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Fashion, Identity, Disability: The style of Frida Kahlo

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frida-exhibit

At the death of painter Frida Kahlo, her husband (painter Diego Rivera) ordered her personal belongings, including nearly all of her clothes, to be locked up. It would be another 50 years before this wardrobe was opened up and this year, for the first time, it was exhibited in Mexico City.

Kenn and I were lucky enough to make the trip down to Mexico while this exhibit was going on at the Frida Kahlo museum, and to see some of her exquisite clothing and personal effects in person.

So many women are drawn to Frida, myself included. Here was a woman who endured unimaginable pain throughout her life due to her multiple disabilities, and yet was able to somehow render that pain into art. Pain and suffering were a large theme in her work, and clearly formed a big part of her identity.

Yet until I saw this wonderfully curated exhibit, I hadn’t thought much about the link between her iconic appearance, her inimitable style, and her disabilities.

frida-black-white

My personal history has a lot to do with my own Frida obsession. I don’t talk about this much, but I have my own spinal deformity which was treated with spinal surgery at 12 years old. Though it was very painful and deeply affected my self image, my issues are nowhere near the scale of the trauma Frida Kahlo lived through. Yet, I cannot look at her painting The Broken Column without tears of sympathy welling up. It is for me the most wrenching of all her works.

Frida used her clothing to celebrate some aspects of her identity while disguising others. The long flowing skirts of her Tehuana dress represented her cultural heritage, but also disguised her withered (and later, after amputation, false) leg. It reminded me of the shame I felt about my body as a young teenager, how self conscious I was about my scars and covering them up, how mortified I was by comments on my body.

And even today, though I don’t think about these things as much, I surely don’t relish talking about them either. Who wants to draw attention to their flaws?

frida-kahlo-wardrobe-cast

Yet some of the objects on display hinted at a different attitude towards the body that tortured her. The painted casts in particular suggested a kind of “dressing up” of the pain. It isn’t necessarily a celebration but, like her art, it is a direct confrontation of it.

And she was clearly fearless in her sartorial choices. She had no problems mixing traditional Mexican and European fashion in innovative ways. With her bright colors, bold jewelry, flowers in her hair and silk and lace everywhere, her presence was commanding and unmistakable.

five-frida-photos

frida-kahlo-wardrobe-rebozo

frida-kahlo-wardrobe-ribbons

frida-kahlo-wardrobe-embroidered-02

red-velvet-skirt

frida-kahlo-wardrobe-velvet

I think nearly all women can relate to these two impulses, whether we have disabilities or not. There are times when each of us feels broken, imperfect, and ashamed. And there are times we fight through that to express who we are, not in spite of our imperfections but because of them.

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 61

Colleen

This is an incredibly moving post — thanks, Sarai.

ladykatza peanutbuttermacrame.blogspot.com

This was a very timely post as I have had quite a few unhappy diagnoses the last year. Clinical depression, diverticulosis, advanced degenerative disc disease, and possibly fibromyalgia have been heaped on, but at the same time I’m happy its not all in my head.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I’m very sorry to hear that. Wishing you strength and wellness in the coming year!

Jenny jennysews2.blogspot.com

She is one of my favorite artists because of the way she was able to express herself. I would love to visit the museum some day ~ it almost seems as if there is some kind of beautiful, colorful energy that emanated from her despite the torture of the pain.

gabriel ratchet

thank you for this.

Wanett sownbrooklyn.com

I so wish I could visit her home!!

I have this book which features many of the items you show above, but seeing her things in person must have been quite the experience. I imagine you could feel her presence so strongly!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I did not know about that book! I must check it out.

I think seeing her workspace and art tools (jars of glitter!) was the most amazing. As well as the bed in which she spent so much time, and eventually passed.

Naomi

A wonderful post, Sarai. Thank you.

Marianna sew2pro.com

This is a beautifully written post, informative and moving. Thank you for sharing it.

Christine christinehaynes.com

Beautiful post Sarai. xoxo

Stephanie erniekdesigns.blogspot.com

Thank you so much! I had no idea about her wardrobe (should have guessed it was locked away rather than destroyed), and those photos make me hungry for more. I wonder how many of us turned to sewing and creation out of physical limitations alone (never mind the emotional handicaps). I know I did (nothing fits me out of the box, but I can walk painfree now). Creativity born from necessity?

Helen!

What a collection to see in person! What a great post! Frida and her art has fascinated me since I discovered Diego Rivera while living in SF in the 80s. Thank you for sharing this. I’m going to pass this along to my old roommate from those SF daze! Thanks again!

