Costume in Frida Kahlo’s Art: A Representation of Post-Revolutionary Nationalist Ideology, Mexican Female Indigeneity, and Mestizo Identity

Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray
Reading Time: 24 minutes

On this day in 1907, legendary artist, feminist icon, and extraordinary woman, Frida Kahlo was born, whose worldwide popularity has been on the rise ever since the early nineties. Her art, personal narrative, disability-stricken and tragedy-enduring, yet fully, passionately lived life has captivated many hearts after biographies have been published about her – no wonder she is an ever so celebrated icon these days. I had always been fascinated with the way she dressed, so when researching for my dissertation for my BA Costume and Performance Design course, I decided to analyse her as a performance artist, and look into the semiotics (signs, symbols and meanings carried) in her dress.

You can find a figures and reference list on the bottom.Featured image is a collage made by me using Nickolas Muray’s photographs. Images via My Modern Met

Costume in Frida Kahlo’s Art: A Representation of Post-Revolutionary Nationalist Ideology, Mexican Female Indigeneity, and Mestizo Identity

Frida Kahlo's costumes

Fig. 1: Kahlo’s costumes exhibited at the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, 2012

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the world-known Mexican artist, whose art André Breton described as a ‘ribbon round a bomb’ (Baddeley, 1991, p.14), is now regarded as a renowned feminist icon. Her posthumous popularity could be attributed to the many articles that started emerging just before, and during the third wave of feminism in the early 1990s – commencing with Herrera’s biography (1983,1989) of her (Misemer, 2008, p.17). Such a ‘broad interest in a figure so intricately tied to a certain geography and history is unusual’ (ibid, p.18).

The intense life she lived despite her disability-stricken body, ferocious relationship with Diego Rivera, and stereotype-challenging bisexuality and cross-dressing all appeared in her artworks, which are often read to be revealing her personal feelings.

She, however, did not restrict her self-expression to a brush and canvas.

Nowadays, she would likely be described as a performance artist; besides her paintings and lithographs, the other medium she used to express her political, social

and cultural ideologies was her own body (Misemer, 2008, p.17). Performance art ‘often seeks to destabilize traditional notions of “culture” and “art” as it subverts repressive, hierarchial and patriarchal societies’ (Taylor, n.d., in Misemer, 2008, p.17).

Inseparable from Kahlo’s character is the Tehuana costume, the traditional wear of Zapotec Indians of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a famously matriarchal society (see Fig. 1). Baddeley (1991, p.12) mentions the symbolic importance of her choice of clothing, representing the strength of the Tehuanas; and by wearing indigenous costume, she also approved post-revolutionary nationalist ideology. Other sources, however, argue that it was in fact her husband, Diego Rivera, who ‘scripted her role as a revolutionary Tehuana’ (Belnap, 2001, p.4). At the same time, it was a practical choice of clothing as well; to hide her polio-stricken, thinner and shorter right leg.

‘Her conscious appropriation of both ancient and contemporary cultural signs and symbols reflects […] her personal transition, [which] mirrors Mexico itself, in a “phase of self-examination and self-definition after the Revolution.’

(Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.20)

In my essay, I aim to follow this transition by examining various self-portraits and photographs taken of Kahlo. Through this, I am going to explore the origin of the Tehuana costume and the myths about the utopian matriarchal society of Tehuantepec (Taylor, 2006, and Chassen-López, 2014), and the various reasons Kahlo may have chosen to wear it. To support my arguments, I will be studying theories about the ‘mirror phase’ (Lacan, in Mulvey, 2001) the connection between dress, identity, and language (Wilson, 2001, and Calefato, 2004), the ‘heterosexual division of labour’ (Cixous, 2001), the ‘male gaze’ (Mulvey, 2001), and interculturalism and hybridity (Schechner, 2002).

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress by Frida Kahlo

Fig. 2: Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress (Kahlo, 1926)

In Kahlo’s first self-portrait, Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress (Kahlo, 1926), she appears in a luxurious-looking velvet gown in a purple-burgundy colour (see Fig. 2). The lapel is lined with a rich, floral fabric, and the cuff is embellished with multiple layers of exquisite fabric. In this early painting – especially because of the age-old connotation of the Tyrian purple of Roman emperors with nobility – Kahlo resembles to be of royal origin; a woman of high class. This piece of work was created during the time she was tied to bed, recovering from her nearly fatal trolley accident.

The joy of self-portraiture can be explained by Lacan’s theory of the ‘mirror phase’; the time where children are able to recognise their reflection in the mirror, which is a joyous discovery, as these reflections appear ‘to be more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body’ (Mulvey, 2001, p.187), creating a misrecognition of a superior image of themselves.

Since Kahlo spent so much of her time in solitary pain and recovery, painting – self- portraits, in particular – gave her solace, and creating her own image in various scenarios, a voluntary representation of herself. Similarly, representing herself through dress was just as important for her.

