Frida Kahlo’s clothes were as much an expression of her will, her pain, her joy as her paintings were. Clothes are signifiers of beliefs, and indicators of feelings, and Frida took that to generous lengths. If she was arguing with her husband, she would wear men’s clothes to assert her independence.
Frida’s death transformed her instantly into an icon. She’s known for her paintings, her eyebrows, her Tehuana dresses, her tumultuous marriage, her affair with Trotsky. The trappings of icon status can make it hard to see the human behind it all, and Ishiuchi Miyako’s photographs of Frida’s personal effects work to bridge the gap between legend and person.
Frida Kahlo was born, lived and died in the The Blue House, the beautiful home that she and Diego Rivera shared, which is now the Frida Kahlo museum. She died just after her 47th birthday and Rivera began moving the contents of her wardrobe into a bathroom. He decreed that the room stay locked until 15 years had passed after his death. In fact, it wasn’t opened for another 47 years, in 2004.
When it was opened, the museum’s director Carlos Olmedos was fascinated by what he found. There were the expected traditional Tehuana dresses, all moth-eaten and old. There were shoes that she had altered to level her right leg, which was damaged in a childhood accident. There was, delightfully, a single hand-shaped earring that Picasso had given her in Paris. There was a hairbrush with her hair still in it. Over the course of the next ten years Olmedos set about getting everything catalogued, and he enlisted the help of photographer Ishiuchi Miyako.
In her career, Ishiuchi Miyako has looked at the talismanic and symbolic qualities of personal items. She has photographed the clothes and effects of the victims of Hiroshima, and the personal articles of her late mother. Her photographs show that when items are separated from their owners, a smoke of their personality, their personal history, stays with the item.
In the end, Miyako photographed 300 of Frida’s belongings. She said, “If I met her, I wouldn’t ask any questions. I would only want to stare at her and touch her body.” Frida exerts this sort of influence on many. The curious quickly turn into fans and fans quickly turn into devotees. Miyako’s fascination with Frida is evidenced in the photographs, which are refreshingly un-clinical and natural, shot, as they were, in natural light with a 35mm Nikon.
The first thing you notice when looking at these photographs is the appalling intimacy of the experience. Frida’s presence is so strong that you feel like an intruder. What’s curious is that it doesn’t feel as though her privacy is being compromised, rather it’s a challenge to look so closely at someone, at their joy and their pain.
The photographs are beautiful, the clothes are beautiful. Frida’s Tehuana dresses are as much a joy to look at as you could expect. They are gorgeous and colourful, they look like they have been owned and worn.
Tehuana dresses are fascinating things anyway, and play an important role in Frida’s paintings. They are by their nature communicative. The patterns are individual, and they signify various things like the social standing and religious faith of the wearer. They are some of the last remnants of the ancient art of Mayan weaving. Every dress is unique. They are made to be kept. A good dress might last 30 years and when it’s finished it’s divided into small pieces for carpet or to be sewn into a quilt.
For some, the dresses are linked to dreams, the “holy dreams of the girls”, as dreaming was very important to the Mayans. Frida wore these long, traditional dresses and painted herself wearing them. They were part of Frida’s weaving of her own personal history and narrative, as well as a practical way to hide her disability. These dresses have long been part of the Frida legend, and seeing them in another context is both startling and moving. Again, Frida becomes real. She comes out of the fiction and into reality, as a person who lived and died and wore clothes.
The bigness of Frida’s personality is very much on display here, the day-to-day Frida. Photographs of a bathing suit or sunglasses or gloves (that look like the earrings Picasso gave her) are elevated to high status because of the wearer.
There was a lot of pain in Frida’s life. A combination of having polio at the age of six and being involved in a serious tram crash a few years later, left her with a right leg shorter than the left for her entire life. She always worked to counteract this, and describes in her diaries how as a young girl she would wear three or four socks to build a support and level the leg. It’s likely she started wearing traditional long dresses and skirts at a young age, and grew with them.
Miyako photographed shoes that Frida painted, altered and edited to both level her legs and be beautiful shoes. Later in life her right leg was amputated below the knee. Frida responded to this trauma like she did the others, by creating. She fused a prosthetic leg with a painted red leather boot.
Obliged to wear fully body casts, she decorated them too. She attached skirts, she painted them. She put attached little mirrors, she painted a hammer and sickle.
Frida has influenced generations of artists and writers, and had an enormous effect on the fashion world. Commes des Garcons, Givenchy have made items based on her, and Jean Paul Gaultier based an entire collection on her.
Miyako’s photographs of Frida’s things are moving and peculiarly life-affirming, one great artist documenting another. The vibrancy that Frida brought to her wardrobe is enthralling, and her transforming of medical items into beautiful pieces to wear show her fiery determination not to be an invalid, to take whatever life threw at her and weave poetry into it. Frida Kahlo wore her heart. There’s a page in one of her diaries with a drawing of two disembodied legs, and an inscription that reads, “Feet, what do I want them for when I have wings to fly”.