What a life! What a woman! What an incredible human. The life of Frida Kahlo - Mexican painter, feminist, activist, outspoken artist, storyteller of life, phenomenal woman - is such an original work of art; you can’t help but be inspired.
This is a human who as soon as I learned about, I admired. Yet I did not develop a deep appreciation for her until I met another strong woman and good friend who had a deep appreciation. It was my wonderful and lively Peruvian friend, Sandra, who adored Frida and adorned her home with photos and dolls with Frida’s face. There were also trinkets, handicrafts from travels, and fresh cut flowers - all reminiscent of La Casa Azul in their color and personality. It was like seeing someone for the first time through new eyes.
Frida is an icon. She’s fierce and unapologetic. She is a tower of strength in a petite frame. This woman endured great pain and tragedy. She experienced life and came out on top; she would not let life or her experiences get the best of her.
It was not an easy life and she found beauty in it still. As a young girl, she contracted Polio, which left her right leg a little shorter than the other. She walked with a limp, which caused her hips and spine to form by compensation during formative growth years, her spine twisting to the limp. This malformation would cause her pelvis to deform, rendering Frida unable to have children later on.
Some years later, as a teenager, her leg would be of disservice to her again when she was in a bus accident. One day in 1925, Frida was riding a wooden bus with her then boyfriend when it got struck by an electric trolley car. The impact shattered the bus and caused damage to many of the riders, perhaps most of all to Frida. A piece of bus pinned her down and a handrail pierced her lower body and pelvis. Frida would undergo 30 surgeries throughout the rest of her life to repair the damaged caused, sometimes leaving her bedridden for months at a time.
After the accident, while in bed recuperating unable to move all but her arms, Frida took to painting to keep her mind busy. She painted friends and family. She painted self-portraits with the use of mirrors. She painted her pain and her body cast. She painted all her scars and broken pieces. She put it all out there, nothing to hide.
Eventually, she would marry renowned painter Diego Rivera. It was a tumultuous relationship, but there was passion and love. She did get pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. Neither one of them were faithful to each other. They divorced once and remarried the following year.
Throughout all of this, Frida painted what she saw and felt. With every painting, she conveyed a story of her life, the way she saw herself and the world around her. To me, this is part of her legacy - using painting as therapy and storytelling in a way that set her apart from other artists of that time.
Why do I admire Frida?
She did not have an easy life and she is the hero in her own story. Frida struggled and fought and survived. This example of how she lived her life is nothing short of inspiring and empowering. If she can survive that, I can survive this life of mine.
She was brave and bold. She was unapologetic. She took up space – a lot of it. She carved her own path and became recognized for that. To me, she is such a good representation of someone living their truth. She was broken, at times mentally, but physically for sure. Yet though she was wounded, she remained incredibly strong. One of my favorite stories about her is when she had her first solo art show in Mexico. She was bedridden at the time and refused to miss the show so she was transported on her bed to the museum, dressed in a colorful skirt and flowers in her hair.
She inspires me because she lived and she lost and she carried on with her broken pieces, baring her soul to the world. I have also lived and lost and it took me years to carry on, afraid of baring my soul, knowing that wounds only heal when they are exposed to air.
I wasn’t broken physically, but emotionally I was in pieces. I experienced a loss so great, my heart shattered. My soul crushed. My spirit practically demolished. And I rebuilt myself slowly over a period of years. I’m still piecing myself back together – sewing myself back together if you will. Frida inspires me because she also pieced herself back together through painting and fashion and loving. These are complimentary avenues of self-healing for me and I see my reflection in Frida via these avenues. Perhaps you’ve walked down the same avenues.
Frida walked with a limp after her surgery and she wore full skirts and dresses as a way to mask that. She dressed up in clothes and jewels that made her happy, that made her feel like herself, shirts with bright floral designs that embraced her Mexican heritage. Well, she may have started wearing these clothes to impress Diego with more traditional Mexican fashions, but she created a look with them all on her own. Her style is celebrated decades after her death. She created a look that was undeniable hers, and that, too, is a legacy.
To live with our broken pieces, to live with our beating hearts outside of ourselves – to me – is truly a sign of courage. Embracing my own pain and tragic past is something that has been hard for me. I’ve feared reliving my pain, afraid I won’t be able to handle it only to find out that wounds will always heal. I feel that Frida exemplified this with her art. “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” There’s no hiding from it once it’s out there. Putting our embarrassments, shame, and broken pieces on the table doesn’t make us weak. It makes us powerful. It makes us human.
The power of style
The power of clothes and the stories we tell ourselves are two sides of the same coin. When we look good, we feel good; when we feel good, we have the power to change. That’s the power of fashion. What you tell yourself becomes your reality. What we say we can or cannot do, we can or cannot do. It’s that simple.
To dress up as a woman known for her originality, strength, feminine mystique, and style is empowering. It’s hard to walk with flowers in your hair and not be confident, to not feel beautiful. Similarly, I find it hard to wear a bowtie as a woman and not feel confident. They are both small, yet potent accents. Frida projected a certain image of herself by how she dressed. And projected another by what she painted. They were so intertwined. Her dress was happy and beautiful and colorful and lively. Her life was all of those things, too, but it was also painful and hard and uncomfortable and tragic. Everything existed in the same realm. The beauty. The pain. The spectrum. It was everywhere at the same time. And that’s what makes her memorable. That’s what made her stand out and force you to pay attention.
Fashion is a powerful tool that we can use to our benefit. On the days when you can’t find your own strength, I encourage you to borrow someone else’s. No matter what decade or century throughout the history of time, we all go through the human experience. Sometimes, everyone all at once, and other times, it’s the most personal and isolating experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll experience both. It will be terrible at the time, of course. But you will know your strength. You will know of what you are capable. And in time, you will grow and bloom. And shine.
I encourage all of you - females, males, and gender spectrums in between – find a heroine or hero in your life. How do you pay homage to them? Do you pay homage to them? You don’t have to go to the nines, but something as simple as a flower in your hair, red lipstick, those pinstripe pants, wingtip shoes, or even a bowtie. Wear them. Feel fierce. Let the mixture of you and your hero feed fire to your soul.