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Frida Kahlo "Beyond the Myth" exhibition at Mudec, Milano, Italy.
Photo: Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Frida Kahlo, All the Cool Girls, and Me

The Mexican painter’s image has been appropriated for style, but not her politics.

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A strong brow is a good look in 2018. All the smart, cool women I know are trying to make their eyebrows look bolder, darker — which is to say, straight-up hairier. A strong brow — achieved with makeup, by forgoing waxing, or even with a semipermanent tattoo — can change your whole face, so the thinking goes, can make you look both serious and effortlessly chic at the same time.

I have a hard time with the strong brows trend because I share a first name with the only woman to have ever become analogous with having a unibrow, and I was the eternal butt of so many jokes growing up because of it. Typically the only brown girl in the mostly white classrooms I sat in until high school, I accepted the following at an early age: Being hairy is probably bad! Having a unibrow is definitely bad!

Frida Kahlo is beloved in the US, both in the art world and in mainstream pop culture — but that matters not to a bunch of fifth-graders, let me tell you. As a result, my peers’ fascination with growing even more hair than they already have on their faces bewilders me: When a mutual friend who did spoken-word poetry in college told me she was purposely trying to grow a unibrow, I just walked away, feeling certain there was nothing she could say in a million years that would make me believe her.

T-shirts with the image of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo are seen during Frida Kahlo's 110th birthday anniversary at the Coyoacan market.
Photo: Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images

There have been times I hated being a Frida; my distinctly Mexican name was just one other way I stood out at an age when kids are cruelest (add glasses and being chubby to the mix and suddenly I would refuse to get out of the car when my mom took me to school). The association with the artist was the very thing I wanted to escape. And yet these days, I look around at the proliferation of Frida Kahlo-branded clothing, trinkets, and accessories and it feels like every woman my age wants to be like her.

That is, as long as they can also keep Kahlo, and her deeply political personal style, at arm’s length. No woman I know is going out and dressing like the Mexican painter; instead, they are affixing the artist’s likeness to clothes and accessories as a kind of cool-girl bat signal, associating themselves with her.

Donning Frida Kahlo’s image tells other women everything they need to know about you without you having to say a word: that you’re probably a feminist, that you follow trends, that you consider yourself to be very cool (and have the tote bags to prove it), that you give no fucks.

Some days, seeing women — who are, for the most part, white — take up an interest in the most famous Mexican artist of all time is wildly validating. But then I think of the incredibly stylish girl who wanted a unibrow, and I think of all the Frida Kahlo tote bags and T-shirts I see in stores and on Instagram, and I find a small part of me very quietly wondering, “Why now?”

A model showcases designs featuring Kahlo by designer Han Dongyang.
Photo: VCG via Getty Images

America’s love affair with Frida Kahlo started in the 1980s and grew steadily, reaching a fever pitch around 1991, the year I was born. That year, the Metropolitan Museum took some of Kahlo’s works on tour around the US, as part of a larger exhibition on Mexican pre- and post-Columbian art titled Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. The year before, one of Kahlo’s self-portraits, her 1949 painting “Diego and I,” became the first piece of Latin American art to sell for more than $1 million at a Sotheby’s auction. The head of Latin American art sales told the New York Times the following year: “Kahlo is becoming a cult figure. Her work is more sought after than [her husband Diego] Rivera’s.”

A 1983 biography of Kahlo, the immensely popular Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, would go on to inspire film producer Nancy Hardin, who reportedly fought for years to make a Frida biopic. By the time the Salma Hayek-helmed Frida hits theaters in 2002, Kahlo’s personal story — which included chronic pain and disabilities — had become one Americans were familiar with, and its themes of overcoming struggles, fierce individuality, and hope still resonate with audiences today.

Fridamania, as it’s called, has not let up, and retail stores and fashion designers are capitalizing on it. Forever 21 has currently sold out all sizes of its officially licensed Frida Kahlo T-shirt online. A representative for the Frida Kahlo Corporation, which claims to be the sole holder of the rights to Kahlo’s likeness and name, told me the company does not disclose its full list of licensed retailers but that Zara, Converse, the plus-size fashion brand Torrid, and Hot Topic have all, at one point, slung Frida merch.

Then there’s all the stuff that may or may not be totally licensed, like this nail polish line that appeared in CVS stores last year, and the thousands of products that come up if you search “Frida Kahlo” on Etsy.

On one hand, the spread of Kahlo’s iconography makes sense. The artist was a master of the self-portrait; she painted her face and body over and over again, elevating the form to new heights and depicting herself in surreal and often gruesome conditions. “She sold herself, in a way,” Beatriz Alvarado, a spokesperson for the Frida Kahlo Corporation, told Artsy in December 2017. “We’re just doing what she did.”

A representative also told me, speaking over the phone, that the company is interested in targeting young women through Frida Kahlo-inspired clothing to help the millennial generation connect with her legacy. If her story is only taught in history books or displayed in museums, the argument goes, then younger people may forget about her.

On the other hand, the proliferation of Frida Kahlo clothing and merchandise marketed toward young women is often divorced from the political and personal context of her life. In 2015, Valentino called Frida Kahlo the “jumping-off point” for a resort collection, and the dress that looks most like the traditional Tehuana dresses that Kahlo wore (which came from indigenous, matriarchal societies in southern Mexico and consisted of long skirts and loose-fitting, square tops called huipils) hits the model well above the knee; in reality, Kahlo wore long skirts to hide the fact that her right leg was shorter than her left, the result of a childhood battle with polio.

Art historians view Kahlo’s decision to wear Tehuana dresses and huipils as distinctly political, arguing that it allowed the artist to align herself more with her country’s pre-Columbian cultures in post-revolutionary Mexico, at a time when the country was grappling with its national identity. But ripped from her (super-leftist) politics, today’s Frida Kahlo-“inspired” clothes start to feel like empty signaling.

A representative for Etsy said that the company has seen an increase in search for “Frida Kahlo,” along with other historical feminist figures. It seems like today Kahlo stands in for a kind of everyday, mass-market feminism marketed toward (again, mostly white) women, the same way that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s likeness and the poster of Rosie the Riveter do. And so it might make sense that there’s an appetite among shoppers for Frida Kahlo cellphone cases, tote bags, candles, nail polish, and more, as feminism has been more widely accepted than ever — and now increasingly used to sell us things. That doesn’t make it any easier to square that with Kahlo’s anti-capitalist legacy.

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But aside from these ideological inconsistencies, I first and foremost find it hard to reconcile Kahlo’s cultural cache with my own experiences as a Frida. Associating with Kahlo may be trendy for white women, but there’s little I can do to make other people forget about my Mexicanness, my own relationship to the painter and our home and its people and history.

A huge part of Frida Kahlo’s influence stems from the fact that she is remembered as antithetical to traditional beauty norms. Her disabilities, her Tehuana dresses, her unibrow, her smile that was sometimes more of a snarl — all these things made her her. But owning the things that made me different growing up — my hair, my dark eyes, my skin tone, my name, the clothes my mom made for me until I was 8 — didn’t always feel viable, especially when I was singled out for those same traits.

For most of my life, I worked tirelessly to assimilate, and expressing myself, without worrying about whether people like it, wasn’t something I challenged myself to do until I was much older. It’s something I’ll arguably never fully know how to do (who among us!); I know I’ll always be, in some way, learning how better to not give a fuck. That’s what I look to Frida Kahlo for — if there were ever a guide for how to be yourself and truly not give a fuck, it would be her — and because of that, I understand the timeless appeal of her face on a T-shirt. I also know that T-shirt does little to tell you her whole story.

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