SEven in Montparnasse her picturesque appearance is striking, Wassily Kandinsky remarked when he met Frida Kahlo in Paris in 1939. At the invitation of André Breton, the Mexican painter took part in the group exhibition “Mexique” and met Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and many other artists, whom she impressed with her biographically based, folk art-inspired surrealist paintings, but at least as much thanks to her extraordinary appearance. With flowers and ribbons in her braided hair, her long skirts and colorful tunics, the beautiful woman caused a stir in the capital.
The Paris fashion museum Palais Galliera shows how she consciously shaped her style in the exhibition “Frida Kahlo, au-delà des apparences” (Beyond appearances). Only until the end of December will this be supplemented by a special show, which is also the subject of the catalogue, and which traces the artist’s influence on fashion.
Little Frida was familiar with putting herself in the limelight from an early age. Her father, an architectural photographer, often had his daughter pose in front of the camera. Later it was well-known artists who were friends with him, such as Gisèle Freund, Man Ray, Edward Weston and Nickolas Muray, who depicted her, also for magazines such as “Vogue”.
Clothing served the artist to stage her self-portrait and to express her political concerns; by wearing regional costumes, she acknowledged Mexico, its pre-Columbian culture and its indigenous peoples. She combined Tehuana clothing with its finely woven shawls and long skirts, beneath which white, pleated ruffles shone, with high-necked European blouses in the governess style, and she wore plenty of pre-Columbian jewelery and American accessories.
Many of the very well preserved pieces presented on figurines are embroidered with geometric ornaments or flowers, in boldly combined colors. In several paintings she depicted herself in a resplandor, a headdress worn by indigenous women on ceremonial occasions, which surrounds the face like a ray of light and takes up a Christian motif.
Resplandor literally means shine
But the choice of her clothes, especially the silhouette, also had very practical reasons. As a child, Frida Kahlo contracted polio, which resulted in a shortened and thinner leg. At the age of 21, the terrible accident followed, in which a metal rod drilled through her pelvis and brought her many operations and lifelong pain. The long skirts hid her greaves and heels of different heights, the baggy tunics and orthopedic steel corsets. In her hospital bed, she painted her plaster corsets with flowers, but also with a hammer and sickle. However, Kahlo was undaunted by the physical pain and grief caused by the affairs of her husband, the painter Diego Rivera.
In the touching show, the women stand reverently in front of the prostheses and corsets on display, the orthopedic shoes painted with flowers, pain medication and cosmetics, the letters, notes and photographs, in short, Kahlo’s personal belongings. Fifty years after her death they were locked in the bathroom of her house, the Casa Azul, only in 2004, as Rivera wanted, was the room allowed to be opened.
Interest in the artist and the person has never ceased because her themes still concern us today. Your playful handling of gender attributes, for example. More than a third of her paintings are self-portraits, in which she often emphasized her strong eyebrows and lady’s beard even more. Photographs show her as a teenager in a three-piece suit and jeans. She was not interested in conventions, and she often had relationships with women. All of that without the gender superstructure of our days.
This icon of feminism has continued to influence fashion designers, such as Jean Paul Gaultier, who was inspired by the boning of her steel corset for a bodice in 1998. Repurposing a medical device associated with excruciating pain into a sexy evening dress seems at least odd. More appropriately, Maria Grazia Chiuri teamed a black leather bodice with a long white skirt for the Dior Cruise 2019 collection, creating an androgynous, elegant outfit. In the same year, Valentino presented a dress with a resplandor that lets the wearer disappear into a cocoon.
On the other hand, Erdem, who two years ago showed long dresses with puffed sleeves, flounces and broderie anglaise, designed very closely to the painter’s playful, cheerful and colorful folklore outfits, which could be seen in shops and on the street in a very similar way last summer. Frida Kahlo is certainly not the only one who enjoys the clothes of other cultures, even if she is a shining example.
Frida Kahlo, au delà des apparences. Palais Galliera, Paris; until March 5, 2023. The catalog costs 42 euros.
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