Becca

Very interesting post. I, also, had my spine fused when I was 14 because of a genetic deformity. Consequently, I am fairly physically limited. But this is exactly what has given me the patience and interest in my knitting, embroidery, and sewing. I’ve found that sewing and knitting allow me to create clothing that fits my body and my personality.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

This was the surgery I had, spinal fusion. I definitely think part of my creative impulse had something to do with my fractured sense of self-esteem. Almost like I felt I could never aspire to be beautiful like other girls, so I would aspire to be myself instead.

levelin

I have not been sewing much because it’s been difficult for me to cut out anything without my back hurting. I have arthritis in my back and part of it has fused itself together. Any ideas?

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Do you have a cutting table that is high enough, so that you don’t have to bend over? I use an adjustable architect’s drafting table, so that I can raise it up to waist height and don’t need to bend over much. There’s still a certain amount of reaching, but it’s much easier on the spine.

Danieli

“Almost like I felt I could never aspire to be beautiful like other girls, so I would aspire to be myself instead.”
(thank you for that, Sarai. and for the beautiful post.)

Liz

Sarai, I love that (though of course I doubt you loved that feeling at 12!), deciding to be yourself. I have a good friend who had Harrington rods inserted due to scoliosis, and she said she used to have to sit on a pillow during high school, for pain management/comfort, and she decided any guy who was squeamish about that fact was a guy who wasn’t worth it. I really admire her fortitude. As a physical therapist, I often notice people with very slight postural or gait changes that most people would never notice, and I appreciate you sharing the background of yours. I think it must take quite a bit of courage–not only to say it, but to deal with the resulting feedback and continuing to talk about it! :) This was a lovely article. I knew nothing about Frida Kahlo’s injuries!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I distinctly remember a couple of boys in eighth grade making fun of me for sitting so strangely (my posture was very erect at the time due to the spinal fusion, rod, and still being in recovery). I remember that it stung, but that I explained to them why I had to sit that way and they shut right up. A good lesson that most people (even 13 year old boys) don’t really intend to be as cruel as they sometimes seem.

Elisabeth projectreclaim.wordpress.com

So interesting! I hadn’t realized the extent of her disability…I think it is really important to talk about these things; fashion tends to have such a focus on perfection/ideal and disability often gets lost in there. You should check out this video if you haven’t seen it; it explores this idea and is really pretty cool! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/03/disabled-mannequins-video_n_4379586.html

Jill Collins

Your blog this morning touched my heart. Even though it’s hard to talk about certain aspects of our lives, it’s amazing that when we do open up, our stories reach out to help others. Thanks for sharing. And thank you for the amazing photos.

Rachel Marie raywuwei.me

Thank you for doing this post.

Adri H. adriprints.blogspot.com

Thanks for sharing the photos and your experience.

Esta tegemine.wordpress.com

‘Dressing up’ your pain reminded me of The Alternative Limb project http://www.thealternativelimbproject.com/#/floral-leg/4569111149

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Yes! Also the prosthetic legs and boots designed by Alexander McQueen for athlete Aimee Mullins: http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/tag/no-13/

They remind me very much of Frida’s boot/leg, pictured above.

Ann

I very much appreciated your heart-felt post about Frida Kahlo. I, too, have long been an admirer or hers, although for different reasons. I thought you might like to see a beaded portrait I made of her, in the form of an amulet purse. It is my first posting to flickr! It is based upon one of her self-portraits. http://www.flickr.com/photos/110325127@N06/11406731614/in/photostream/

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Wow, that’s pretty amazing!

Rachel

the purse is wonderful. I think Frida would have loved it.

Faustina

Thank you for sharing your interest in Frida Kahlo and your own history, as well. I think that it is actions like this that will break down barriers and prejudices about physical and mental differences. Interestingly, I’m doing a lot of reading right now in my Women and Gender studies classes about differences in ability and how that affects and informs body image, self image, and our place in society.

How a person with a (dis)ability dresses themselves is often something that one doesn’t think of in terms of imaging and empathizing with someone else’s reality. My husband has a condition that limits his mobility and we have a lot of trouble finding footwear that is functional, easy for him to put on by himself, and yet still fashionable for someone in their 30s.

Again, thank you for this small activism, and the larger activism that is your pattern making. It allows women of all shapes and abilities to image themselves in a different way and empowers them to dress their bodies in a way best suited to their own lives.

MadeByMeg megmadethis.blogspot.com

Thanks for sharing! I had the pleasure of living for a time near her old home in Mexico City, and it was amazing to visit!

Lately, I have also been thinking about the link between sewing for our bodies and how we talk and view them. Taking measurements and adjusting fit forces us, in a way, to objectively view something that society has put such a subjective lens on. Instead of judging the size of our hips or even the stigma of a disability, sewing, like Friday’s art, can help us look at ourselves without judgement, decorating ourselves and making our bodies beautiful just as they are.

Red redisforpassion-red.blogspot.com

I was just thinking the same thing!