Time Flies by Frida Kahlo

Fig. 3: Self Portrait – Time Flies (Kahlo, 1929)

In her second self-portrait titled Self Portrait – Time Flies (Kahlo, 1929), her dress presents a completely different person to the viewer. Her white blouse, trimmed with lace, is among the easily acquired merchandise of Mexican markets, making her appear as an ordinary Mexican (see Fig. 3). The drop-earrings are of colonial style, and the heavy jade beads encircling her neck trace back to Aztec and Mayan traditions (ibid).

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, jade, regarded more valuable than gold, was a symbol of preciousness, water, sky, and vegetation, and it was frequently used in jewellery by the Aztecs (Mack, 1994, p.135). For the Mayans, it also bore spiritual significance (Tait, 2007, p.133).

With this self-portrait, Kahlo began to present herself as an authentic Mexican. The fact that it was created in the same year she married Diego Rivera – the famously nationalist revolutionary artist – raises the question whether this decision was entirely Kahlo’s, or fuelled by a desire to fulfil her husband’s ideal.

Frida Kahlo Diego Rivera wedding

Fig. 4: The Riveras’ wedding, 1929

Indeed, her first step in transforming into the authentic Mexican woman she wanted to present to the world was borrowing an Indian maid’s ruffled dress and rebozo (shawl) to wear at her wedding with Rivera (see Fig 4) (Herrera, 1983, p.109).

According to Wilson (2001, p.148), there is no denial of the many societal roles – aesthetic, communicative and symbolic – and meanings dress carries. It ‘links the biological body to the social being, and public to private’ (ibid, p.147), demanding the recognition of the human body as more than a plain organism. By performing all of these roles, and bearing psychological significance as well, dress, this self-expressing artistic medium, becomes a set of ‘stage props for [the] public self’ (ibid, p.148).

Clothing and adornments aide their wearer to turn a ‘fragmentary self’ (ibid, 152) into ‘the semblance of a unified identity’ (ibid), as one performs on the ample stage that is the outside world. Calefato, quoting Wittgenstein, states that ‘language and dress are sign systems through which […] what counts is not so much what is ‘underneath’, but rather the surface as such, the system or pattern itself which body and thought assume’ (2004, p.5).

‘Dress functions as a kind of “syntax”, [..] depending on whether we are dealing with traditional costume or fashion [allowing] a garment, and body coverings in general, to acquire meaning, whether that of a veritable social significance, codified in costume through time, or a pure and simple exhibition of interconnected signs on the body following associative criteria established by the fashion system’.

(Calefato, 2004, P.5)

Clothing – this simultaneously personal and social act – is a tool of self-representation that ‘establishes solidarities, differences and social hierarchies’ (Perrot, n.d., in Chassen-López, 2014, p.290).

Frida Kahlo by Weston   Frida Kahlo by Cunningham
Fig. 5: Frida Kahlo (Weston, 1930)                 Fig. 6: Frida Kahlo (Cunningham, 1930)

For Kahlo, fashion was a public statement (Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.8). During her visits to the States with her husband, she posed for photographs with carefully arranged Aztec jewellery adorning her body, and her shoulders draped in beautiful rebozos (see Fig. 5 and 6). These modern manifestations of a pre-Hispanic Mexico drew attention to the country’s rich diversity, thus ‘communicated Mexican revolutionary cultural tenets as clearly as did Rivera’s murals’ (ibid, p.8-10). She turned her body into yet another canvas for her art. Through the daily rituals consisting of carefully picking out her clothes, meticulously twisting her hair into intricate braids with flowers or ribbons atop, and exhibiting a constantly changing array of jewellery on her fingers, neck, and in her ears, she created an image she wanted to present to the world that day. (Herrera, 1989, p.110) Adorning herself was just like painting; both were a process of self-creation (Knafo, 1991, P.13).

Frida Kahlo with family

Fig. 7 Kahlo with her sisters and cousins, ca.1924

In the early 20th century, Mexican elites and middle classes imitated European fashions, which was seen by the intelligentsia as a positive symbol of modernity (Franco, n.d., in Chassen-López, 2014, p.297). Unlike Kahlo’s other family members, who sported low-waisted, bias-cut dresses of the Western fashion of the 1920s, Frida can be seen wearing menswear in various cases (see Fig. 7) – with an overt provocative intention – and later, the traditional indigenous costume of Tehuantepec.

This enigmatic costume originates from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, inhabited by Zapotec Indians. It is a region where ‘women are visible and vocal within the most public spheres of society’ (Taylor, p.815).

