Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of the word fashion? Rarely, if ever, is that word disabled for the vast majority of the world. Disability affects hundreds of families throughout the world. Often, people living with a disability enjoy many of the same pleasures of life as those living without a disability. People living with a disability interact with material culture in the same way as everyone else, many find joy, enlightenment, and empowerment through the objects they interact with. The exhibit Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo explores the delicate balance of constructing one’s own identity while living with a disability through tradition, health contraptions, and fashion.

A buckled corset and prosthetic limb worn by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, now on display in her former home in Mexico City.
A buckled corset and prosthetic limb worn by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, now on display in her former home in Mexico City.

On November 24, 2014, the Frida Kahlo Museum, also known as “Casa Azul,” opened the never before seen Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo exhibition revealing the hidden world of the iconic artist. In collaboration with Vogue Mexico, the exhibit highlights the private details of Kahlo’s life and disability. Frida Kahlo’s Dresses displays 300 corsets, clothes prosthesis, and health contraptions worn by Kahlo to disguise her disability. The featured objects were locked away for over 50 years, since her death in 1954, at age 47. [1] The exhibition will run on site at the Frida Kahlo Museum in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City until May 2015.

Intentionally entitled “Appearances can be Deceiving”, the exhibition essentially highlights the truer side of Kahlo’s flamboyant style. Kahlo contracted polio when she was young, and the disease stunted the growth of her right leg. In 1925, she incurred several injuries due to a near fatal bus crash at the age of 18; Frida Kahlo’s physical condition confined her for extended periods to a bed or wheelchair. She had her right leg amputated in 1953 due to gangrene, a year before her death. The effort to conceal her disability and overcome the trauma had a direct impact on her style and self-awareness. Hilda Trujillo Soto, the director of the Frida Kahlo Museum, rediscovered the artist wardrobe in 2004 after years of storage specifically requested by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband. The exhibition, curated by Circe Henestrosa, explores the personal belongings and garments that shaped Frida Kahlo’s identity as an artist and a woman. Her clothing aimed for style and self-protection, especially true of the Tehuana dresses Kahlo wore.

The Tehuana dress originated in Oaxaca, a southeastern region of Mexico.
The Tehuana dress originated in Oaxaca, a southeastern region of Mexico.

According to Henestrosa, “for Frida Kahlo, the Tehuana traditional dress was not only an object that she adapted to her body to hide her imperfections, but something she fused with and wore like a second skin.” [2] The Tehuana dress tradition came to symbolize female power in a matriarchal society; Kahlo molded the dress over time to reflect her own narrative of identity. [3]

The Frida Kahlo Museum makes it clear that “the style and dress of Kahlo were the result of her strong sense of identity, an identity carefully constructed from physical pain, something so obviously reflected in her work.” [4] The Dresses of Frida Kahlo also highlights the strong relationship between Kahlo and her corsets, one of “support and need.” She did not allow the corsets to “define her as an invalid, Kahlo decorated and adorned her corsets, making them appear as an explicit choice and including them in the construction of her looks as an essential piece.” [5]

Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo

The Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo never tried to hide the pain she experienced throughout her life. Her surrealist self-portraits and paintings always portrayed exactly what Kahlo was experiencing in her life. Because of her disabilities, Kahlo spent a great deal of time alone in isolation, she once said in an interview, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” [6] Frida Kahlo mastered the fear of being alone and used her disability as inspirations for her work. She learned to love herself completely and created a positive image of her beauty through her clothing attire. The exhibit makes a powerful statement becomes it humanizes an icon, making Kahlo into a woman everyone can relate to in one way or another. It is a fashion exhibit built around themes of disability. Exhibitions such as Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo are important because they discuss the whole person, not just outside appearances. Highlighting the fact that people with disabilities are not “needy” or consumers of service, but are human beings who have something to offer to the world at large. The exhibit calls audiences to reconsider how they construct their own identity and those around them, through the imperfections they try to hide. Frida Kahlo was more than her disability; she was an artist who continues to inspire people all over the world.

[1] Martha De Lacy, “Communist Corsets, Prosthetic Legs and Colourful Dresses.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2239100/Frida-Kahlos-fascinating-wardrobe-exhibited-home-shared-Diego-Rivera-Mexico-City.html.

[2] Circe Henestrosa, “Appearances can be Deceiving,” http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/assets/files/page_files/document/133/FILE_2_4.pdf.

[3] “Appearances can be Deceiving,” Grey Magazine, http://grey-magazine.com/appearances-can-be-deceiving-the-dresses-of-frida-kahlo.

[4] Circe Henestrosa, “She Transcends Her Modern Legacy,” http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/assets/files/page_files/document/133/FILE_2_1.pdf.

[5] Circe Henestrosa, “The Corset: Art and the Avant-Garde,” http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/assets/files/page_files/document/133/FILE_2_4.pdf.

[6] Mes,syNessy, “Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe Unlocked and on Display After Nearly 60 Years,” http://www.messynessychic.com/2013/01/08/frida-kahlos-wardrobe-unlocked-and-on-display-after-nearly-60-years/.

2 thoughts on “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo

  1. I’d love to see this exhibition. It sounds like a fascinating look at a woman I know little about. I find it interesting that the exhibit is titled “The Dresses of Frida Kahlo”, but also includes corsets, prosthetics, and braces. I wonder why the exhibit title only focuses on the fashion side? Is it because people are still uncomfortable with disability being a prominent theme, or just because they couldn’t think of a catchier name?

    I’d also like to know why her fashion items were locked away for fifty years. Was that Kahlo’s, her husband’s, or someone else’s choice? I wonder what Kahlo would think if she knew these items were on display today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s