Dawn scarletthreader.com

I was so touched by this post – it was beautiful written and an amazing tribute to an iconic and courageous woman. Well done!

sarah sky skyandlady.com

it’s still going! until the end of january. Im going mid january.

Kat coutureacademic.wordpress.com

Thank you so much for this post. I really hadn’t known much about her, so your post educated me. The bit about her dressing up despite her pain I found very moving. It didn’t seem like she was trying to cover it up or pretend it wasn’t there, but she didn’t let it take full control of her…perhaps that was her way of taking back control. This is another fabulous documentary, but exploring age and fashion http://www.channel4.com/programmes/fabulous-fashionistas. These women get up every morning and choose to live a fabulous life despite numerous aches, pains, and lost loved ones. I suppose they could ball themselves up in a seniors’ home, but they choose not to, even when it hurts. One woman said “I think about my death every day, but I always choose life”. Warning, though, keep the tissues handy! :) Love this blog and a big fan of your work in every way. I’m so glad you keep choosing to put your creativity out into the world. We all benefit from you.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Thanks for the recommendation, that documentary sounds great!

Nadia Lewis

Love this post.

Thank you for your vulnerability and courage!

meredith brightasbuttons.blogspot.com

Thanks for this post – I love getting to sort-of see the exhibit through your photos. The Broken Column is a tough one for me, too… I spent my 13th year in a cage-like brace before undergoing a spinal surgery of my own. (I don’t think about it much now, and I never liked to dwell, but I do have lingering physical traces, and my self-image took a beating that year. Thank you for sharing some of your experiences.)

Xenia Kathryn xeniat.blogspot.com

Yes, thank you for sharing this, Sarai, both about Frida and about yourself. I feel like 2013 sort of punched me in the gut, health-wise, emotionally… Seeing the strength of others who endured (and created!) despite their disabilities really is encouraging.

Susan starryfishathome.wordpress.com

A very thoughtful post. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern in London, and absolutely loved her art.
Disability is very much in my mind atm, as I am one handed after a fall. I only have my right hand working, and I am a natural lefty; I am trying to work out how to start sewing again! Any suggestions?

Sarai colettepatterns.com

That is tough! I was sort of one-handed for a little while this year when I sliced my fingertip almost completely off, but luckily I could still grip things, so I don’t think I have any good tips. Maybe someone else can share their ideas.

Manouela manouelas.wordpress.com

Beautiful post Sarai. Thank you for sharing!
Having had spinal pain myself, and at the moment treating others for pain and disability, a beautiful, balanced, strong image is so important to the process of healing. And creating your own beautiful garments exactly the way you want them instead of subjecting yourself to the process of fitting into ready made clothes is another great way of taking care of yourself and getting to love your body. Thank you for contributing to this with your gorgeous designs!!

hopflower

My goodness, Sarai. You gave us a lovely post on Frida Kahlo, but you have absolutely nothing to worry about: you are a beautiful lady and so talented. I know this does not at all mean that you have not had a rough road; but rest assured that your feelings about yourself are just that: feelings. And while feelings count, they are not the whole truth.

Emily Hutchinson

What I love is that you are talented and your company is brillant and we could leave it at that, only knowing the shinnier parts of your life, but you choose to discuss something intimate and nontrendy about your own insecurities or physical struggles in a way that feels really comforting and honest. Maybe this is part of why you are have been a great voice for the gorgeous variety of body shapes and relationship orientations. It is the gift side of the more difficult circumstances of having a ‘misshappen’ body part. I myself have the blessings and sorrows of misshappen body parts that can ultimately help define and create alternative spiritual and creative mentalshapes. Thanks for being super awesome :)

Andree Baillargeon labaillarge.com

Dear Sarai,

I too have been a Frieda admirer for a long time but the idea you are putting forth is very thought provoking…. Since the last year I have been presenting my work at art fairs…. I make very colorful silk shawls with fabrics I print and dye. It is intriguing to me that many women
who enter my booth are both mesmerized by the colors and challenged at “how” to wear them.
I intuit it is touch a cord deep inside for more personal expression through cloth, a more deeply authentic self made visible but we do have to learn to literally move with this new image that is way more than skin deep. I also have a background in movement based expressive arts and have been toying with the idea of workshops exploring this and now you are inspiring me to connect with a different group of people and tackle up front deeper issues.
Intersecting fashion with art as process has the potential to change our reality, yes yes yes

Have been following your wonderful work, thank you so much for sharing would love to continue the conversation if you so feel inspired…
Much love,
Andree

Jessie

What a beautiful post. It made me think of your running, and how empowering running a race must be when you have a history of mobility issues. Thanks for the inspiration!

