What is it about Frida Kahlo? More than 60 years after her death the radical Mexican artist, who is remembered above all for her searing self-portraits, is being celebrated on the catwalk and setting the cultural agenda. When a bracelet with the artist’s face on it is spotted on the wrist of Theresa May, as happened at the recent Conservative party conference, Kahlo-mania can safely be said to have entered the mainstream.
In high fashion, Kahlo’s influence can be felt in the maximalism of Alessandro Michele’s heady Gucci aesthetic. For autumn/winter 2017 that meant florals and bold bows, ruffles and clashing, all in keeping with Kahlo’s love of excess; rings, flowers and embroidery.
Her influence was also there in the sparkly red hearts, lace and horticultural prints at Dolce & Gabbana and in the hot pink on catwalks from Balenciaga to Burberry. The boxy, mannish tailoring – a key look this season – at Céline and Isabel Marant recalls a family portrait from 1926, in which Kahlo is wearing her father’s suit.
It’s no coincidence that one of the UK’s most high-profile cultural institutions, the V&A, will host an exhibition that will look at her through the prism of her most intimate belongings. This will be the first time these belongings have left La Casa Azul in Mexico City, where after Kahlo’s death in 1954 they were locked in a room by her husband Diego Rivera and only released in 2004.
Susana Martínez Vidal, the author of Frida Kahlo: Fashion as the Art of Being, says the reason designers look to her is more about her spirit than her clothes: “The designers aren’t just focusing on the skirt, the blouse, the indigenous look, they could have taken that from anywhere. What they really focused on was her personality and the way she wore those clothes.” For Vidal, she “defined one of fashion’s magic words– attitude”. No wonder pop stars have channelled her aesthetic – from Madonna and her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour corset to Rihanna’s ANTI album and the style of FKA Twigs.
Circe Henestrosa, curator of the Frida Kahlo museum’s exhibition Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo, currently showing in Mexico City, thinks the fact that she was ahead of her time is key to her relevance. Her attitudes towards gender were progressive – her relationships with women and men, and her penchant for suits, mean she has been hailed as a modern queer icon.
Her influence also reverberates beyond high fashion. On Etsy her face decorates yoga pants, skater skirts and hand-knitted jumpers; and her aesthetic is nodded to in the watermelons and cacti motifs of this year’s ubiquitous fashion kitsch. Kahlo was a “flower power pioneer” who “anticipated the hippie movement and Coachella”, according to Vidal – look to the craze for flower crowns, piled high, often on top of Kahlo-esque plaits. While today’s are more likely to be from Claire’s Accessories, Kahlo made hers with dahlias, bougainvilleas and peonies from her garden.
Of course, Kahlo has influenced fashion before now, even in her lifetime. When she visited France in 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli honoured her by designing a dress named La Robe Madame Rivera. Kahlo’s corsets, worn after a bus crash in 1925 that left her with a broken spinal column, are among the most consistently referenced elements of her attire – from Rei Kawakubo’s spring/summer 2012 collection to Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy haute couture collection of autumn/winter 2010. For his spring 1998 collection, Jean Paul Gaultier created a dress that mirrors Kahlo’s in her 1944 painting The Broken Column.
But why is she proving so potent a muse in 2017?
At a time when diversity is finally being celebrated in fashion, Kahlo’s emphasis on her own mixed heritage feels prescient. She celebrated her identity as mestizaje (mixed European and Mexican) by wearing traditional garments. While the women she mixed with were dressing in European styles, she made the Tehuana dress, which comes from a matriarchal culture of Oaxaca, her signature style. British designer Osman Ousefzada, who referenced Kahlo for his spring/summer 2016 collection, says that she’s “not your average Wasp, western Trump-type”.
There’s something that feels very current about her brand of activism, too. “She was one of the first women to use fashion to broadcast a feminist message of independence, work and equality,” says Vidal. Feminism has spawned many recent statement T-shirts, so it’s no surprise that Etsy is home to many where Frida’s feminism is teamed with the contemporary vernacular: on one T-shirt she sits above the word “fierce”. Seller Garth Heckel thinks it sells so well because she is “seen as a strong feminist icon”.
To some people it might seem that she has become what Che Guevara was to the 90s; her commodification just as ironic given her politics. But she created a personal brand, which also feels very now, and sheds some light on why she might be so appreciated by selfie aficionados such as Kim Kardashian, who in 2015 channelled Kahlo’s heavily laced look from Me Twice, and Beyoncé, who dressed as her for Halloween the year before. She was the “original selfie queen”, says Vidal. “Nearly a century earlier than today’s global obsession she detected and compulsively exploited this human need to share one’s image to feel less alone.” She was, Vidal adds, her “own best work of art” and if she were alive today she would “be a real influencer … with a legion of followers”. As Frida herself put it, “I am my own muse, I am the subject I know the best.”
Her belief in the idea of jolie laide, or beautiful ugly, feels very of the moment, too. Look to the interesting beauty of models favoured by brands such as Vetements and Balenciaga for reference. Kahlo was all about accepting her natural looks – as Vidal puts it, she “highlighted her flaws to vindicate the beauty of imperfections”, pencilling her monobrow darker with Revlon eyeliner. Her monobrow and upper-lip hair are a blueprint in this age of #bodypositivity – and feel radical given the case of a model recently bombarded with rape and death threats after appearing in an Adidas advert with hairy legs.
Kahlo’s is a look for this season, but expect Frida-mania to carry on long beyond spring. She might have died more than 60 years ago but, as Kahlo herself said: “The only ones who die are those who never lived. And whoever lives on after death produces in those who come afterwards new sensations, longings and desires.” Lucky for us, she’s proved herself right.