Like Madonna or Cher, Frida Kahlo is so famous that she’s recognizable by her first name alone. As one of the most prominent artists of the 20th Century, Kahlo played the role of both artist and subject and painted realistic yet absurd portraits of herself in jaunty, colourful clothing, giving the silent cut eye. In the years since her death in 1954, Frida’s unmistakable face and elaborate style have made her an accidental style icon.
Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting is on at the AGO until January 20th, 2013. The exhibit places Diego Rivera’s wide-stretching political murals beside his wife, Frida Kahlo’s achingly personal self-portraits. Toronto Life‘s Stephen Marche calls Frida “an oversharer, and a brilliant one.” Whatever. I couldn’t look away.
The first self-portrait in the exhibit is Frida with her hair tied up tightly, braided with a green rag that almost looks like au courant hair dye. Her skin is glowing, with plump berry lips, hallmark unibrow blazing across her face. She is wearing a wood and shell necklace, hanging out with a monkey in front of some lush jungle leaves. But beneath the carnival of colour lies an intimate sadness. There is a truth that can only come from the willingness to scrape the tarry, black muck out of every crevice of her soul and spread it out onto a canvas for people to judge. Frida is the patron saint of wounded women. For proof, just look to the legions of young women who penciled in unibrows and stuck flowers in their hair this Halloween.Self Portrait with a Braid
Frida’s style was emblematic: flowy, ankle length dresses, peasant blouses, and severely parted hair done up in a milkmaid-style braid, decorated with big flowers. She was always loaded in jangly jewelry: heavy beaded necklaces and chandelier drop earrings. These decorations became an important element in her paintings. In Self Portrait With Braid, her hair is wrapped with fuschia yarn, braided and twisted into a pretzel-like shape on top of her head, and she is wearing a green bead necklace with Pre-Columbian faces.
Kahlo was an artist during the 1940s, an era fashion history has recorded as beholden to WWII. This was the era of ‘waste not, want not’ where indestructible woolen skirt suits only came in neutral, serious colours. Yet fashion has a funny habit of celebrating those who choose not to participate, and Frida’s now iconic wardrobe of exploding colour stood in opposition to wartime solemnity.Self Portrait as a Tehuana
Frida snubbed Rosie the Riveter in favour of her indigenous heritage (her mother was mestiza, from the Oaxaca region), wearing ankle-length skirts, shawls and expertly braided hair. In Self Portrait as a Tehuana – one of the most fashionable paintings in the exhibit — Frida painted herself in traditional starched lace bonnet, a crown of purple flowers and Diego Rivera’s face stamped on her forehead, always in her thoughts.
Frida’s fashion sense was high femme, all red lipstick, glossy nails and chandelier earrings. Even while immersed in painting she wore high heels and costume jewelry, the very picture of glamour. Yet smack dab in the middle of her face was an ample unibrow. Women aren’t supposed to have facial hair, but Frida claimed power over her likeness by amplifying her soft unibrow and mustache rather than painting it away. Frida’s refusal to wax didn’t make her any less feminine: One of the saddest paintings in the exhibit (Self Portrait with Cropped Hair), depicts Frida wearing a man’s suit with clumps of long hair strewn around her on the floor, shorn of her precious femininity.
Frida was a gifted artist, political revolutionary and super stylish lady. She was a hot babe, and didn’t let anyone forget it, leaving behind a legacy of multilayered self-portraits. And instead of letting the demons of mental illness claim her, she stood strong and let them unleash her creativity, turning them into art. No wonder so many young women can relate.
Isabel Slone is a Toronto-based fashion blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @isabelslone.