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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up
Frida Kahlo with magenta rebozo, 1939Photography Nickolas Muray, © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

What Frida Kahlo’s clothing tells us about fashion’s disability frontier

The way the feminist artist dressed her broken body can tell us something about what fashion can – and should – do for the disabled

Like magic, the disability that would profoundly shape Frida Kahlo’s life began with a puff of glitter. On her way home from school with her then-boyfriend in September 1925, the bus she was riding collided with a tram. The 18-year-old was struck through the pelvis by a metal handrail. One fellow passenger was a local artisan, whose bag of gold dust was thrown up on impact. The beautiful horror of Frida Kahlo’s impaled body, kissed with gold all over like a divine fresco, is one that speaks to her life as a disabled person, in which fashion and adornment could make beauty out of pain, and ultimately allow the artist to take possession of her situation.

There’s no better place to make sense of such contradictions than Mexico, a culture where death lies so close to the beating heart of life, and the deceased are celebrated in bright, polychromatic body paint, artificial flowers, and cathartic parades that burst forth in the streets. Death is always close, for anyone, but in Mexico it kind of gets under your skin.

When I told friends I was going to Mexico City ahead of this month’s V&A exhibition – entitled Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up – there was nobody who had not heard of her. She is, after all, the most famous female artist of all time (in fact, she’s one of the most famous artists full stop, but her gender is inextricable from her confessional, feminist works that speak to the pain of womanhood like no other). But I did find that few realised she was physically disabled. After suffering from polio aged six, Kahlo was already familiar with the awkwardness of a weakened, growing body. But in the bus accident, she sustained a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, a crushed foot, and a dislocated shoulder. The metal rail, in the cruellest twist, pierced her abdomen and her uterus, leading to the infertility that was well-documented in her paintings.

That few people realise the extent of Kahlo’s disability is testament to the image of awesome strength she projected (an image of able-bodiedness in part helped along by Salma Hayek’s seductive, salsa-dancing portrayal in Hollywood biopic Frida in 2002). Through the hundreds of photographs of Kahlo taken throughout her life – André Breton, Edward Weston, and Nickolas Muray are just some of the famous photographers who obsessed over her image – she was able to spread a self-made iconicity that detracted the gaze from her bodily weaknesses. Looking at some of the photos on display at the Blue House in Mexico City – the iconic, azure-hued home where Kahlo was born, grew up, lived with artist husband Diego Rivera and, later, died – it’s the directness of Kahlo’s gaze that strikes you the most. In one photo by Lucienne Bloch, she bites at her necklace while staring right through you; in a shot on a Manhattan roof with Nickolas Muray, who was her lover, she holds a cigarette and shoots someone outside the frame a perceptible side-eye.

But at least some of this spirit of modernity, where her love of the camera seems to speak to our own self-aware, constantly photographed lives, actually derives from Kahlo's pain. The defiant, straight-backed posture was as much due to a back brace she was forced to wear to support her spinal column as it was her confidence; the iconic floral adornments of her face and hair, a ploy to distract viewers from her practically destroyed legs and crumbling upper body.

Some of this awareness of the power of self-image may have come from her father, who was a photographer by trade and taught baby Frida how to pose. What’s more, during her months of confinement to a bed after the bus accident, Kahlo mastered the art of self-obsession. Every day, while she lay horizontally (you can see the bed she was confined to in the Blue House), she gazed into a mirror above the bed: at her own body, and her own face. This circling of her self-image and identity would contribute hugely to her art when she later came to pick up the paintbrush: her self-portraits bleed on to the page with references to her marriage, her infertility, and her disability. But in another, less discussed way, that time spent peering into the mirror contributed to the creation of a self-image that would not be defined by suffering. Much like a generation of young people today, Frida knew how a constructed self-image could empower; and the worse she felt, the more she drew attention to her clothing.

“Frida was aware of the power of clothes from a very young age,” says Circe Henestrosa, the co-curator of the V&A show who created the exhibition’s originator. “Her fragmented body would inform her wardrobe as much as it was to inform the constant pain of her existence and the core of her art.” In the V&A exhibition – which offers a more personal glimpse into Kahlo’s interiority by showing her clothes, jewellery, make-up, medicines, and prosthetics alongside some of the visceral paintings they feature in – Kahlo’s disability plays a central role to Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox’s curation.

