Exhibition Review: Frida Kahlo: Fashion As The Art of Being
The Fashion Institute of Technology (New York, NY), November 3, 2016
I arrived at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s "Fashion Culture: Frida Kahlo: Fashion As The Art of Being" lecture with an ardent appreciation of the legendary Mexican artist. Or, Frida, as I always think of her. Like an old friend. The year I was introduced to her, I crafted an entirely hand sewn doll in her likeness and painted a little wooden one too. I’ve styled my hair after her braided crown. My personal library boasts books about her paintings, her life and her influence on fashion, and I encounter references to her almost daily, from Frida-inspired graffiti in Bushwick to art projects at my children’s school. Mostly, though, when I lack the courage to make a tough decision, I wonder what Frida would do. Would she master that fear and channel it into a painting?
I felt certain that I would delight in glimpses of guest speaker Susana Martínez Vidal’s beautiful book, Frida Kahlo: Fashion As The Art of Being. I knew I would enjoy behind-the-scenes knowledge of fellow presenter Circe Henestrosa’s exhibit at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo. But I was equally sure that, with my obsessive knowledge of all-things-Frida, I would actually learn very little.
I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong. Both authors shared revelations of the intimate insights they gleaned from their individual work. The resulting discussion was as multifaceted as Frida herself.
We began with Martínez Vidal and an evening defining question: Why is Frida more alive today than before she died? Frida’s continued influence on fashion is undeniable. Her reach from beyond the grave is practically unmatched by other prominent pop culture figures. Collections from world-renowned designers like Ricardo Tisci and Jean Paul Gaultier have drawn inspiration from her legacy.
Martínez Vidal shared twenty fashion lessons that Frida taught us. They included gems like “Femininity and feminism are compatible” and my favorites, “Flaws can be beautiful” and, “Beauty comes from character.” Frida’s bold sartorial choices were partly drawn from her desire to hide her flawed body, and the provocative character of her even bolder brows defies you not to find her beautiful. Yves Saint Laurent’s famous quip, “Fashion may fade but style remains” is a testament to Frida’s dedication to her established look. As Martínez Vidal recounted, Frida ornamented herself in the same manner regardless of her audience. Both the residents of Detroit and the Rockefellers were treated to her wool-adorned hair and traditional Mexican dress.
The second half of the evening contained even more revelations. The scope of Henestrosa’s exhibit at Mexico City’s Museo Frida Kahlo was beyond anything I’d imagined. Frida-inspired works by designers like Tisci, Gaultier and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo were interwoven with Frida’s own belongings which included, in addition to her clothing, Tehuana-inspired jewelry, shoes of mismatched height to accommodate her mismatched legs, a customized prosthetic leg, a hand painted cigarette case and a particularly fierce pair of sunglasses.
Such care and thought went into Henestrosa’s staging and presentation of the exhibit. The white tile background against which Frida’s painted casts and prosthetics are displayed mirror the white tile of the bathroom where they were originally found. The same tiles reappear on the floor in the contemporary section of the exhibit, functioning this time as a runway.
Henestrosa likening Frida to a queen particularly intrigued me. This analogy grew organically from Henestrosa’s discussion about origins. Henestrosa and Frida share a deeply significant personal connection – their Tehuana heritage, and Henestrosa’s own appearance that evening, with her dark hair and the vibrant red embroidery on her tailored black dress, harkened back to Tehuanan culture. Noting the abbreviated cut of Frida’s Tehuana blouses, Henestrosa explained that the benefit was twofold: first, the torso-length top fell just so in order to avoid wrinkling – whether standing or sitting, Frida never appeared rumpled and always regal. Second, Frida’s emphasis on ornamenting her upper body detracted from what she felt were her flawed, mismatched legs. Frida’s hair – from its height to the flowers, yarn or jeweled combs that adorned it – as well as her famous brows, all served to draw one’s eye up and away.
The evening ended with rousing applause and a Q&A. In their responses, both authors eschewed our modern concern with perfect beauty. There is interest and power in embracing what makes you unusual, they maintained. Frida may not have been a great beauty by conventional standards, but she was a passionate wife, lover, adulterer, artist, Communist and more. If Frida – arguably the most well-known selfie taker in the world – could faithfully paint what was reflected in her mirror, then we should strive to do the same.
I was thrilled to have my own question answered during the Q&A. I asked the authors about the emotional impact of working with Frida’s belongings. Henestrosa said, “We met Frida for the first time in working with her belongings. We understood her from her belongings” – intimate aspects of Frida such as her scent, which lingered among her possessions despite the passage of time, and her femininity. For Martínez Vidal, the greatest lesson she learnt from Frida was to work from the heart, and with intent. Frida’s total commitment to her craft, her politics and her life inspired Martinez Vidal to do the same.
And that’s what I, too, treasure most in my relationship with Frida – how even now, so many years after her death, she still inspires me to live with purpose.