Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up At The V&A: The Style (And Life) Lessons I Learned

'I have enjoyed being contradictory' - Frida Kahlo

As I walked into the Frida Kahlo ‘Making Her Self Up’ exhibition at the V&A museum, I expected a focus on Kahlo’s fashion tastes and beauty secrets discovered in the bathroom her husband, Diego Rivera, had locked away for fifty years. Though there is much inspiration for style on display, there is arguably more so for life.

Kahlo’s printed dresses, her fan and even her monobrow may be iconic, but walking around the objects that made up part of the artist’s life, they give away much more about her than purely a vibrant aesthetic and I left with some life lessons of far greater value than anything in the gift shop.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939.
Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939.
VA press office/ Nickolas Muray

You Can Use Clothes To Show The World How You See Yourself

Her personal mix-and-match style expressed Kahlo’s identity through her own lens. She was of mixed heritage, with a German father and a Spanish and Indian mother.

She grew up in Mexico and as a child wore clothes passed down by her mother. But as Kahlo moved through the world, it was clear she was torn between loyalty to her heritage and the United States. As although she loved New York and San Francisco and built relationships there, her clothes spoke of resilience towards the ‘Gringolandia’.

The rebozo (shawl) across her shoulders and the huipil (tunic) across her body said she was comfortable and conscious of all that she was. This pull and push of background versus culture is something many children of immigrants can relate to.

By wearing traditional Mexican and Indian skirts, Kahlo celebrated her differences; during Trumpian times and Brexit, this attitude is especially infectious. Particularly as someone who remembers being embarrassed to wear a shalwar kameez (South Asian dress) near caucasian friends or being scared to unpack their lunchbox in the school cafeteria because their mum may have packed last night’s dinner.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, Frida Kahlo, 1932.
Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, Frida Kahlo, 1932.
VA press office/Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero)

Don’t Dim Your Light For Anyone

When looking at a Kahlo self portrait it’s not hard to see that she wasn’t scared of beauty. She didn’t dim her light for anyone.Co-curator of ‘Making Her Self Up’, Claire Wilcox explained to HuffPost UK that she was “brave the way she lived”. We’ve all encountered people who make presumptions about the kind of person you are, Kahlo teaches us that all that assumption does is take up space in someone else’s head, it doesn’t have to change how you present yourself.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939.
Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939.
VA press office/ Nickolas Muray

Don’t Be Bound By Gendered Expectations

Kahlo’s style expressed gender fluidity, as photographs show her wearing her late father’s three piece suit in a family setting, or when marching for the Union Of Mexican Technical Workers, she was one of the only women present and the only one with a worker’s cap in hand. Kahlo wasn’t scared of being many things and she understood that clothing was one way to push the status quo.

VA press office

Nothing Is As It Appears

The display of Kahlo’s toiletries: her nail polish, the Revlon lipstick, the pot of rouge, Ponds face cream and Chanel perfume fanned out in glass cabinet next to her medicine - bottles and bottles of necessary ointments and pills - reflects the beauty and beasts that shaped Kahlo’s life and serve as a reminder that no one is two dimensional - there is always more going on than meets the eye.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs.
Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs.
VA press office/ Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo /Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives.jpg

When Life Gives You Lemons... Make The Most Sweet Lemonade

Kahlo wasn’t able to fulfil her initial dream of being a doctor after a severe tram accident and having her leg amputated, but her perseverance to not stay down is the most inspiring takeaway. She painted flowers across her orthopaedic corsets and prosthetic leg, turning them into objects of beauty.

She could be seen as being self-obsessed through her artwork, but Khalo had an ability to look both inwards and beyond herself to others. It’s an example to follow when we have echo chambers like social media. Khalo understood that though she perceived the world in one way, it wasn’t the only way. Frankly, Frida Kahlo’s zest for style and life is really all the inspiration we need.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A, London from 16 June to 4 November.


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