Such an exhibition couldn’t have happened without the discovery of Kahlo’s belongings in the Blue House in 2004. The clothing was hidden away in a bathroom for 50 years, and only when it was finally opened was a reassessment of Kahlo’s identity possible. Finally, the victim narrative that prevailed in pop culture around Kahlo could be reassessed: for instance, the idea that she was victim to Rivera’s frequent adultery could be revised, given that her personal letters revealed the multiple – multiple – affairs with men and women that Kahlo herself was having. What’s more, in the discovery, Kahlo’s intense love for Rivera, her identity, and her joy for life all came through as they had not been able to before – in essence, the objects feel true to her life, divorced from the narrative that historians had projected on to her. (Then again, unlike the pale, stale males of history, teen girls in art class have always sensed that innate badass-ness without the need for written proof.)

Kahlo found herself in possession of an unruly body from the age of six and, as such, her approach to fashion was defined by it throughout her childhood and adult life. The polio in her childhood meant she had a withered and slightly shorter right leg, leading to her signature choice of long skirts. She would always wear three or four socks on her thinner calf, and shoes with a built-up heel, to redress the balance. On display in the V&A, you’ll see a pair of heeled boots notable for, along with the uneven heel height, their cut-out toes on one of the shoes – customised by Kahlo so her swollen toes could breathe. (The necessity of DIY adjustments is just one element of the artist’s clothing that remains relevant to physically disabled individuals across generations.)

Beyond the level of customisation, clothing became key to how Kahlo shaped her identity in a more meaningful way: intertwining her disability with her political beliefs. Kahlo’s distinctive look derives from her adoption of Tehuana dress, which originates in Oaxaca, a south-easterly region of Mexico famously hard to pronounce for the uninitiated. The clothing is formed of three parts: a square blouse, a long, wide skirt, and elaborate, built-up hair. By dressing in this way, she expressed her Tehuanan ethnic roots on her mother’s side, a statement that sent a message of self-determination for the indigenous people of Mexico. But it also intersects with her disability. The long skirts meant she could hide her withered legs, the geometric square blouse and shawls covered the rigid construction of her medical corsets and back brace underneath, and the (much-imitated) plaits adorned with flowers and custom headpieces – along with that famous unibrow – detracted the gaze from her bodily abnormalities. This distinctive dress, which ran contrary to her contemporaries’ European-influenced clothing, expressed her revolutionary spirit on behalf of the people of Mexico, but also reflects her bodily reality in the most specific of ways. (Her 1939 masterpiece, “The Two Fridas”, is a good example of the contrast between a more Eurocentric way of dressing and the airy, comfortable Tehuanan dress.)

But the medical corsets and prosthetics that appear in Making Her Self Up tell yet another story – one where, by adorning what was actually hidden to the eye, Kahlo crafted her own personal symbolism that remained a secret between her and her body. When I saw the plaster-made, surgical corset that would be on display at the show this month up close, the details were unsettling, but extremely moving: the chalky surface is painted with a red hammer and sickle (Kahlo and Rivera were noted communists) and the tender image of a foetus where her womb would be. “Frida’s relationship to the corset is one of support and need – her body (was) dependent on medical attention – but also one of rebellion,” says Henestrosa, who points out she would have had to paint them while she wore them, which seems difficult. “By decorating (them) she makes them appear as an explicit choice.”

Elsewhere in the show, there’s a delicate-looking back brace made of cotton gauze – but it’s made of steel underneath. The pain and discomfort of that brace, which Kahlo always had to attach to her bones, is something seen most vividly in the painting “The Broken Column” (1944), a self-portrait in a lonely green landscape where X-Ray vision reveals the crumbling spine at the centre of her body as though it were an ancient temple. (In the painting, Kahlo is crying.)

The most brilliant object of Kahlo’s in the exhibition is one that, appearing very close to her death in the summer of 1954, was one of her final statements of determination to adorn herself even when at her absolute lowest. Kahlo’s right leg became gangrenous in 1953, and had to be amputated below the knee. In a lifetime of over 30 surgeries in the USA and in Mexico City, and a near-constant battling of pain, having to wear a prosthetic seems to have been a final devastating blow. But even then, Kahlo made her prosthetic leg into a statement of her identity. “With (the prosthetic leg), Frida is taking possession of something functional and ugly and making something beautiful and moving,” says Wilcox. The leg has a bright-red boot with bottle-green, Chinese silk embroidery in pink and white; the boot is lace-up and fits perfectly, and the wedge heels are the same height, like a corrective for her normally mismatched leg length. The fact that the long skirts Kahlo wore would cover the boots anyway is why their deliberate adornment is so key.

