'Empowered woman': How College of DuPage costume designer re-created Frida Kahlo's bold fashion
Just imagine high society in the 1930s when along came Frida Kahlo in her Mexican regalia.
Early in their marriage, Kahlo visited American cities with her husband, Diego Rivera, a gregarious giant compared to her petite frame and a muralist hired by industrialists at the height of his fame. Kahlo made clear she wasn't just his little wife, as Time magazine described her.
Ever the nonconformist, Kahlo called attention to herself in long skirts, embroidered tunics and Aztec jewelry.
"She would commission clothing to her own personal taste and then embellish it as she wanted because she was very specific in creating her image," said Kimberly Morris, a theater costume designer at the College of DuPage. "So if it wasn't perfect, she would adjust it and make it perfect for her."
Morris sought perfection re-creating five outfits worn by the artist to complement an exhibition of Kahlo works at the Glen Ellyn college.
The garments are displayed prominently -- a nod to her influence on culture and fashion -- along with a historical timeline of her life.
Long after Kahlo appeared in the pages of Vogue in 1937, high-end designers have appropriated and diluted her image for runway shows.
But as is the case with her art, Kahlo's wardrobe choices were loaded with subtext.
Kahlo grew up during the Mexican Revolution, the daughter of a German-Hungarian father and a mother of Spanish and Indigenous descent.
In her 20s, Kahlo began to dress like Tehuanas, women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Adopting traditional Tehuana dress, the college's exhibition explains, symbolized resistance to colonialism.
"The Tehuanas used their garments, their dresses to portray their strength. Their pride. Their power. They're very colorful women with their jewelry," said Adriana Jaramillo, who plans international Kahlo exhibitions for the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico.
"And the way that they dress is a way to say, 'I'm here. I'm strong.' They're empowered women," Jaramillo said. "Frida was an empowered woman of her time."
The museum lent the College of DuPage 26 Kahlo works from its collection for "Frida Kahlo: Timeless." Like the photographs in the exhibition, the dresses show how Kahlo carved out a confident persona.
"She just exuded this magnetic personality," Morris said.
Her full-length skirts and loosefitting huipil blouses also allowed her to cover her medical corsets and prostheses. There's a reason Kahlo called herself "the great concealer."
Her right leg was shorter after she contracted polio at age 6. Then in 1925, at 18, she was severely injured in a bus-tram crash. Kahlo had more than 30 surgeries during her lifetime.
"She would craft this immaculate appearance, even when she was in her worst medical state," Morris said. "Her hair was impeccable. Her nails were painted. Her makeup was done."
Re-creating her clothing
A self-described "fanatic for detail," Morris began studying Kahlo's style around spring 2019 in anticipation of the College of DuPage show that opened this month.
To represent Tehuana dress, Morris replicated a black-and-white tunic with a peacock motif and an off-the-shoulder shawl.
Kahlo wore the same tunic in a photo seen in the second half of the historical timeline in the exhibition. In that picture, Kahlo is leaning up against a sketched outline of one of Rivera's murals.
"This project totally allowed me to do a ridiculous amount of research trying to find really good pictures of what these garments would have looked like," Morris said.
She put as much care into finding the right shade of fabric. Morris made a gorgeous lime-green skirt with satin from India. She had a company custom-print the fabric that duplicated a leaf pattern for a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse.
"As a theater person, I know how to look for off-the-wall things," Morris said. "And you don't stop looking at the first store."
But she spent countless hours digitizing patterns and using embroidery software to reproduce what would have been handmade by artisans in Kahlo's time.
"I have a stupidly expensive embroidery program that takes a JPEG and turns it into stitches," she said.
The embroidery also had to fit a torso of Frida's size. The peacocks on Kahlo's tunic were too wide for her largest embroidery hoop, so Morris ended up finishing the piece by hand.
"All the different stages took more time than I anticipated because I was really nit-picky," said Morris, who developed her meticulous eye for detail over a 30-year career that began with making costumes for theater productions at her Delaware high school.
With College of DuPage student crews, and her assistant, Gretchen Woodley, Morris did all the work in the costume shop at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage. And when the campus was closed because of the pandemic?
"We have two skirts with wide bands of embroidery -- those I actually did at my house," Morris said.
After more than two years immersed in Kahlo's fashion, Morris can just imagine the sensation the artist caused visiting New York dressed in "full Mexican wonderfulness."
"The clothing helped draw eyes to her, and then her personality would support her," she said. "It wasn't like she was just putting these clothes on and not able to support it. She was a very vibrant person in her own right."
Frida Kahlo: TimelessABOUT THIS SERIES: This is one in an occasional series of stories about the Frida Kahlo exhibition presented by the Cleve Carney Museum of Art and the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
Exhibition: June 5 through Sept. 6, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays, and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays.
Ticket prices and more info: Frida2021.org, (630) 942-4000
COVID-19 precautions: Masks required; temperature checked at main entrance; social distancing protocols in place. The exhibit is designed for one-way traffic; advanced ticketing is required, and tickets are scanned touchless.