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How Frida Kahlo Mixed Nature With Fashion

Frida in Front of the Cactus Fence, San Ángel, 1938 Photo: Nickolas Muray

Frida in Front of the Cactus Fence, San Ángel, 1938
Photo: Nickolas Muray

Stepping inside Frida Kahlo’s garden is a little like stepping inside her closet. The Mexican artist is known for her colorful, nonconformist
look—long skirts, uneven pink stacked heels, that iconic unibrow––and often wove nature into her wardrobe. “Frida would pick flowers straight from the garden and wear them in her hair,” said Joanna Groarke, a curator at the New York Botanical Garden. “Usually dahlias or bougainvillea.”

You can find both of those flower varieties at the exhibit Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, which opens at the Botanical Garden tomorrow and consists of two sections. First, horticulturists have re-created Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s garden at Casa Azul from archival photographs, paintings, and firsthand accounts. As expected, it’s filled with the Mexican flora, from cacti to jacarandas, that once surrounded the ranch-style home where the couple lived in Mexico City. A perfect model of Kahlo’s painting studio is also tucked inside the garden, right down to the oil paints and brushes. Just a short walk away, 14 botanical-themed works by Kahlo are on display in the museum, as well as numerous photographs of the famously camera-happy artist. “She never missed a photo op,” said Norberto Rivera, director of photography at Throckmorton Fine Art gallery, which loaned many of the photographs for the show. “She was her own PR girl.”

Kahlo’s actual wardrobe––and her surreal self-portraits––was deeply inspired by this garden. In life, she wore flowers piled onto her dark hair; on canvas, she painted herself as a sunflower-human hybrid. In one particularly striking painting, Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Kahlo wears a necklace made of thorns with a hummingbird charm and butterflies nestled into her headdress. “Those butterflies were real hair accessories that she wore,” said Mia D’Avanza, the exhibition’s coordinator at the NYBG. The indoor exhibit paired with the garden shows just how close Kahlo felt to the natural world. She wanted to do more than paint it, as landscape artists have done for centuries, she wanted to wear it. “It’s different than Monet, who painted his garden,” said NYBG’s lead horticulturist, Francisca Coelho. “The garden embodied her. It was her.”


Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940 / Gucci Fall 2015
Photo: Courtesy of Artists Rights Society /

Kahlo’s eclectic closet has always fascinated the fashion world, but recently she’s been having a moment. Ishiuchi Miyako photographed her blue swimsuit and cat-eye glasses for the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, and Throckmorton Fine Art will open an exhibit called Mirror Mirror…Portrait of Frida Kahlo in New York on May 21. On the runway, Kahlo’s natural influence can be felt in Gucci’s Fall 2015 collection by Alessandro Michele. The dresses strewn with flowers, the hummingbirds swooping across sweaters, the heirloom-style rings, and the tiny gold bees perched on the straps of lacy tops––it’s all colored with Kahlo’s free-form aesthetic.

“Her work was prophetic in anticipating broader cultural concerns such as post-colonialism, feminism, and civil rights, which are relevant today,” said Sandra Fuentes-Berain, the Consul General of Mexico in New York. We would also add that it was prophetic in anticipating what designers and consumers would crave from fashion in 2015. A bit of kookiness, color, and individuality—if not wilderness, then at least a garden. “I love the idea that a dress has a memory,” Michele said told at his show back in February. We can imagine Kahlo expressing a similar sentiment.

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life is on view May 16 to November 1 at the New York Botanical Garden.

Photo: Ivo M. Vermeulen

Photo: Ivo M. Vermeulen

—Austen Rosenfeld,

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