Enduring Fashion: Frida Kahlo’s Influential Wardrobe to Go on Display

Frida Kahlo, 1943
(Courtesy Frida Kahlo Museum; © Bank of Mexico Fiduciary in the trust relative to the Frida Kahlo Museum and Diego Rivera)

Always an outsider, Frida Kahlo’s imaginative wardrobe set her apart from the women who wore prim, tailored skirt suits and dresses that were popular in the 1930s. Instead of donning the latest designs from Europe, Kahlo would procure exotic fabrics from China, lace from Europe, and brightly colored textiles from her native Mexico. She would then hand the materials to a seamstress, who would assemble Kahlo’s vision — a bold combination of pieces echoing the silhouettes of traditional Mexican clothing mixed in with Kahlo’s own inventive styling.  

Nearly 60 years after her death, Kahlo’s look lives on. The Mexican artist’s thickly braided updo (often accented with flowers or ribbons), vibrant maxi skirts, and loose peasant tops have transcended time, remaining a constant influence on fashion designers.

“I specifically drew inspiration from Frida’s use of color and bold personal style interlaced with Havana’s beautiful faded grandeur,” New York-based designer Misha Nonoo, whose spring 2013 collection was based on a fictional trip made by Kahlo to Cuba, told ARTINFO via email.

Spanish designer Maya Hansen also injected Kahlo touches — intricate braided hairdos and unibrows — into her Mexican-themed collection. “All these elements are very iconic and [we] knew we were going to get people to think about her and Mexico when seeing the models,” Hansen said in an email.

For the first time, Kahlo’s wardrobe will be featured in an exhibition, “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo,” which opens at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City on November 22.

“She had a strong character and uniqueness,” said Ximena Gomez, coordinator at the museum. “She didn’t care that she was the only one who dressed like that. She created her image through her wardrobe.”

Kahlo’s husband, artist Diego Rivera, requested that her wardrobe and bathroom be locked up for 50 years, until 2004, when a committee at the Frida Kahlo Museum decided it was time to open them. They discovered a wealth of Kahlo’s possessions, including documents, photographs, sketches, books — and clothing.

Curated by Circe Henestrosa, who has worked with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and designed by British architect and designer Judith Clark, the exhibition will feature 11 Kahlo ensembles every three months. Forty outfits will be shown over the course of a year.

“They worked hand-in-hand, her art and fashion, it was like a construction of her complete image,” said Gomez. “The same color palette that she used in her paintings, she used it in her dressing.”

Additionally, Vogue Mexico is producing a room for the exhibition that will feature commissioned work from contemporary designers who have been influenced by Kahlo. A rep for the magazine declined to reveal the specific designers working on the project, but said that “they are international designers and one Mexican designer — all of them are very recognized in the fashion industry.”

Just like her paintings, Kahlo’s daring fashion sense served as a reflection of the courage she showed after enduring several hardships — dealing with Rivera’s numerous infidelities and coping with spina bifida.

“It was so creative, and so unique, and so avant-garde then,” said Gomez of Kahlo’s style. “She wasn’t afraid of combining contrasting colors, or putting extravagant things, flowers on her head, or wearing these necklaces, rings that were eccentric or big. She wanted to show like her paintings.”

Click on the slideshow to see Frida Kahlo’s style evolution.

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