Her work, her life, her look — Frida Kahlo is nothing short of iconic. And although she stands in a category of her own making, the newest Arkansas Arts Center exhibit "Photographing Frida: Portraits of Frida Kahlo" provides an intimate look at Kahlo's personal life, as captured by the lenses of those around her.
To learn more about the legacy and lore of Mexico's best-known artist, we caught up with fashion historian Raissa Bretaña ahead of her AAC lecture "Her Own Muse: Fashioning Frida." Based in New York, Bretaña presents fashion lectures across the globe, has worked with the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is currently stationed at the New-York Historical Society where she educates visitors about fashion history and the women’s suffrage movement.
Describe your fashion sense in three words.
Playful, vintage-inspired glamour
What aspects of your career prepared you for "Fashioning Frida?"
As a fashion historian, you don't simply study the history of clothing, but also the context in which it exists and social constructs that shape it. So, in ways, you are also a social historian, a design historian, an art historian, a practitioner of material culture. It's the latter two which especially prepared me for this lecture on Frida Kahlo and allowed me to draw parallels between her artwork and the clothing items she left behind. It was also essential to view Frida's fashioned image through the lens of social history to appreciate the ways in which she subverted gender roles and beauty standards.
Do you see any characteristics of Frida's in yourself?
I do share some of her style principles like her proclivity for mixing vintage and modern pieces while adding quirky accessories to create a unique look inspired by aesthetics of the past. I also share her devotion to cosmetics. Like Frida, I am rarely seen without manicured fingernails and my signature red lipstick. Overall, I identify with the inherent femininity of her style but also strive to embody the strength and charisma she so powerfully exudes in photographs.
Do you have a favorite image of her?
My favorite image of Frida is that by Nickolas Muray taken in 1939, featuring her in full-color and wearing a pair of hand-shaped earrings gifted to her by Pablo Picasso. The photograph perfectly captures the whimsical nature of her unique style, and she even wears a coquettish smirk to match! Not to mention, I desperately want a pair of those incredible earrings for myself!
What elements make Frida iconic in both her work and her likeness?
I believe that what makes Frida Kahlo so iconic was her mastery of the art of image-making. Perhaps more than any other artist, she fashioned an image of herself that has nearly eclipsed her iconic artworks in the realm of public recognition. This is due in part to the nature of her paintings (which were overwhelmingly self-portraits), but I think the phenomena owes much more to her conscious self-styling and indisputable originality. She claimed that she was her own muse—and I would go further to say that she was her own greatest work of art.
Frida's fashions were nothing short of intentional. How can we take steps to be more intentional in our own wardrobes?
I think we could all benefit from the consciousness with which she used clothing as an expression of her beliefs and persona. It seems that she was so keenly aware of the significance that each garment or accessory held when she put it on her body.
In the age of fast fashion, clothing has become so disposable and impersonal that it’s easy to go through life without any meaningful connection to the things that we wear. We could emulate some of Frida’s stylistic oeuvre by striving to understand the sartorial narrative behind our own clothing by identifying the aspects of it that we find compatible with our own unique personas.
At the very least, we should be inspired by the fearlessness with which she wore color, mixed patterns, accessorized lavishly and expressed herself freely.
Photographing Frida: Portraits of Frida Kahlo
Arkansas Arts Center | through April 14