As Wilcox, who also curated the V&A’s Alexander McQueen exhibition in 2015, would know, that fiercely tender prosthetic leg brings to mind another powerful moment of disabled representation in fashion – one that intersects with Dazed’s own history, too. It’s 20 years since Nick Knight, Alexander McQueen, and Katy England put bilateral amputee Aimee Mullins, featured in a photoshoot alongside other physically disabled individuals, on the cover of Dazed for the Fashion-able issue. For the shoot, McQueen asked contemporaries including Hussein Chalayan, Rei Kawakubo, and Philip Treacy to make custom pieces for each person. As Katy England recalled for Dazed in 2015, the experience was humbling. “We had achieved what we set out to achieve, (to prove) that beauty can be found in difference.”

Mullins walked in McQueen’s SS99 show wearing two carved prosthetic legs, a bold visual statement that celebrated the beauty of extreme difference without it feeling like a novelty. McQueen’s interest in disabled representation wasn’t a play for sensationalism; within the show, what was most powerful was how her appearance in the legs went unnoticed, as the real ‘show’ was when Shalom Harlow was sprayed by robotic arms at the end. At the time, Mullins said, “His clothes have always been very sensuous, and I mean the full gamut of that. So hard and strict and unrelenting, as life can be sometimes,” a statement that seems to relate to Kahlo’s own situation and unflinching approach to dressing.

But, as Henestrosa describes, fashion hasn’t gone far enough since the days of McQueen in terms of representation – and recognition – of disabled individuals. “The way we see disabled bodies has to change,” she asserts. “After the Fashion-able issue, in 1998, there was nothing else written in the context of fashion and disability until 2012! (McQueen) wanted to make a statement and question not only the way we design for different bodies, but also the way we look at bodies.”

For Henestrosa, fashion has the power to generate new visual languages that can break barriers of visibility traditionally associated with disabled bodies. But how do we get there, and who is responsible? In 2018, disabled voices are bringing ableism to the centre of the diversity conversation in fashion. Last month, Sinéad Burke covered Business of Fashion’s print magazine in a cover set alongside Kim Kardashian West. Having come to prominence last year via her powerful, must-watch Ted talk, “Why Design Should Include Everyone”, she has become an outspoken activist for little people. In an interview with Tim Blanks, she made her case for fashion brands to be more inclusive, saying, “It no longer makes financial sense just to accommodate the bell curve of society, because people invest in people. Which means they’re more and more willing to invest in a brand with a human story.” Aaron Philip, a trans teenager from the Bronx who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, has amassed nearly 20,000 followers with her self-portraits and proud message of the need for inclusivity in fashion. “The important next step is to give people with disabilities and marginalised people a space for consumption, appreciation and productivity within the fashion world,” she told me over email. “Cast models in wheelchairs and mobility aids in big high-fashion shows. Make retail lines more accessible for people with disabilities. Make our presence known!”

In the end, what makes Frida Kahlo’s bold approach to dress so inspiring is not only that she made art out of her fundamental difference from others, but that she actually, through clothing, formed a kind of a strength and self-sufficiency from it too. She took absolute charge of her own image and represented herself, rather than merely being a subject of a non-disabled gaze; in fact, you can’t help but see her mass of photographs, which will be on display at the V&A show, as a precursor to the current way in which social media is empowering the physically disabled. But beyond social media representation, fashion design now can – and should – help disabled individuals in a very real way, an opinion shared by Aaron Philip. “I always knew that being disabled is not something negative and was never really a fault or my fault to begin with,” she explains. “The fashion world is obligated to be more inclusive – and to take risks.”

Writing in a book of Frida Kahlo’s personal archive of photos, writer Maurizio Ortiz calls the mirror “the body’s most immediate reference”, and desire “its most complex one”: “There are between them numberless ways for the body to become aware of itself and find its own reason to be.” After months gazing at herself in the mirror following her accident, Kahlo used clothing to find a way for her body to be, and for her to become her truest self. It’s an important example of the ways in which dress can offer self-determination and strength to those who are not able-bodied. Finding joy in difference is something a younger generation of disabled youths online are leading by example on. As per Aaron Philip and Sinéad Burke’s examples, it’s the next diversity frontier to smash – and the first step has to be visibility.

When Kahlo’s leg had to be amputated in 1953, she wrote in her diary, “Feet? What do I want them for, when I have wings to fly.” The icon’s technique of fashion-as-survival is a lesson in how adapted forms of clothing can not only meet the specific needs of the physically disabled, but empower them at the same time. And, what’s more, disabled people may want to adorn themselves, to take charge of that choice. Ultimately, it’s the people who make our clothes who should take their cues from Frida Kahlo’s beautiful, painted, sparkling, broken body.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, is at the V&A June 16–November 4