Garments and accessories, even the simplest ones that we wear on an everyday basis, help us building our identities. But if fashion is a language that enables someone to send signals to other people, then it is possible to explore someone's personality and life just by examining their own wardrobe. In a way that's one of the main points behind a new exhibition celebrating Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Entitled “Appearances can be deceiving: Frida Kahlo's wardrobe”, the exhibition opened in November at the Casa Azul - now the Museo Frida Kahlo - in the Coyoacán district on the southern part of Mexico City.
Co-curated by Circe Henestrosa and Hilda Trujillo, Director of the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera-Anahuacalli Museum, the exhibition bears a title inspired by a sentence - Las aparencias engañan - written by the artist herself under one of her drawings that remained unknown for nearly half a century. The drawing portrayed the artist as if she had been X-rayed: under an ample skirt and blouse, her naked body revealed a cage-like corset that braced her spine and a leg symbolically covered with butterflies.
Kahlo often hinted in her works at pain and at the numerous operations she had in her life and the exhibition attempts to reconstruct her identity through a moving selection of garments and personal objects that were found in 2004 in the chests and closets inside the bathroom of the Casa Azul, the house where Kahlo was born and where she died.
The collection on display is divided in different rooms and themes, starting from the early origins of Kahlo's style and following its developments, chronicled also through photographs. Items displayed - some of them restored employing high quality materials - include everyday clothes, shawls, aprons, blouses, skirts, embroidered huipiles and accessories such as jewellery, laces and collections of ribbons and balls of wools that helped the artist creating her trademark hairdos.
Though colourful and apparently cheerful, the traditional Mexican clothes (Kahlo once stated she dressed like a Tehuana because that was her favourite Mexican costume, even though she used many different versions of the traditional dress) and eclectic combinations of textures, ruffles and laces that the artist favoured also helped her hiding her wounded and suffering body.
Physical pain became the starting point to build a new identity for the artist and the garments on display at the museum turn into a way to read through the tragedies Kahlo went through in her life, from suffering polio at the age of six, which left her right leg useless for her entire life, and that prompted her to wear long skirts, 3-4 socks on her thinner leg and shoes with a higher heel, to the accident she suffered in 1925, when the bus she was riding crashed with a tram causing her permanent damage.
The exhibition reveals this contrast pretty well by exploring the themes of ethnicity and disability, juxtaposing her dresses to her medicines, her prosthetic leg still wearing a handmade Chinese style embroidered boot, and her corsets looking like cages.
The former will easily identify some of the clothes on display as appearing in specific paintings and self- portraits including Mi vestido cuelga ahí (1933) Diego en mi pensamiento (1943) or Autorretrato con medallón (1948).
Those who may not be too knowledgeable about Kahlo, will easily understand how her manner of dressing became a part of her personality, a way to assert her independent creative nature and describe the relationship the artist had with her body.
Another aspect explored by the exhibition is Kahlo's influence upon fashion, tackled through contemporary fashion designs and corsets by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons and Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy.
This aspect of the exhibition was somehow inspired by a portrait taken by photographer and Frida Kahlo's lover Nickolas Muray in the late '30s (and recently used as the cover of the November 2012 issue of Vogue México - the magazine is also one of the sponsors of the exhibition) and by an image by American fashion photographer Toni Frissell published in Vogue USA in October 1937 showing the artst in front of a maguey plant, in a long white skirt, emerald blouse and red shawl.
Can you tell us more about the background of this exhibition - what inspired it and how long have you been researching it?
Circe Henestrosa: I have a very close relationship with the Tehuana dress, which is the ethnic dress Kahlo used to wear. My family on my father's side comes from the Tehuantepec Istmus in Oaxaca and this dress originates from over there. It is a matriarchal society and the women who administrate it are powerful and their dress symbolises empowerment. I am a wearer of this dress too; I have my own dresses that I wear for very for special occasions. My great uncle Andres Henestrosa and my aunt Alfa Rios, were very close friends of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and later I learned that my aunt, who was a native from the Tehuantepec Istmus, had given Frida one of her first dresses. She was among other friends one of the many people who brought dresses from this region to Frida. So my own personal relationship to this dress inspired me to conduct this research, which has taken more than 3 years to complete in the form of this exhibition.