Women in Tehuantepec byModotti,   Frida Kahlo in Tehuana dress by Muray

Fig. 8: Women in Tehuantepec (Modotti, ca.1929)    Fig. 9: Kahlo in Tehuana costume  (Muray, 1939)

The traje de tehuana (Tehuana costume) consists of an adorned, embroidered or beribboned, square-cut blouse called the huipile, and a long skirt, the falta, often made of velvet, complete with a lace ruffle or flounce on the bottom (Chassen-López, 2014, p.282) (see Fig. 8 and 9). The huipile carries a number of symbols and is equipped with personal power – it is somewhat of a biography of its owner. By examining its pattern, one can learn about its wearer’s origin, social and family status, and religious

background. Made of two or three layers of fabric, connected with decorative embroidery, they are folded and sewn together, leaving an opening in the middle for the head. Each blouse and skirt is unique. Hand-woven geometric patterns and hand- embroidered flower motifs decorate these garments. (Remund, 2009) This ensemble is completed with a scarf, flowers or ribbons braided into the hair, and gold filigree jewellery (Chassen-López, 2014, p.282).

Following the ten-year Mexican Revolution, a nationalist movement began in the 1920s, which saw the rise of the image of the native Mexican and mestizos – people of mixed Mexican Indian and Spanish blood – as the protagonists of the revolution, with the latter becoming the equivalent of class identity (Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.8 and Taylor, p.829.). A search began for ‘authentic “Mexican” ethnicity’ (Meskimmon, 1996, p.185), leading to the revival of pre-Columbian culture. Nationalism was cultivated in education and the arts, with political leaders developing specific programs for the purpose (ibid). The nationalist movements involved wearing traditional Mexican costumes; a trend for which even the current president, Porfirio Diaz advocated.

Contrary to popular belief, the Tehuana costume was not the ‘primitive vestige of pre- Columbian indigenous civilizations’ (Chassen-López, 2014, p.282). As capitalism and consumption expanded on the Isthmus in the late 1800s, the traje developed and changed, representing the blending of modern fashion with indigenous traditions. Innovations – driven by Juana Catalina Romero, a major textile importer and successful businesswoman, among others – transformed the traje into a locally and nationally consumable commodity. The indigenous Zapotec dress, the ‘bejeweled Tehuana’ (ibid, p.284) had become a national symbol by the 1920s; an emblem of both Mexican unity and diversity (ibid). It seems rather ironic, therefore, that this national symbol was a somewhat artificially constructed emblem; a product of the capitalist and consumerist expansion on the Isthmus (ibid, p.285).

Banknote with Tehuana

Fig. 10: Banknote with a Tehuana

From stock images in popular theatre, through advertising to gift objects, images of the Tehuana started appearing in a multitude of places, including the front of a ten- peso note in the late 1930s (see Fig. 10) (ibid, p.289). However, these were only outdated, stereotypical representations of Mexican indigeneity, lacking a depiction of the richness and spiritual abundance of their culture (Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.8).

As Chin (1991, pp.87,94, in Schechner, 2002, p.227) explains,

Interculturalism hinges on the question of autonomy and empowerment. To deploy elements from the symbol system of another culture is a very delicate enterprise.

Indigenous ‘costume’ of the Isthmus arose as ‘fashion’ for Mexicans outside of it (Chassen-López, 2014, p.290), but while they attempted to depict indigeneity as the ‘root, essence, or core of all “true” Mexicans’ (Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.8), the majority of indigenous people were far from integration into mainstream Mexican society (ibid).

While Kahlo seems to have been among the first female artists to dress in regional costumes (Herrera, 1992), she was nevertheless following a nationalist trend that appears to have been somewhat of cultural appropriation.

Zapotec women and their ‘elaborate blouses, flowing skirts, ample bodies’ (Taylor, p.815) and dignified way of walking have become ‘paragons of Mexican female beauty and independence’ (ibid). Their beauty, presence, and dress were praised by outside observers, along with their public activity (Chassen-López, 2014, p.281-282). Images of this independent region, where gender configurations and relations stretch beyond Judith Butler’s definition of a ‘heterosexual matrix’ (1990, xxviii, in Taylor, 2006, p.817), evoked a myth that regards the place as a matriarchal utopia (Taylor, 2006, p.817).

In film, photography, and literature, through eroticized poses and exaggerated descriptions, this peculiar region has been mythologized as a ‘languid and lusty garden of earthly delights, where public space, economic exchange, and humor are exclusively feminine domains’ (Taylor, 2006, p.820), and men are meek little nobodies (ibid, p.819). This most likely reflected these writers’, travellers’, and artists’ own desire for an independence from the ‘patriarchal domination and capitalist alienation’ (ibid) surrounding them. A famous example for this is Eisenstein’s unfinished film of the 1930s, Que viva Mexico, where his depiction of Tehuantepec was his own ‘protosocialist, erotic utopia’ (ibid).

This phenomenon is similar to Western paparazzi’s profit-driven manipulation and exploitation of indigenous people, oblivious to cultural differences (Schechner, 2002, p.237). In this case, rather than animalistic and primitive representations, it is exoticism that fuelled these exaggerated depictions of Tehuantepec.

