The surrealist art of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Her emotional, dream-like paintings were often self-portraits and placed her in a world of allegories manifested into real events as she solemnly looks on. Kahlo’s keen eye and fearless nature weren’t only displayed on her canvasses; she made her body and her clothing forms of artistic broadcast as well. But, for decades after her death her wardrobe was kept a secret.
Kahlo was married to famed muralist and painter, Diego Rivera. The pair made headlines when they traveled to the US for Rivera’s commissioned murals in places like San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. Their tumultuous relationship began in 1929 and was filled with infidelities and even ended in divorce before they were reunited in later life and married for a second time.
While Rivera was in some aspects a poor partner for Kahlo, he was also accepting of her in ways that many others were not. Kahlo had suffered from polio as a child, leaving one of her legs shriveled in comparison to the other. Furthermore, a horrific bus accident left her with dozens of broken bones, a pierced uterus, and many other health problems that followed her for the rest of her life. These events clashed with her underlying health problems to create a perfect storm of lifelong illness and disability.
Until her death Kahlo had to wear various braces and casts, and these were changed out depending on how her numerous corrective surgeries had gone. Part of her right leg was amputated in 1953 due to an ongoing infection of gangrene, and she died only a year later.
While losing her leg was devastating to Kahlo and made her suicidal, she eventually embraced using a prosthetic leg- but not without customizing it. She had special wedged leather boots of Chinese red made, embroidered with glittering gold threads and adorned with little bells. Fashion choices like these gave her some agency over her painful, unpredictable, and always-ailing body.
Kahlo embraced the theater of illness. She often had holes cut out of her plaster torso casts following her surgeries to showcase to friends and visitors the unhealed incision wounds. These same casts would be decorated with elaborate paintings and doodles, turning her medical devices into artistic spectacles.
Her clothes and hair were also intensely unique. She chose traditional Mexican garb most of the time, including the bright, blocky blouses so popular in Mexico and South America. Long skirts of bold patterns emblazoned with contrasting ribbons and lace comprised the lower half of her outfits and the look was often completed with crossed braids atop her head, sometimes crowned with flowers as if attending festivals on a daily basis.
Though he married again in 1955, Rivera was so heartbroken by her death that he ordered that her wardrobe be packed up and stuffed in one of the bathrooms of their La Casa Azul home. He further wished that these items remain untouched for at least 15 years after his own death. As it turned out, his end would be only a few years after Kahlo died.
The items in this secret wardrobe were forgotten about for decades and were only rediscovered around 2004 when the Frida Kahlo Museum (housed at La Casa Azul) unpacked them all and began the process of cataloging the items. The subsequent exhibit, entitled Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, was initially held at the museum, but in recent years the exhibit has traveled around the world.
The clothes have also been documented in a new book from Japanese photographer, Ishiuchi Miyako, who took pictures of the items against a white background to showcase their vibrant colors and textures for her new book, Frida by Ishiuchi.
Not only were her flamboyant clothes and decorated medical devices part of the secret wardrobe, her forgotten belongings included a pair of flashy cat-eye sunglasses. Despite her pronounced limp and famous unibrow, Kahlo was notoriously vain and always had lipstick, rouge, and nail polish on hand. Among the locked-away possessions were at least 3 bottles of Revlon nail polish: a clear coat, a fuchsia called frosted pink lightning, and a lighter shade called frosted pink snow.