agenda by The Editors

reading time 3 minutes

Adornment of the body is perhaps the most intimate form of art. Linking the self to the senses, the social and the political while expressing personal and collective identities and all the ways in which they intersect. Frida Kahlo was a master of adornment. Throughout her life, she transformed her tragedy into beauty; her resilience manifested in her sartorial choices, as much as it did in her artwork. Using her body as a canvas, Kahlo constructed and reconstructed her identity. She empowered herself, as a woman, an artist, an activist and a person with disabilities – existing without limitations. Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum and exhibition co-curator of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up says of Kahlo “Nothing is accidental, she took control of her identity. She was the subject of herself.”

Installation image of Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up,(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Kahlo was born in the Coyoacan neighbourhood of Mexico City, in a newly built house called Casa Azul. At 6, she contracted polio. At 18, a trolley car rammed into the bus she was riding, and the accident shattered her spine and left her right leg permanently injured. The lasting pain and immobility became central to her creative expression. Her artwork became a language for liberation from the physical and emotional pain. Yet in her appearance, she refused to be defined by her disability, carefully masking her medical corsets and supportive back braces. Even her prosthetic leg wore a red leather boot decorated with bows, bells and silk embroidered Chinese dragon motifs, transforming it into an avant-garde object that wouldn’t look out of place on an Alexander McQueen runway today.

Installation image of Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up,(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

As a child of the revolution, Kahlo was a fierce activist, and the presentation and performance of self was an integral part. She favoured indigenous styles from the Tehuantepec region, a matriarchal society that both empowered her and grounded her as a descendant of collective Mexican ancestors. Adorned in colourful Tehuana blouses and skirts and pre-Columbian necklaces, these indigenous textiles and objects gave her emotional strength and a strong sense of personal identity. Her sartorial decisions were a conscious act of cultural pride, meaningful and part of a wider dialogue. She didn’t just take the costumes; she made them her own. This styling served to express her allegiance to Mexico and her mixed-race heritage at home and demonstrated her endorsement of the country’s hard-fought independence while she travelled abroad.

Installation image of Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up,(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Of all her features, it was Kahlo’s eyebrows which became her unique signifier of non-conformity. She accentuated her unibrow with pencil challenging one-dimensional constructs of gender. She played on her idiosyncrasies rather than hiding them, enhancing her teeth, facial hair and brows in her paintings. Even as a child, we see her experiment with androgyny, dressing up in her father’s suits for family photographs. Her way of life was a celebration of intersectionality, a term that didn’t exist in her lifetime, yet she embraced her own contradictions and fluidity with ease. 

Despite occupying a fragile body, Frida Kahlo created a life full of joyous self-expression. She expanded ideas of beauty, gender and women’s liberation. Her powerful take on style was as vital to her legacy as her artwork—evidence of a life which while complex, and sometimes painful was an artistic triumph. “I leave you my portrait,” Frida wrote “So that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you”. 

Casa Azul, 1943

Moleskine celebrates Frida Kahlo with a Limited Edition Collection. Discover more here.

share article

Other agendas

Most read