Blossoms of Fire, Tehuantepec Women

Fig. 11: Tehuantepec women
Blossoms of Fire (Gosling, 2000)

The documentary, Blossoms of Fire (Gosling, 2000), however, seeks to provide a more realistic portrayal of this indigenous people’s everyday life. Albeit it was filmed recently, the women are seen in the same bold-coloured, floral and in other ways embellished, elaborate skirts and blouses, as in Kahlo’s time (see Fig. 11).

The women here do not consider their society matriarchal, but to be based on mutual respect and co-operation. Traditionally, women take on roles involving entrepreneurship and management of finances, household affairs and community, while men are in charge of the ‘behind-the-scenes labour in the fields and at sea’ (Taylor, 2006, p.821), but they consider everyone to be equally important and valued in their community. They also seem universally supportive of everyone’s sexual and gender identities, of which the latter is determined by the work the individuals undertake; arriving ‘at gendered identities by performing certain tasks, and only secondarily by outward appearance or sexual identification’ (ibid).

Tehuana women were a recurring motif in Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera’s art as well, and these ‘bathing isthmus maidens with pendulous breasts’ (Taylor, 2006, p.820), who starred in his early murals, allow us to deduct what sort of women he sought after. It would not be surprising, therefore, if besides her own desire of self-expression, Rivera would have been a strong advocate of Kahlo’s choice of clothing as well. The heightened femininity she invested herself with through these elaborate costumes contrasted the tomboyish style she used to don before. She once said, ‘in another period I dressed like a boy with shaved hair, pants, boots and a leather jacket, [..] but when I went to see Diego I put on a Tehuana costume’ (Bambi, 1954, p.1, in Herrera, 1983, p. 109).

While dressing to please does not necessarily imply yet another case of the phenomenon that Mulvey coined as the ‘male gaze’ (2001, p.186), it is a theory worth considering nonetheless, in order to draw attention to an ironic paradox.

Mulvey explains this sensation through Freud’s theory of ‘scopophilia’ (2001, p.186): it is a pleasure found in looking and being looked at – a ‘sexual stimulation through sight’ (Mulvey, 2001, p.186). The roles in this pleasure-making are performed by man and woman according to the twofold division Cixous assigns to the sexes: besides other binary oppositions, she connects masculinity with activity, and femininity with passivity. (2001, p.68) This general ‘subordination of the feminine to the masculine order’ (ibid, p.69), results in a male, who is actively looking, and a female, who is the passive object of that gaze. The male gaze is often ascribed to idealization, where ‘the determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly’ (Mulvey, 2001, pp.187-188).

In Kahlo’s case, the irony is that while she deliberately presented herself as a member of a utopian matriarchal society, where women occupy traditionally masculine, active roles, by doing so, she surrendered to the role of the passive object of her husband’s desires.

Frida and Diego Rivera

Fig. 12: Frida and Diego Rivera (Kahlo, 1931)

Two years after their wedding, she produced the painting Frida and Diego Rivera (Kahlo, 1931), where she depicted herself as a fragile, subordinate woman; a supportive, stable background for her beloved husband’s artistic endeavours. She seems to find security in clutching her husband’s large hand in the centre of the painting (see Fig. 12).

It is painted in the traditional style of Western matrimonial paintings, with the message- bearing doves above the newlyweds. Kahlo, however, appears in an elaborate, flounced green dress – supported by a multitude of petticoats, judging from its ample shape – a fiery red rebozo, heavy Aztec jade necklaces, gold earrings, and green ribbons meticulously braided into her hair. In a Western setting, with the colours of her

dress, she represents the fertile Mexican earth of abundant nature, and the strong, independent Tehuana women, who are in complete contrast with the image of the demure blushing bride traditional in Western societies. This might not be a paradox, but her conscious use of imagery to establish herself as a true mestiza (Meskimmon, 1996, p.80)

‘Straddling the divide between folk or ethnic art and European modernism’ (Meskimmon, 1996, p.185), Kahlo began to emerge as an international and intranational, as well as intercultural and intracultural artist, for her art spanned beyond the borders of her country of origin, and across its regions. Having both Mexican Indian and German roots, she employed both Mexican, European and American imagery, and indigenous and modern symbolism in both her art and dress (Herrera, 1989, p.6).

Self-portrait Along the Boarder Line by Frida Kahlo

Fig. 13: Self-Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States (Kahlo, 1932)

In Self-Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States (Kahlo, 1932). Frida stands on a boundary stone, surrounded by representations of the fertility and vitality of Mexico on the left, and images of the industrial, capitalist United States on the right – epitomising the national and political tendencies of her own dual origins (Meskimmon, 1996, p.185) (see Fig.13). The pink, colonial-style gown pleated at the waist and trimmed with multiple rows of ruffle, and the long, white, fingerless lace gloves she wears give her a girlish, ‘uncharacteristically sweet’ (Herrera, 1992, p.96) look. In contrast, however, the cigarette in her hand, her red leather shoes peeking out from under the ruffles, and her discernible nipples beneath her bodice give her a more mischievous poise (ibid, and Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.10). The composition of her red Aztec necklace with green leaf-shaped beads is similar to Mexican indigenous plants, whilst the colour of her dress tonally blends with the skyscrapers – the first located ‘south’ of her, the latter, ‘north’ (Baddeley, 1991, p.15).

