have never been to Tehuantepec, and Diego hasn’t wanted to take me. I have no relationship with the people there, but of all the outfits, it is the Tehuana form of dress that I like the best” (Rosenzweig, D & M. 2015) Therefore, we can assume whilst Kahlo enjoyed these costumes, she had always disassociated with conventions, and this enabled her to disguise certain aspects of her body, embrace her individuality, and borrow different ‘Mexican’ traditions. “It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her

art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today.” (Newbold, 2018)

Duality is a common theme within Kahlo’s artwork displayed in the exhibition and can be seen in “Two Fridas” a painting that expresses her different personalities – one more Westernised Kahlo holding hands with a traditionally dressed Kahlo. The garments on display at this exhibition also explore the cultures that formed Kahlo’s ‘style’. Many garments were Mexican, but several were acquired from Guatemala, China, Europe and the USA, blending several disparate elements. As we know, Kahlo expressed herself through costume, and as a substitute for different versions of


A fundamental aspect of colonial Mexican culture were 18th century casta paintings. At the time, there were two distinct groups, republica de espanoles (Spanish) and republica de indios (Indian) these paintings depicting mixed race families in a hierarchal manner. Alongside each painting text clarified the race of each family member, drawing attention to the clothing, physical appearance and setting. Considered inappropriate today, at the time Kahlo referred to the casta paintings as inspiration for ‘My Grandparents, My Parents and Me’ painting. Illustrated as a child standing in Casa Azul and as a foetus emerging from her mother’s wedding dress, all family members are linked by a ‘bloodline’. Her parents painted in what seems to be a wedding portrait whilst her grandparents are both depicted over the ocean or desert, referential to casta paintings. Her eclectic dress is not visible here and it’s unclear as to what her background is yet, Kahlo understood the performative aspect of wearing traditional costume. (FridaKahlo.org, 2011) Despite her mother’s Catholic beliefs, Kahlo abandoned it yet still painted herself wearing it. A headpiece known as the resplandor/ ‘small huipil’ is a traditional garment but, Kahlo rarely wore it. Living in a predominantly Catholic society, this piece became a defining characteristic in the nineteenth century however, it can be seen that on occasions she would wear it deliberately to associate with Mexico’s Spanish and Catholic past. At 47 years old,

Kahlo died dressed in a white huipil, hair braided and fingers adorned (Kahlo, Frida, s.d. in V&A, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018) representing how she would have appeared in life despite juxtaposing her neglect of Catholicism. It is also depicted within many of Kahlo’s self-portraits for example, the controversial painting Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937) which could be likened to Mexican vernacular paintings known as retablos, devotional images of Virgin or Christian saints such as the Virgin Mary. (National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2012) Whilst her mother was a devout Catholic, Kahlo’s turbulent life possibly led her to refuse a belief in God. In fact, many believe she was an atheist and it is implied in her poem: “Your absence/ Kills me, making/a virtue/ of your memory/ You are the nonexisting/ God.” (Levine & Stephen, 2009) It could be that Kahlo requested to be dressed in traditional Catholic costume as she “appreciated its drama”. (Kahlo, Frida, s.d. in V&A, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018)  

As a communist, Kahlo dressed as a comrade leading a march for the union of discuss how this relates to her use of indigenous dress Mexican technical workers, painters and sculptors etc. in 1954. (Kahlo, Frida, s.d. in V&A, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018) Her beliefs were contrast to that of many, even decorating her bed with the images of communist leaders such as Stalin and Marx. Apparently “when she first met Diego Rivera she was wearing communist red shirts, trousers and simple skirts…The first image we see of her wearing a full length dress is her wedding portrait.” (Newbold, 2018) Yet it could be that Kahlo “was able to perceive the semiotic quality of clothing…Kahlo used traditional dress to strengthen her identity while simultaneously reaffirming her political beliefs.” (Henestrosa, 2018) These different aspects of Kahlo’s life all converge in order to make “herself up”. Kahlo’s relationship with fashion is renowned for its traditional ‘Mexican-ness’ and this runs alongside her political philosophy. Whilst this was not necessarily a simple relationship due to its controversiality, it enabled Kahlo to draw attention to herself as an artist and as an object of art through her dress. Her costume was yet another way of displaying her political beliefs, mixing European garments with a traditional huipil and Pre-Columbian jewellery. The rebozo, another garment Kahlo wore frequently (introduced by Spanish colonizers during the time of Christopher Columbus) was reworked by Aztec villages then worn by women of the Mexican Revolution during the 1910s. Popular among the female revolutionaries known as ‘adelitas’, used scarves to smuggle guns past government checkpoints, this scarf became a symbol of Mexico’s history; thus, it could be understood that Kahlo was honouring both pre-colonial and post-revolutionary women. (Komar, 2018)

As a whole, it could be seen that Kahlo was very much an icon due to her unique approach to fashion and art, her identity and turbulent lifestyle and these factors are raised in the exhibition. The idea that herself and art almost merged into one becomes prevalent due to her style, political views and artwork. Quoted on the walls of the exhibition it reads, Kahlo “remains an object of fascination, embraced both for her fierce individuality and her defiance in the face of adversity. Above all, she is renowned for her self-made image, for making her self up”. (‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, 2018)

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