Duck Duck Book

56 – self portrait
10.6.2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Self portrait in a velvet dress : Frida’s wardrobe : fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo / [editors, Denise Rosenzweig, Magdalena Rosenzweig].
San Francisco, CA : Chronicle Books, 2008.
[MCL call number: 759.972 K12s 2008; three copies, one hold]

Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, is now a museum. It is the house where Kahlo was born, and it is where she died. Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, stipulated that her bedroom and bathroom should not be opened until fifty years after her death. So the rooms were locked and their contents left in place until 2004. When the museum’s staff finally entered Kahlo’s rooms, they found nearly 150 articles of clothing, dozens of household linens, a goodly collection of orthopedic equipment and hospital miscellanea, dozens of bottles of cosmetics and medicine, and a huge lithograph showing human embryonic development.

Kahlo’s clothes were the most notable prize. They were not so much a wardrobe in the normal sense as they were a collection — although it is certainly true that she wore these clothes, rather than collecting them as mere objects. And this makes the collection, and the book about it, feel rather strange. On the one hand, a museum devoted to a great personage is almost guaranteed to make relics out of any mundane object associated with that person, and the reverence with which this is done can border on the ridiculous. On the other hand, it is clear that Kahlo herself valued her wardrobe as more than simply a collection of garments to cover her nakedness and keep her warm. There is no doubt that part of what makes Frida Kahlo such an icon is that her attitude toward dress, style, art, and personal presentation was so enigmatic. Of course we would celebrate and carefully examine her clothing, now that we can. They have so much to say to us about
Kahlo as a person, and as an artist.

A large portion of Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is taken up with Marta Turok’s essay on the ethnic roots of Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe. Turok discusses the sources of Kahlo’s clothes in different regions of Mexico, Guatemala, and examines what dressing chiefly in folk costume meant in Kahlo’s Mexico. This section contains many facing page illustrations: on one page, a photograph showing Kahlo wearing an article of clothing, or a reproduction of one of her paintings in which it figured; on the page opposite, a photograph of the item (or a similar one) after museum staff entered Kahlo’s rooms to observe and catalog her personal things. Other essays discuss Kahlo’s style of dress, the discoveries museum staff made the day they opened Kahlo’s rooms, and the restoration of the clothing and objects found there.

Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress is like a biography of Kahlo, with an emphasis on a specific part of her approach to the world: it is about Kahlo’s blouses, her shoes, her skirts, her belts, her scarves; and the way she used them to create a specific presentation of “Frida Kahlo” to her self, her family, her friends, and the public. Of course the book is beautiful; it’s full of lovely photographs of beautiful objects, it has the glitter of Kahlo’s fame and the sharp taste of her public tragedies. But it is also interesting as an exploration of a slender but important piece of a powerful artist’s creative vision, and the tools she employed to practice it.


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