This enigmatic appearance conveys a number of different messages, representing both of her ethnic origins, but at the same time, no culture in particular; breaking off the shackles of her culturally prescribed role. (Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.10)

Positioning herself between two distinct worlds, Kahlo highlights her role as intermediary in the sense of one who is knowledgeable of both cultures and seeks to facilitate an apt representation of each.

(ibid, p.11)

This manifestation could be classified as an intercultural performance, as it spans ‘between or among two or more cultures’ and it emphasises both ‘integrative’ and ‘disjunctive’ elements. (Schechner, 2002, p.226)

Schechner (2002, p.270) explains that cultural purity cannot exist, for all of our everyday cultural practices, such as dress or cooking, are hybrids. He deems hybridity to be the proof of Western cultural imperialism, or an adverse effect of colonialism (ibid, p.227) For him, a hybrid is a ‘cross-racial, polylinguistic, and multicontextual’ (ibid, p.270) individual, who, from an underprivileged stature, expropriates various aspects from his or her roots, in order to open up and fluidify those systems. According to Goméz-Peña (1996, p.12, in Schechner, 2002, p.258), the hybrid’s ‘job is to trespass, bridge, interconnect, reinterpret, remap, and redefine; to find the outer limits of his/her culture and cross them’.

Simultaneously an insider and outsider, Kahlo could merge the ‘problematic notions of self and other, the liquid entities’ (Schechner, 2002, p.270) of the communities, cultures and nations she belonged to or identified with.

While successfully incorporating all of these elements in her art and appearance, there is still an emphasis to be found on the strength she associated with the women of Tehuantepec by using the Tehuana costume as a symbol of power. When she is dressed in it, she seems to be full of strength and hope, whereas she appears as a passive, subordinate, weak woman – a victim of her own fate – when she is dressed in European fashion. (Baddeley, 1991, p.14)

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Fig. 14: The Two Fridas (Kahlo, 1939)

The most famous example for this is the The Two Fridas (Kahlo, 1939), a symbol-rich painting depicting her anguish after her separation from Rivera (see Fig. 14) (Meskimmon, 1996, p.80).

The two selves of Kahlo in this dual portrait are significantly different. The one on the left is wearing a white gown that appears to be of European Edwardian style. Despite the rich lace adorning the bodice and large flounces cascading off her shoulders, perhaps because of the high neck, the bodice resembles the casts she had to wear during her recoveries. In this Western, corseted dress, she seems restricted; one could draw a parallel between the wedding dress-like appearance of the gown and the demure bride so popular in European tradition. In contrast with this is the Tehuana Frida on the right, in an azure huipile with gold embroidered bands, and khaki green falta with a densely pleated flounce. This loose, colourful costume lets her sit more comfortably, and seems to vest her with more power. Indeed, her Mexican self supports her European self by holding her hand and transferring blood from the healthy Mexican heart into the bleeding, hollow European one.

Meskimmon states that a transcendental feminine stance does not exist; ‘merely mimes and parodies of the norm; negotiations of the fact of being ‘other’ to the mainstream’ (1996, p.98). Through whimsical imitation and mimicry, women can defeat masculine norms. The process of mimesis is ‘the essence of a feminist renegotiation of the tradition’ (ibid).

Kahlo’s double mimetic portrait challenges both feminine concepts and the European- Mexican relationship within her own identity.

In direct opposition with the image these strong Tehuana women represent stands the historical figure of la Malinche. La Malinche was an indigenous woman who became conquistador Hernan Cortés’ interpreter and mistress, who used her as a tool to complete his colonisation of Mexico. La Malinche’s ‘myth of a passive, pliant indigenous femininity’ (Taylor, 2006, p.818) has turned into

‘the image of Malinche as on object of pity and rage, la chingada madre, the raped Indian mother with downcast eyes and restrained body, and Cortes as the domineering and scornful European father, el chingon


She played a paramount role in Mexico’s formation of a modern national identity (ibid, p.835).

Taylor discusses the metonymic connection Paz establishes between la Malinche and every Mexican woman, and his interpretation of the mother figure as a counterpart to the country’s cherished Virgin of Guadalupe (2006, p.827).

The figure of the mestizo – the child of a subordinate, passive, indigenous mother and the dominant, active, Hispanic father – creates a symbol of national unity, and a ‘privileging of cultural homogeneity […] as the necessary path to modernization and social equality’ (ibid, p.824).

