Style Icon of the West: Frida Kahlo
Sepia photos Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty 1940; black and white Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty 1950
An inspiration to women everywhere and a key figure in shaping Mexico’s post-colonial identity, Frida Kahlo possessed a fashion sense as striking as her painted imagery
Who She Was
Born on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1907 to a German father and a mother of mixed Spanish and Indigenous descent, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was best known in her own lifetime for being Diego Rivera’s husband. In the last few decades, though, the times have caught up to her work. Her paintings, which were executed in a seemingly unsophisticated folk-art style and draped in surrealist whimsy, are now seen as subversive statements on Mexican identity, class, and gender that are every bit as significant as those of her spotlight-loving spouse. Interestingly, art was not Kahlo’s first choice of profession; until the age of 18 she wanted to be a doctor. A bus accident that year nearly killed her and put an end to her formal schooling; drawing and painting were a childhood interest she returned to while recuperating. Themes of suffering were central to much of her work, but messages of pride and perseverance are there, too, making her a patron saint claimed by feminists, the Latinx community, Indigenous Americans, and her many LGBT fans. She died in 1954 at the age of 47, having never fully recovered from the accident she had as a teenager.
What She Wore
Most photographs of Kahlo are in black and white, but her many painted self-portraits clue us in on her colorful personal style. At a time when it was stylish for Mexicans to try to look as European as possible, Kahlo proudly wore long traditional peasant skirts, pre-Columbian jewelry, and Tehuantepec headdresses from Oaxaca, where her mother was born. These style decisions served two purposes: To make the tiny artist stand out against the monolithic presence that was her famous and physically hulking husband, and to proudly align herself with an emerging Mexican post-revolutionary identity. Though her style never became mainstream, Frida Kahlo’s influence on fashion may be as strong as her impact on the art world for having shown the underrepresented new ways to be seen.
For more images of Frida Kahlo, visit our new favorite rabbit hole, the Google Arts & Culture platform.