A major exhibition about Frida Kahlo’s incredible fashion is coming to London

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Moya Crockett
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The worlds of fashion and art have always been closely entwined. Clothes by designers such as Comme des Garcons and Balenciaga have been exhibited as artworks in their own right, while many great artists will always be associated with their trademark outfits. Think of Grayson Perry and his little-girl frocks, Pablo Picasso in his Breton striped T-shirts, and Yayoi Kasuma’s graphic dresses, created specially to complement her sculptures.

But of all the women artists known for their personal style, Frida Kahlo has to be one of the most iconic. It’s impossible to think of the Mexican painter without picturing her bright shawls and floral headpieces, her heavy traditional jewellery and embroidered Tehuana dresses – and now, a major retrospective of Kahlo’s vibrant fashion is coming to London.

The exhibition, provisionally titled Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe, will open at the V&A next summer. Visitors will be able to see clothes and personal items of Kahlo’s up close, including jewellery, photographs and letters never seen before outside of Mexico.

These personal effects were only discovered in 2004, after cupboards and storerooms in Kahlo’s former home – the Blue House in Mexico City – were opened. The Financial Times reports that Kahlo’s husband, the artist Diego Rivera, had sealed these rooms after she died in 1954, demanding that they not be opened until 15 years after his own death.

Rivera died in 1957, but the vaults were not cracked open for 50 years, by which time the Blue House had become the Frida Kahlo Museum.

“The V&A will present the first exhibition to be held outside Mexico of Kahlo’s clothing and personal possessions, including prosthetics, medicines, accessories, jewellery, photographs and letters,” the V&A said in a statement.

“This ground-breaking exhibition will explore the development of Kahlo’s style as an amalgam of traditional Mexican garments, fashion from Europe and beyond, and demonstrate how her wardrobe was expressive of the complex relationship between her Mexican and Western heritage.”

Born in 1907 to a German Jewish father and a Mexican mother of Amerindian and European descent, Kahlo was committed to fashion as well as her art. She often hand-painted her dresses and corsets to make them unique, and clothes make frequent appearances in her self-portraits and landscapes.

The V&A confirmed that the paintings My Dress Hangs There (1933) and The Love Embrace (1943) will both form part of the retrospective.  

Kahlo’s magical realist portraits and landscapes were heavily influenced by Mexican popular culture, folk art and European Renaissance paintings, exploring themes of feminism, postcolonialism and disability.

She suffered from ill health for most of her life, after contracting polio as a child and being caught in a devastating bus crash at the age of 18. Later, she developed gangrene, which meant she had to have toes removed and her right leg amputated from below the knee. Some of her orthopaedic devices, medicines and prosthetic limbs will appear at the V&A.

“Frida Kahlo is one of the most iconic and recognisable artists of the last century,” said Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A. “Rediscovered 50 years after her death, a remarkable collection of her clothes, jewellery and personal possessions, integral to her art and identity, are coming to the V&A in 2018.

“We are very excited that the V&A will bring together Frida’s fashion, medical corsets, make-up and other personal items with her self-portraits to better understand and celebrate this remarkable artist.”

The exhibition will run at the V&A from 16 June to 4 November 2018.

Main image: Section from ‘Self-Portrait with Red and Gold Dress’, 1941, courtesy of The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Foundation. Other images: Rex Features