As another result of the nationalist propaganda emerging after the revolution, monumental artworks were commissioned to dress cities with a ‘national-populist vision of the past, present, and future of ethnic identity and ethnic-social relations’ (Taylor, 2006, p.830). Central, recurring motif in these artworks and writings was the image of the Mexican Indian (ibid, p.818), however, contrasting depictions of them can be found in the art of Rivera, Orozco, or Siqueiros.

One is the image of the ‘abject and subordinated Indian […] with sealed lips and an enigmatic, impenetrable gaze downward and out into oblivion’ (Taylor, p.830), the figures barely distinguishable from the browns of the background. Then there is, in bold contrast, the representations in rich colours of the self-assured, powerful Zapotec Indian women with a confident gaze (ibid). As these two depictions of indigeneity co- existed on large murals, they can be found in Kahlo’s representation of herself as well.

Baddeley (1991, p.15) states that ‘the rhetoric of the Tehuana opposes the nihilism of traditional feminisations of colonial trauma, and asserts the potential of a dignified cultural resistance’ . While Kahlo mostly appeared like a three-dimensional version of her husband’s representation of Tehuanas, giving ‘sartorial endorsement of postrevolutionary ideology’ (Block and Hoffman-Jeep, 1998, p.8), she also performed the role of the passive martyr that is more synonymous to Malinche.

Fig. 15: Tree of Hope (Kahlo, 1946)

Similarly to The Two Fridas (Kahlo, 1939) (see Fig.14), Tree of Hope (Kahlo, 1946) (see Fig.15) is a play of feminine identity, showcasing the Tehuana as Kahlo’s powerful self; a saviour to Kahlo’s weak, injured self. As the ill, naked Frida lies with her wounded back to the viewer, the Tehuana Frida sits confidently, holding pink braces, as she nurses her (other) self. Her bright red costume with gold embroidery and pleated flounce, and the red hibiscus flowers – sitting on the top of her head as if they were burning flames – amplify the strength she radiates. The moon, an ancient symbol of femininity, also shines on the Tehuana Frida’s side. Her injured self appears more like a ‘supine medical object […] opened by the scalpel for scrutiny’ (Meskimmon, 1996, p.168).

Kahlo produced a number of other paintings that represented the pain and suffering caused by her accident, miscarriages, troublesome relationship with Rivera, and other times she endured torture during illnesses and recovery. Her unclothed body appears vulnerable; ‘opened by instruments, technologized, wounded, its organs displayed to the outside world, […] controlled by modern society far more than the clothed Frida’ (Franco, n.d., in Baddeley, 1991, p.14)

Frida Kahlo painting on cast   Frida Kahlo's prosthetic leg
Fig. 16: Kahlo painting on her plaster corset                 Fig. 17: Kahlo’s prosthetic leg, 1951 (Ishiuchi, 2012)

Attempting to mask her scars and physical deformities made her even more creative in the art of her dressing. She painted on her plaster corsets (see Fig. 16), and after her amputation, she decorated the red lace-up, platform boot of her prosthetic leg with Chinese embroidery and little silver bells (see Fig. 17), in order to turn her suffering into art.

As Wilson (2001, p.147) mentions, ‘there seems to be a widespread human desire to transcend the body’s limitations’. From a young age, Kahlo very consciously chose clothing that would conceal her right leg that was left shorter and thinner by childhood polio. While representing ideology, the Tehuana costumes proved useful in this too: the large skirts hid her legs, and the adorned blouses and intricate hairdos drew attention to her torso and head, rather than her lower body.

However, she once said she did not actually have any connection to Zapotec Indians. (Belnap, 2001, p.5)

Frida Kahlo's family

Fig. 18 Portrait of the Calderón family, 1890

Despite this, there is a photograph of her maternal family (see Fig. 18) (her mother, Matilde Calderón circled in the middle), where many family members are wearing the traditional ceremonial headdress of the Tehuanan Zapotec women, the huipile grande. It is a large huipile with sleeves too narrow to be used traditionally, therefore it is worn on the head during fiestas, with the impractical sleeves dangling down the back and front. The huipile is adorned with flounces of lace on the hem, and large frill around the neck – resembling an Elizabethan ruff – which they use to cover their faces with in church. (Sayer, 1990, p.217)

Frida Kahlo: Self-portrait as a Tehuana   Frida Kahlo in Tehuana
Fig. 19: Self Portrait as a Tehuana        Fig. 20: Kahlo in ceremonial Tehuana wear

The huipile grande appears in Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Kahlo, 1943) and in a photograph of her (see Fig. 19 and 20). In the painting, the large frills of her huipile frame her face, sitting on top of the bouquet of flowers in her hair, above Rivera’s picture on her forehead. The pleated flounces on the bottom and the sleeve are attached to the floral lace with a light pink, silky ribbon.

