The cult of Kahlo


Frida Kahlo blazed a trail that has outlasted her, leaving behind a legacy of self-expression, individualism and art. This fashion shoot channels her iconic image, writes DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN

HEN IT COMES to dressing for effect, there was no better practitioner than Mexican artist and self-portraitist Frida Kahlo. The surreal way she fashioned herself in her paintings, like a devotional icon – stern and monumental, but in festive, fiesta colours with deliberately chosen backgrounds, bold jewellery and the odd monkey perched on her shoulder, is laden with symbolism.

But it is her gaze – that proud, unwavering stare from those black eyes – that challenges the viewer. Her unibrow, topped with a halo of glossy black hair, and her downy moustache are the famous trademarks that powerfully display her fierce sense of self. You feel that as much creative energy went into her appearance as went into her work.

That sense of style, along with the story of her life, her terrible disabilities and years of suffering, have made many women identify strongly with her. Germaine Greer called her the first performance artist who anticipated the modern age of individualism, and described the way she displayed herself in various appropriated settings as “advertisements” for herself. French writer and poet André Breton described her art as “a ribbon around a bomb”.

Kahlo’s influence on contemporary fashion has been considerable. Madonna is a serious collector. Jean Paul Gaultier is another fan, and her style has been endlessly cited as a source of inspiration by designers, performers and stylists. The recent show at Imma of Kahlo’s work and that of her husband, Diego Rivera, attracted nearly 40,000 visitors, setting it in the museum’s top 10 most popular exhibitions; almost all of the books about her have sold out there. Kahlo’s fame has eclipsed that of her husband, with her image endlessly reproduced, even on Mexican banknotes. Their home in Mexico (designed by Juan O’Gorman, an architect of Irish descent), is now a museum and place of pilgrimage for aficionados.

Iseult Sheehy, who styled this shoot in the Botanic Gardens, and who studied her work when she was training in fashion design, is a long-term fan. “She inspired a lot of the pieces I was making, but to be in the same room as the paintings at Imma and to see their true colours made a big impact. I wanted to put [across] my interpretation of her and use the same looks in a different way,” she says.

The results show that, if clothes allow you to paint your own portrait, getting dressed may take on a whole new meaning and perspective.