She lived in the Blue House, wore flowers in her hair, painted while bedridden, and despite having a life marred by accidents and diseases, became “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”. Frida Kahlo was like a melody that was harmoniously offbeat.

To celebrate the inimitable Kahlo, an art exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is displaying, for the first time outside of Mexico, the artist’s wardrobe that had been locked up in her house after her death in 1954.

Titled Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, the exhibition features over 200 artefacts – letters, cosmetics, hand-painted corsets, jewellery, garments and prosthetics – alongside Kahlo’s paintings, showing the deep connection between her art and her style. It has been curated by Circe Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox, who have spent the past three years exploring and reimagining Kahlo’s life in Coyoacán, Mexico, within the confines of the London museum.

A display of dresses owned by Frida Kahlo at the exhibition ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’. Photo credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP

Autobiographical show

Making Her Self Up, the title borrowed from Wilcox’s essay in a catalogue about Kahlo’s make-up, opened doors to visitors in June. “This version of the exhibition developed from the original research I conducted when curating the exhibition Appearances Can Be Deceiving at Museo Frida Kahlo in 2012,” said Henestrosa, head of the School of Fashion, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. “For our version in London, Wilcox was keen to build on the exhibition in Mexico by introducing photography to help visitors reimagine the Blue House. She felt we needed to signpost our audience in London and contextualise more of Frida’s life through her photographic archive.”

This exhibition, Henestrosa explains, has brought together dress historians and art historians, apart from jewellery and photography curators, to show how Kahlo controlled and constructed her identity, “her singular strength in the face of illness and adversity and the artistry with which she presented herself to the world”.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán (ruffle). Credit: Museo Frida Kahlo

Visitors are first greeted by Two Fridas – a self-portrait, depicting two versions of Kahlo – leading them as it were into her house. The autobiographical show is like a bildungsroman in motion. The idea, says Henestrosa, was to start with Kahlo’s early childhood, move to the Blue House, where she was born, lived and died. “Then we established the disability aspect of Kahlo’s life through explaining her accident,” she said. “...[it] meant the end to her studies and hopes to becoming a doctor. Bedbound and immobilised, she started to paint using a folding wooden easel and a mirror inset into the canopy of her four-poster bed. Self-portraiture became the primary focus of her art.”

The exhibits show how Kahlo managed her lifelong injuries, and the exhibition ends with her incredible wardrobe, to highlight her triumph over her pain and struggle.

Guatemalan cotton coat worn with Mazatec huipil and plain floor-length skirt. Museo Frida Kahlo © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahl

Archiving memories

Henestrosa grew up hearing stories about Kahlo and that connect became stronger when she went through the artist’s personal archive. “I met a sophisticated woman who loved perfume and make-up,” she said. “Who enjoyed life and drank tequila.”

Kahlo’s signature look was the traditional Tehuana dress – brightly coloured with vivid embroidery – that came from Tehuantepec Isthmus, a matriarchal society in the southeast of Mexico, to which Henestrosa’s father’s family also belongs. “In our family, we always said that Frida’s first Tehuana dress was given to her by Alfa [Rios, Henestrosa’s aunt],” she said. “I don’t know if that is true, but there are scholars who say that Alfa used to bring Frida Kahlo many Oaxacan pieces from the Tehuantepec Isthmus.”

A museum employee poses in front of the artwork entitled 'Self-portrait with Monkeys', Frida Kahlo, 1943, Coyoacan, Mexico. Photo credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP

Kahlo’s Tehuana dress invited many discourses – one school of thought attributed it to her attempt to preserve Mexican culture and heritage, while others perceived it as her way of dealing with her transforming body in the aftermath of polio and her near-fatal accident in 1925. Kahlo joined the Communist Party in 1928 and that same year, she met “Diego Rivera through the photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti”. Henestrosa believes Kahlo de-stigmatised disability through fashion. “Through her adoption of Tehuana costume, Kahlo paid tribute to the spirit of [a] proudly matriarchal society and embraced her own maternal heritage and her political beliefs,” she said.

In her essay Transcending Her Most Modern Legacy (2012), Henestrosa points out how Kahlo created a style of her own, especially footwear, by wearing short boots with special heels to “conceal her physical imperfections”. This gives rise to the question: while her paintings were a manifestation of supposed imperfections, did she try to hide them in person? Was this a paradox then? Henestrosa believes these notions are “intertwined”. Kahlo’s leg was amputated in 1953. To hide the leg, Henestrosa says, she had boots made of luxurious red leather decorated with bows and pieces of silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs and decorative little bells, turning her prosthetic leg into an avant-garde object, an accessory that she adapted as an extension of her body.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives

“Kahlo carefully composed her image and customised her clothing, wearing traditional garments from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and often mixing them with delicate pieces from other Mexican regions, and even from Guatemala and Europe,” she said. “Kahlo’s art is meticulous and refined in its detail, and she was also painstaking in her attention to each aspect of her appearance, from the clothes she wore to how she braided her hair and the jewellery she chose. In her construction of this style, we see the important role played by her ethnic roots, her politics and art, through to her experience of disability.”

Kahlo owned a range of Revlon cosmetics and eye make-up. Her iconic eyebrow pencil Ebony is the most striking exhibit at the V&A museum and is displayed in its original packaging too. Did Kahlo use make-up to accentuate what looked like an anomaly? “I don’t think anything was an anomaly when talking about Kahlo,” said Henestrosa. “Her construction of identity was deliberate and her choice of style and dress was very much rooted in a search for self-affirmation. The aesthetics of Frida Kahlo’s self-portrayal in both her personal styling and her self-portraits were directed at expressing a set of identities.” Henestrosa’s favourite piece in the exhibition is Kahlo’s prosthetic leg.

Revlon compact and powderpuff with blusher in ‘Clear Red’ and Revlon lipstick in ‘Everything’s Rosy’; emery boards and eyebrow pencil in ‘Ebony’. Before 1954. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. © Diego Riviera and Frida

She says that Kahlo never let her disabilities and personal circumstances define her. “She broke a lot of taboos about women’s experiences, about the challenges to overcome illness and physical injury, by exposing and concealing them while working through this trauma in creative ways,” she said. “In this exhibition, we want to show her non-conforming ways of being that she expressed through art, dress and in her life.”

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, till November 14.