Calefato (2004, p.84) notes that linguistically, a garment can be metonymic, regarding the body that is wearing it. A figure of speech, a metonymy is a name of an object or concept, which is related to, or is a part of another (Dictionary, n.d.). For example, a ‘red shirt’ stands not only for the garment, but a member of Garibaldi’s fleet, and is, therefore, an ‘exemplary mixture of clothing and utopia’ (Calefato, 2004, p.84). Similarly, the word Tehuana refers both to a woman of Tehuantepec, and the costume worn by them. This relation between clothing and utopia is due to the simple fact that ‘every utopia […] is populated by clothed human beings’ (ibid).

She further discusses that ‘a single “emblem” […] can sometimes convey the passage to a utopian world’. (ibid, p. 85). These objects convey a meaning that is not only functional or practical, but serves as an open gate to the world we feel we belong to, and whose ideals we share (ibid). For instance, using Calefato’s examples (ibid), the colourful trousers and turbans of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624), or the appearance of the loose, 3⁄4 length trousers worn under skirts in 19th century England, named ‘bloomers’ after women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer, are both ‘passages’ to a desired utopia, whether that is a fictional society, or the utopian civil rights women fought for.

The utopia Tehuantepec represents is an ‘appealing counternarrative to the disempowering mother-whore myth of Malinche’ (Taylor, 2006, p.819); an idealised glimpse into what Mexico could have been, had it not been conquered; or a utopian prospect upon the fulfilling of a successful revolution. (ibid, p.835). By this logic, whether or not she was related to them, Kahlo established her own passage to a world of strong, respected women by wearing the traditional costume of a matriarchal society.

‘Although indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women, are often socioeconomically (as well as geographically and linguistically) marginalized from the modern white- and mestizo-controlled state, mestizo nationalist discourse con- structs Indianness as an abstract entity or essence that forms the dark feminine core of identity in all Mexicans, regardless of whether they have indigenous ancestry or meaningful contact with living indigenous peoples.’

(Taylor, 2006, p.827)

Taylor also points out the fact that many of the elements considered to be of this particular Zapotec matriarchal society, can in fact be found throughout Mexico, if only we notice the many women occupying administratory, financial, and informatory roles within their family and community, as opposed to the overwhelming machismo people have been conditioned to connect with Mexicanidad (2006, p.837).

As Meskimmon (1996, p.79) explains, although Kahlo’s artworks were ‘undoubtedly highly personal’, and her reason for donning the Tehuana may have been influenced by a desire to appeal to her husband, ‘it diminishes their power merely to construct’ her self-representative acts as ‘responses to particular events’ in her life, or solely a product of the male gaze.

Her use of costume and adornment was one of the media – if not the most powerful one – that established her as a feminist revolutionary, and one of the most influential 20th century icons and Mexican artists. Through her costumes, she conveyed a complex identity that could not be deciphered solely as a martyrized victim, communist patrioteer, or self-rescuing feminist hero. Through dress, she transcended her bodily limitations by turning her disability into art, and choosing to appear as a powerful Mexican princess despite her fractured body. She challenged gender roles and appeared both as the powerful Tehuana and the humiliated, raped mother that Malinche represents, as well as other mimesis; thus experiencing feminine potentials, which ‘both have their roots in post-revolutionary nationalist cultural reproduction’ (Taylor, 2006, p.824)

‘Her presentation as a Tehuana straddling the borderland between national assertion and transnational exoticism’ (Belnap, 2001, p.4) was a tool in her search of cultural identity and rise as an intercultural artist of mestizo identity. Whether her dressing was cultural appropriation is arguable, since she seems to have consciously represented the symbols and supported the values associated with the matriarchal society of Tehuantepec. It was nevertheless a vestiary advocacy of Mexican post-revolutionary ideology, and it further progressed into a symbol of female suffering and survival. As Baddeley (1991, p.16) concludes, ‘it was through clothing, in both art and life, that Kahlo attempted to redress the wrongs of history.’

