Clothing, or lack thereof, has long been a topic of exploration in feminist art communities. In 1989, the Guerilla Girls famously observed that less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections of New York’s Metroplitan Museum of Art are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female. In 1964, Yoko Ono performed her now-legendary “Cut Piece,” wherein audience members removed pieces of clothing from her body with a knife until she was publicly bare.
Indeed, clothing and our gendered relationship to it continues to be a site of analysis, performance, and resistance for feminist artists. How appropriate, then, that a new exhibition in Mexico City showcases the wardrobe of one of the art world’s most beloved feminist icons. Las Apariencias Engañan (Appearances Can be Deceiving) features more than 300 pieces from Frida Kahlo’s personal collection of dresses, costumes, medical paraphernalia, and accessories. The collection was carefully excavated by museum workers from inside the rooms of La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s former home and place of creative residence. The space, now called El Museo de Frida Kahlo, also houses the exhibit.
Vogue Mexico, which sponsored the event, featured the artist on its cover for the first time this past October, making the exhibit one of the rare sites where feminist art and mainstream fashion intersect on such a grand scale. And the exhibition’s power and poignancy arises out of Kahlo’s relationship to garments—a relationship defined by self-expression, feminine and ethnic pride, and the painful physical challenges she endured. For Kahlo, the act of decoration seemed to function as an extension of her vibrant internal landscape, a medium for articulating deeply personal beliefs. What more intimate way to display this than on her own person?
Some of Frida Kahlo’s accessories (Photo credit: Flickr/Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures)
Kahlo is often considered a surrealist painter, but the physical pain with which she lived—the result of a horrific bus accident in her youth—was inextricable from her own reality. The inclusion of Kahlo’s various medical accessories in Las Apariencias Engañan, among them the prosthetic leg and medical corsets she wore beneath her dresses, reach beyond her artistic life to reveal the bodily struggles she confronted daily. Viewing them feels almost uncomfortably voyeuristic, but their display amplifies the intimate force of Kahlo’s work.
One piece emblematic of a public identity formed through dress is Kahlo’s plaster corset, emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle. An active communist, Kahlo wore this symbol over her chest, a constant reminder and statement of her political loyalties. Kahlo’s willingness to wear these personal vulnerabilities publicly instill her work and life with monumental power. Fashion publications and press buzz aside, Kahlo presents a relationship to fashion that feminists can feel excited about exploring: One that views the body and its decoration as a constantly unfolding process of self-identification.