DEBORAH DAMELIO

Loved your post. I manaaged to skip the adolescent surgery and am making up for it as an adult with complete cervical and lumbar fusions. It’s hard for me to bend over a cutting table, so I have been focusing on embroidery more lately. It takes me a while to make a garment, but I persevere and it eventually gets done. A proud accomplishment.
Hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Abby

Frida has a special place in my heart. She was the first artist that showed me that authentic expression of the hard-to-bear things in life can be beautiful and worthy. Thank you so much for this post and for sharing your experience, as well. I am touched and pleased with it’s timeliness.

I started sewing in the summer of this year. It started out as a way to both keep me occupied and feeling less isolated as I dealt with a baffling and painful illness. There is a wonderful sewing studio in Portland (Modern Domestic) and it became the place I would go for therapeutic respite. Sewing garments also gave me a way to cloth my body that took my extreme discomfort into consideration. What it’s turned out to be is so much more than I thought it would be – inspiring, creative, and totally absorbing, allowing me to nearly totally forget my troubles.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

That is lovely to hear, because I just visited Modern Domestic this morning.

Julie

Thank you so much for sharing, just reading everyone’s comments, you have really touched a chord with us all. I bought my first sewing machine 1 year ago , so I could alter my little girls clothes. She was born with severe disabilities 2 years ago and store bought clothes were never suitable .
I never realised what I was starting, how therapeutic it would be and how I would love making clothes for Molly and now myself. Having had to give up a profession I loved to care for her and not being able to get out much my creativity has really kept me sane! I do think a lot about what she wears so people comment on her clothes and not just stare at her. What we create and wear can say so much . Thanks for your blog. X

Emily Hutchinson

Julie,
That is really really sweet. Such a sweet way to love on your daughter.

Liz

I’m an early intervention physical therapist, and I LOVE this! If you ever wanted to grow that business, I have no doubt there are tons of other parents (and grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, etc) out there who would be happy to support you. Sounds like your time is very busy at the moment, but who knows what the future will bring?

carolyn

Thank you for this post. Much appreciated. It gives courage and inspiration. Keep up the good work.

Miss Alison missalisonregrets.com

A beautiful post, Sarai. None of us are perfect, and I’m exhausted by the images women are surrounded by. It’s vital that women tell the truth about our bodies, because it’s our flaws that distinguish us. Imagine if it was our imperfections we celebrated!
Hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.
Fran x (cellulite thighs, flabby belly, bingo arms!)

Karin karinskammare.blogspot.com

http://karinskammare.blogspot.se/2013/11/frida-kahlo-at-arken.html
I was at a Frida Kahlo exibit some weeks ago and took Pictures of the clothes there.

Mary E Hoettels, Ret LTC, USAR

Identity and disability, Sarai, is a major stumbling block for many of our veterans who have served in peace and wartime. Women and men can be injured (and killed) during training as well as in conflict. Loss of arms and legs present challenges when trying to dress for job interviews, work and at home. Alterations can be costly if you do not know how to adjust for deformities or prosthesis, particularly if you have multiple ones.

Some problems develop over time. I was injured in combat training, resulting in severe kyphosis due to high steroid intake, loss of height ( four inches in ten years), and skin sensitivity allowing only for natural fabric.

Assault and rape is an ongoing issue in all the services for both men and women. The results are both physical and mental. Returning to the civilian world, you no longer have the uniform of the day listed which solved the problem of what to wear to work.

Selecting clothing becomes a conflict between wanting to trying to getting back to feeling good about ones self, and at the same time, feeling safe you cannot be accused of sending sexual come on messages. It is hard to get these veterans to come out of their apartments or homes.

I do enjoy this website for the length and breadth of the subject matter which delves beneath the superficial skimming of how we got to wear we are with our fashions, techniques, sources which can be immediately accessed as well as references for further researching. The community who participate are knowledgeable on so many subjects and come from all over the world.

Thank you for letting me read and “listen”.

Crab & Bee crabandbee.com

Thank you for this beautiful post. “The Broken Column” was a painting I encountered in my first year of college and its impact on me was huge. I didn’t have a spinal deformity, but I knew how it felt, figuratively, to feel fragmented (by eating and body issues) and that my insides propped up by an external structure.

When I was younger, and closer to those painful times, I didn’t feel capable of talking about what I’d been through. I thought it was a mark on my character. As I grow older, I’ve come to see working my way through them as one of my greatest strengths. I’m sorry to hear that you went through so much pain, but am in admiration at your resilience! Thanks again, Sarai, for adding this discussion to the sewing community.

angela bonnechanceblogspot.blogspot.com

So artfully said! Thank you for sharing your own personal experience, although I have not had that kind of physical pain, I have had my own mental problems and anguish to deal with which I don’t enjoy talking about either.. I have come through it all, and still as you say struggle through to express myself and be who I am despite it all and all of my insecurities. The online sewing community is one of the kindest and most compassionate sets of people I have found! Frida’s clothing was so beautiful, and her need to express herself with everything she did truly inspiring!

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