List of Figures

Fig. 1:
Kahlo’s costumes exhibited at the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, 2012 Source: Oatman-Stanford, H. (2013) Uncovering Clues in Frida Kahlo’s Private Wardrobe. [online]
Available from: frida-kahlos-private-wardrobe/
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 2:
Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress (Kahlo, 1926)
Source: (n.d.) Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926 by Frida Kahlo. [online]
Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 3:
Self Portrait – Time Flies (Kahlo, 1929)
Source: (n.d.) Self Portrait Time Flies – by Frida Kahlo. [online] Available from:
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 4:
The Riveras’ wedding, 1929
Source: Szeifert, J. (2015) ARTCHIVUM: Frida Kahlo. [online]
Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 5:
Frida Kahlo (Weston, 1930)
Source: Codex 99 (2003), Frida and the Camera. [online]
Available from: camera.html
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 6:
Frida Kahlo (Cunningham, 1930)
Source: Codex 99 (2003), Frida and the Camera. [online]
Available from: camera.html
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 7:
Kahlo with her sisters and cousins, c.1924
Source: Art-Sheep (n.d), Young Frida Kahlo photographed by her father. [online]
Available from: father
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 8:
Women in Tehuantepec (Modotti, ca.1929)
Source: AllPosters (n.d), Women in Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1929. [online] Available from: Mexico-1929-Posters_i9866785_.htm
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 9:
Kahlo in Tehuana costume (Muray, 1939)
Source: Oatman-Stanford, H. (2013) Uncovering Clues in Frida Kahlo’s Private Wardrobe. [online]
Available from: frida-kahlos-private-wardrobe/
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 10:
Banknote with a Tehuana
Source: (n.d.) Mexico. [online]
Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 11:
Tehuantepec women, Blossoms of Fire (Gosling, 2000)
Source: Gosling, M. (2000) Blossoms of Fire. [online]
Available from: Indigenous-Film—Arts-Festival presents–BLOSSOMS-OF- FIRE.html?soid=1102418510151&aid=jT5OOjikiHw
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 12:
Frida and Diego Rivera (Kahlo, 1931)
Source: (n.d.) Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo. [online]
Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 13:
Self-Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States (Kahlo, 1932)
Source: (n.d.), Self-Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932. [online]
Available from: line.jsp
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 14:
The Two Fridas (Kahlo, 1939)
Source: Khan Academy (n.d.), Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas). [online]
Available from: history/later-europe-and-americas/modernity-ap/a/kahlo-the-two-fridas-las- dos-fridas
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 15:
Tree of Hope (Kahlo, 1946)
Source: (n.d.), Tree of Hope, Keep Firm, 1946 by Frida Kahlo. [online]
Available from:
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 16:
Kahlo painting on her plaster corset, 1951
Source: Oatman-Stanford, H. (2013) Uncovering Clues in Frida Kahlo’s Private Wardrobe. [online]
Available from: frida-kahlos-private-wardrobe/
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 17:
Kahlo’s prosthetic leg (Ishiuchi, 2012)
Source: Emory, S. (2015), See Frida Kahlo’s Pumps and Prosthetics in an Intimate Photo Series. [online]
Available from: pumps-and-prosthetics-in-an-intimate-photo-series

Fig. 18:
Portrait of the Calderón family, 1890
Source: Oatman-Stanford, H. (2013) Uncovering Clues in Frida Kahlo’s Private Wardrobe. [online]
Available from: frida-kahlos-private-wardrobe/
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 19:
Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Kahlo, 1943)
Source: Szeifert, J. (2015) ARTCHIVUM: Frida Kahlo. [online]
Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Fig. 20:
Kahlo in ceremonial Tehuana wear
Source: Tate Gallery (n.d.), Frida Kahlo: Room Guide: Room 8. [online] Available from: kahlo/frida-kahlo-room-guide/frida-kahlo-room-guide-room-8
[Accessed 19 January 2017]

Reference List

Baddeley, O.(1991), ‘Her Dress Hangs Here’: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult. Oxford Art Journal. [online] 1991, Vol. 14, No. 1.
Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Belnap, J.(2001), Disentangling the Strangled Tehuana: The Nationalist Antinomy in Frida Kahlo’s “What the Water Has Given Me”. Genders. [online] 2001, No.33. Available from: 33_belnap.html [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Block, R. and Hoffman-Jeep, L. (1998), Fashioning National Identity: Frida Kahlo in “Gringolandia”: Woman’s Art Journal. [online] Autumn, 1998 – Winter, 1999, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 8-12. Available through: AUB Library, tent [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Calefato, P. and Adams, L. (trans)(2004), The Clothed Body. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers.

Chassen-López, F.(2014), The Traje de Tehuana as National Icon: Gender, Ethnicity, and Fashion in Mexico. The Americas. [online] October 2014, Vol. 71, No. 2. Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Cixous, H.(1975), Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays, In: Counsell, C. and Wolf, L. (2001), Performance Analysis. London: Routledge. Pp.66-71.

Herrera, H.(1992), Frida Kahlo – The Paintings. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Meskimmon, M.  (1996), The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-portraiture in the Twentieth Century. London: Scarlet Press.

Misemer, S. M. (2008), Secular Saints: Performing Frida Kahlo, Carlos Gardel, Eva Perón, and Selena. [e-book] Woodbridge, UK: Tamesis. Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2017]

Mulvey, L. (1975), Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In: Counsell, C. and Wolf, L. (2001), Performance Analysis. London: Routledge. Pp.185-192.

Schechner, R. Taylor, A. (2002), Performance Studies: An introduction. London: Routledge.

Wilson, E. (2006), Malinche and Matriarchal Utopia: Gendered Visions of Indigeneity in Mexico. New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture. Vol. 31, No. 3, pp.815-840


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