Story:Mark Ferguson

“Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibits paintings, drawings, photographs and films examining these artists’ tumultuous relationship. On Wednesday 10th August 6.30pm Hilary Davidson, will give a free talk , “Frida and fashion” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Hilary Davidson is a fashion historian, curator and consultant working between Sydney and London, where she was curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London

After seeing “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera” I asked Hilary a few questions the exhibition raised for me.

HG: In the first half of the 20th Century, in Frida’s time, photography was less spontaneous. Photographs of Frida reinforce the style projected in her self portraits. Are we seeing “the real” Frida or do we only know a carefully crafted image?

Hilary: Frida really grasped the power of the photograph for creating self-images, She courted and befriended leading male and female photographers of the day and worked with them to make the images. She lived so much or her life as a decorated being, as a walking artwork, that the photographs are as much a part of her artistic legacy as her paintings or her clothing. With Frida, she lived her art so deeply the carefully crafted image is about the same as the real person.


HG: Frida’s clothes have influenced our idea of Mexican traditional dress. Does Frida simply borrow from her cultural tradition or does she heavily personalize it?

Hilary: Frida used Tehuana traditional dress to inspire her wardrobe. She wore a number of genuine pieces yet also had new ones in traditional style, like the square huipil tops, made up in modern fabrics by Indian seamstresses. What is interesting about the sartorial strategies revealed when her wardrobe was opened in 2004 is how she kept to the same silhouettes even when she worn Western fashion – high necked blouses, long skirts. It was a way of personalising Tehuana style while keeping its spirit. She also wore clothing from other areas of Mexico, and Guatemala. One of the reasons traditional dress worked so well for her was that the long skirts covered her withered leg, and the full blouses hid her endless medical corsets and braces. The voluminous clothes hid her physical deficiencies while expressing her fierce sense of self.

Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) 1943

Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) 1943

HG: Frida rarely adhered to the adage to accessorize and then take something off. However, her many necklaces, earrings, bangles and the flowers in her hair seamlessly compliment her clothing. How does Frida achieve such a complex style without looking cluttered or inconsistent?

Hilary: By drawing on ethnic clothing, Frida was evoking the isthmus culture of strong women, and hundreds of years of proud, dignified visual identity. That history lends an integrity to even the most eclectic of fashion mixes. The jewellery and accessories were as much a part of Frida’s Tehuana identity as the clothing and so works seamlessly with it. She also collected pre-Columbian jewellery and wore it as a political statement of her Mexicanidad.

HG: Frida is often photographed smoking at a time when suffragettes smoked their “Torches of Freedom”. Does Frida smoke as a political statement, a stylistic pose or an addiction?

Hilary: Bohemian culture in the early twentieth century was clouded by smoking men and women. It was very common, and a part of the lifestyle of the crowds Frida moved in; perhaps an addiction, perhaps a pleasant social activity like drinking. Frida’s life was so politically minded that probably was also a dimension of that awareness in her image creation.


The love embrace of the universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, me and Senor Xolotl 1949

The love embrace of the universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, me and Senor Xolotl 1949

HG: And of course, we have to ask about the… how we should put it… hirsute brow and upper lip. Why would such a striking woman with a distinctive image, make such an unusual grooming choice?

Hilary: Even at the time Frida’s (in)famous monobrow-and-moustache combination was outlandish. It strikes me as a rebellion against social ideas about how women should look, and be respectable, and reinforced her determined individualism. Mexican women were influenced by current beauty ideals from London, Paris and New York, which didn’t necessarily work on the Latina body. In the same way Frida the artist looked unflinchingly in the mirror of her pain and reproduced it, Frida the woman – if we can even separate the two – showed her face to the world exactly as it was, unchanged by social norms, embracing the difference of her native country. She fashioned her flaws into beauty, and now, that monobrow is an iconic part of the Frida look.

Self Portrait with Monkey 1938

Self Portrait with Monkey 1938

This popular exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales has been extended to 23rd October.
It’s a good idea to book in advance on the AGNSW website.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection
25th Jun 2016 – 23th Oct 2016

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