Frida Kahlo was both surrealist painter and unwitting fashion icon. Her image is immediately recognizable and her clothing was carefully chosen to reflect her feelings about femininity, politics, and her own physical limitations. Frida’s vibrantly colored and richly embroidered garments were tweaked versions of traditional Mexican clothing, with corset-style bodices and long flowing skirts. But the roots of her style are much deeper than they appear on the surface. Like most women, Frida dressed to look and feel beautiful but, unbeknownst to some, also to mask her ailments and near-constant physical pain.
Her full skirts hid legs damaged by childhood polio and a horrific bus accident at 17. That accident left her with a heavily scarred body and lifelong health problems that over 40 surgeries could not correct. During a three-month stay in a hospital, Frida began painting the full-body casts she had to wear for long stretches of time. Eventually, she created her own structured corsets that allowed her to walk upright, though in constant pain. She covered these leather structures with fabric corset tops or bright, feminine blouses.
As Frida became more incapacitated, her garments became more elaborate and colorful. When her right leg was amputated, about a year before her death, she fitted her prosthetic with a bright red embroidered boot—and she added a Chinese bell to the laces for greater effect. Her approach to fashion was almost one of defiance; she wanted to make herself feel beautiful in spite of her physical limitations, but she also wanted to portray an air of confidence to the world at large. Last year, for the first time since her death, some of Frida Kahlo’s personal garments were displayed and photographed.