As far as exhibiting fashion in the UK goes, the V&A are the elite.  When it comes to giving access to carefully curated collections by some of the most iconic people held aloft as icons for fashion, then they’ve had a pretty explosive line up over the past few years.  Savage Beauty, an exhibition of the late Lee Alexander McQueen‘s work saw a record number of people hit the V&A during its term and the current, smaller, Balenciaga exhibit isn’t far behind it.  This influx of awesome fashion memorabilia in the walls of the V&A museum has seen an influx of fashionistas flocking to the museum.  Now though, it’s the turn of a different kind of icon to take the spotlight…

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

This summer, the V&A will explore how Frida Kahlo, one of the most recognised and significant artists and women of the 20th century, fashioned her identity.  Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up will be the first exhibition outside of Mexico to display her clothes and intimate possessions, reuniting them with key self-portraits and photographs to offer a fresh perspective on her compelling life story.  The exhibition aims to present an unparalleled insight into Kahlo’s life revealing some objects that have never been on show before. 

Working in close collaboration with Museo Frida Kahlo, the V&A will display more than 200 objects from the Blue House.  Kahlo’s personal items including outfits, letters, jewellery, cosmetics, medicines and medical corsets were discovered in 2004, 50 years after being sealed in the Blue House by her husband Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, following her death in 1954.  Exploring Kahlo’s highly choreographed appearance and style, these include 22 distinctive colourful Tehuana garments; pre-Columbian necklaces that Kahlo strung herself; examples of intricately hand painted corsets and prosthetics which will be displayed alongside film and photography of the artist as a visual narrative of her life.

From the first teaser announcement that the V&A would play host to this collection for a period of five months, fans have flocked to social media to share their stories of how Kahlo has inspired them.  The exhibition will reimagine Kahlo’s home, the Blue House, located in Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, where she was born, lived and died.  It will explore her life as a child with her family up to her marriage to Diego Rivera including an album of architectural church photographs by her German father Guillermo Kahlo, early paintings and photographs of Kahlo and Rivera together and with their influential circle of friends including Communist leader Leon Trotsky.

“A countercultural and feminist symbol, this show will offer a powerful insight into how Frida Kahlo constructed her own identity. This show is a rare opportunity for visitors, offering unique access to an archive that has never left Mexico before.”  Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion at the V&A

Included in Kahlo’s make-up selection is her eyebrow pencil ‘Ebony,’ still in its original packaging, which she used to emphasise that signature and now iconic mono-brow, a defining feature of her self-portraits and her favourite lipstick, Revlon’s ‘Everything’s Rosy’ and red nail varnish.  Her vividly-coloured cosmetics are striking in the celebrated portraits by photographer Nickolas Muray which show her wearing many of the clothes you’ll be able to see on display.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Kahlo empowered herself through her art and dress after suffering a devastating near-fatal bus crash at the age of 18, which rendered her bed-bound and immobilised for protracted periods of time.  Self-portraiture became the primary focus of her art at this point and she began to paint using a mirror inset into the canopy of her four-poster bed.  Much more was understood about Kahlo’s accident after the discovery of the objects in the Blue House.  The exhibition will illuminate this story through items such as her medicines and orthopaedic aids.  Kahlo possessed many supportive bodices and spine back braces and on display will be some of the corsets that she painted with religious and communist symbolism and tragic imagery relating to her miscarriages. 

This new exhibition will explore Kahlo’s Mexico and her sense of cultural pride following the Mexican Revolution.  An enthusiastic desire to embrace a national identity led to her interest in the art and traditions of indigenous people of the country and to her using her striking appearance as a political statement, crafting her identity to reflect her own mestizo identity and allegiance to Mexican identity.

So, what can you expect to see at Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up?

Quite a few key pieces you’ll already be familiar with if you’ve followed the life of this iconic artist and feminist icon, alongside some that will give an insight into how she lived.  There’ll be garments from her personal collection: rebozos, a traditional Mexican shawl, huipiles, an embroidered square-cut top, enaguas and holanes, long skirts, and jewellery ranging from pre-Columbian jade beads to more modern silverwork.  A highlight of the exhibition will be the resplandor, a lace headdress worn by the women of the matriarchal society from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in Southern Mexico, paired with a self-portrait of Kahlo wearing it.  There will also be a wall of ex votos, from Kahlo and Rivera’s collection. These small votive paintings of popular art, made mainly in tin, offered to a saint or to a divinity in gratitude for the fulfillment of a miracle, informed Kahlo’s own paintings.

When Can You See It?

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up will run from June 16th through to November 4th 2018 in Rooms 38 and 38a at the V&A museum in London.  Tickets cost £16 and although there will be walk up tickets available each day, it’s advised that entry to the exhibition is booked in advance to avoid long waits.

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