How many items are featured in the exhibition and were they all taken from the museum archives?
Circe Henestrosa: There were around 300 items discovered in the bathroom among blouses, skirts, jewellery pieces, orthopedic devices, shoes and other personal belongings of the artist. The exhibition displays around 170 items in total. There are 9 looks of Frida's dresses displayed that will rotate every 5 months to give people the possibility to see as much of Kahlo's personal garments and 'looks'.
Which are your favourite ones and why?
Circe Henestrosa: Her sunglasses and shoes. These items really reveal how avant-garde she was for her time. But I really like the whole archive - as a whole it is very beautiful and shows Mexico's textile heritage, combined with some American, European and Chinese pieces as well.
According to you, what’s the most beautiful or most touching item exhibited?
Circe Henestrosa: Her prosthetic leg from 1953. This is the leg she wore almost at the end of her life when she got her right leg amputed. If you read the last pages of her diary you will realise not only the physical trauma this event caused to her, but you will also see the traces of the psychological trauma. Kahlo dealt with her physical imperfections through dress and adornment all her life, but by 1953 when she lost her leg she could not recover from this physical loss.
What fascinates you personally about Frida Kahlo's dresses: the patterns, colours, silhouettes, use of materials or the construction employed to adapt the clothes to her body?
Circe Henestrosa: Everything, even though as I said, I have a personal fascination with the Tehuana dress - that is a very special one for me. When you wear it you feel like a queen. I can understand why Kahlo chose this particular dress for herself. Apart from its adornment and construction from the torso up, with these necklaces and amazing crown of flowers on her head, it truly looks like a unique dress.
What did you learn while researching for this exhibition that you didn’t know about Frida Kahlo?
Circe Henestrosa: I understood how she developed her distinctive style as an amalgam of traditional Mexican and European fashion as well as the fundamental effects of her disabilities.
In which way do you think that Frida Kahlo's dresses influenced fashion designers decade after decade?
Circe Henestrosa: I think what has influenced different designers and artists is her style. She was a very forward-looking woman, she chose to wear a traditional ethnic dress in a time when fashion was looking at Europe and Hollywood and when everything 'foreign' was appreciated in Mexico. She instead chose a style that helped her portray her political beliefs and 'mexicanidad', a dress that made her look very Mexican, but that also helped her disguise her physical imperfections.
What do you think visitors who will see this exhibition will bring back home?
Circe Henestrosa: I hope our visitors will learn more about Kahlo as a person through her intimate universe. She was a very delicate, feminine and sophisticated woman. The artist who has left long lasting impressions of herself through her art, has also left long lasting impressions in our minds through her persona. This show tells us a little bit more about that, Kahlo as a person, as a woman.
1. Las Apariencias Engañan, Drawing by Frida Kahlo
2./3. Displays in Room 2, Casa Azul
4. Right leg prosthesis with red boot in Chinese style, 1953
5. Plaster cast corset, 1954
6. Mi vestido cuelga ahí (1933), Frida Kahlo
7. Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray
8. Cabinet of curiosities: tiara with aluminum roses and green linen leaves; Chinese style boot; Pre-Hispanic necklace in jadeite and green stones; black suede shoes
9. Hairdo by Angelo Seminara
10. Black suede shoes
11. Jewellery: Pre-hispanic necklace with zoomorphic figure from Campeche or Yucatán; cameo with pill box with floral motifs and river pearls, Colombia; necklace with twisted gold thread and pill box with floral motifs and river pearls.
12. Dai Rees, Natural leather corset, 2012
13. Orthopaedic corset over silk dress, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Spring/Summer 2004
14. Silk georgette embroidered evening gown and goat hair jacket, Givenchy Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2010
15. Hairdo by Angelo Seminara
Images 2-5 and 8-15 by Miguel Tovar
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