Pulling it off: On Frida Kahlo, Disability and Fashioning Self-Portraits

Frida Kahlo in 1937 sitting in front of an agave plant
Frida Kahlo photgraphed for Vogue in 1937 (Toni Frissell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 I’m often less concerned with being lost than I am with looking lost. My brain doesn’t produce the visual maps that most people rely on to navigate the world, so for my own safety I have trained myself to look like someone who must know where she’s going.  I have also been in tears, trapped indoors by my inability to put together the puzzle piece of the right blouse, skirt, shoes, jacket- whatever combination of tops and bottoms that will unlock my front door and make me feel, or at least look, capable of leaving the house. When those pieces do slide into place for me, I float out the door. What I am looking for from clothing is not a disguise but a self-portrait. It’s an assurance of my genuine self — that when I get lost, I’m still here. 

My writing and how I dress, two different facets of how I fashion myself, are connected by self- portrait. Still, “pulling off” an outfit or an essay can feel like getting away with the caper of being myself. Clothing and writing the self, like most things I love, are often dismissed as frivolous. Clothes, especially, have a unique power to either validate or discredit someone. Still, you can’t get far without them.

***

 According to the site where I purchased a ticket, the exhibit  I was about to see was titled “Frida Kahlo: Appearance Can Be Deceiving” but that name was nowhere on the poster I bought in the gift shop. I wanted a souvenir by which to remember the  2019 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which the accompanying literature described as “the largest U.S. exhibition in ten years devoted to the iconic painter and the first in the United States to display a collection of her clothing and other personal possessions.” I  was touched by it and I wanted to keep thinking about the overlap between clothing, disability, and heritage that it had promised, and sometimes failed, to address. The image that now hangs over my couch of Frida smoking a cigarette on a New York rooftop, two big silver bows in her hair,  reminds me of what’s left unsaid. That touches me too, in a raw place of wanting to be seen. What could be dismissed as frivolous — her silver ribbons and red lipstick — is so essential to our understanding of the artist that an entire exhibit was curated around it. It reminds me to take my own joy seriously, especially if I’m the only one who will. 

There was something wrong with the handle on the glass door inside the Brooklyn Museum. I could see the entrance to the Frida Kahlo exhibit through the door but when I jiggled the metal handle it wouldn’t unlatch. I twisted it several times as the gangly young man perched at the entrance called out to me, “left, no no, your other left, ok pull, no pull harder.” When he stood up from his little stool to demonstrate, smirking, I could feel the heat rise in my face which was already glowing from my walk to the museum in the muggy heat of early May. These routine embarrassments — the smallest moment where I lose control of the assumption that he and I are the same — I experience as an unmasking. However, because he can’t see what I am revealing to him (that I don’t know left from right and sometimes basic spatial-motor skills like tying your shoes or twisting a knob elude me) nothing and everything is exposed at once. Still I feel ashamed, embarrassed with a cherry on top.  

I forget the gap between our realities as much as I lean on it. At that moment, I felt so vulnerable that I forget that all  he sees is a sweaty woman in her late thirties fumbling with a doorknob. When I entered the museum in cut-off jean shorts and a black v neck t-shirt from Target, I didn’t look like someone who would have trouble opening a door. This is the negotiation of being seen: do you want to be normal or known? You can’t have both. 

 Once inside, I gravitated toward several half-empty bottles of Kahlo’s red Revlon nail polish (the show was sponsored by Revlon) displayed under glass, crusted with dry paint where the bottle meets the lid. In a nearby case, a red embroidered blouse with an ink splotch on the sleeve was pinned to a velvet backing like a butterfly. Her draped shawls pouted on their mannequins, her skirts had swing and bounce. Plaques pointed out that the huipil, a boxy embroidered cotton tunic worn by the Indigenous women of Central Mexico, fit over her medical corset and that her leg brace was folded into the full ruffles of her Tehuana dress. Childhood polio had changed her leg and a trolley accident in which she was impaled by a pole had broken her spine. The exhibit was titled after a 1934 sketch Kahlo drew of herself in which her body is outlined in an invisible gown, revealing her brace and corset underneath. 

 The exhibit had promised in part to address how she used clothes to hide her medical supports. In a promotional video, a curator of the London version of the Kahlo exhibit said, “The last thing you’d be thinking of when you saw her were her disabilities. The flamboyance was distracting.” But what if it wasn’t a ruse, or the rhinestone covered sleight-of-hand that we have come to call “glamoflauge”  that diverts your attention elsewhere with its sparkle. Instead of getting away with hiding her disabled body, as the curator said,  instead it struck me as another form of self-portrait. I want to acknowledge the service that clothes provide (to hide, to heal, cover and expose and sometimes all at once) without trading out the joy of dressing. Celebrating a body that lives under suspicion is an act of integrity, doing so holds all the complicated truths about what it means to be a person in a body. 

I’m concerned that the narrative that Kahlo was hiding her disability implies her shame. When I look at images of her dressed in these outfits all I see is her beaming with pride. She once said, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” I don’t think that it’s a simple dichotomy, one needn’t replace the other but neither does the revelation of one dimension of a person imply the disappearance of another. With either pride or shame, what you don’t see is still there. 

A “selfie station” was set up at the end of the exhibit, meant to dissuade visitors from taking flash photos of themselves with the delicate light-sensitive clothes. A photo of Kahlo sitting on a white floral lattice bench covered an entire wall for visitors to pose with. The 1939 image, “Frida on Bench” taken by the photographer and Kahlo’s sometime lover Nickolas Muray, is the same one used in a fake French Vogue cover of the same year that has enjoyed a long viral life on the internet and is often assumed to be a real magazine cover. The fake cover was also used in the 2002 biopic film Frida, at this point which mock-up came first is lost to the public imagination. The mock-up has been repeated so many times that it’s real, now. 

In 2012, when Kahlo appeared  posthumously, on a cover of Vogue Mexico meant to coincide with the original opening of the exhibit at the Museo Frida Kahlo in Coyoacan, Mexico, the image used was “Frida on Bench.” Kahlo did actually appear in the magazine during her lifetime-  while in New York in a 1937 letter home to a friend, now enlarged and displayed on the museum wall, Kahlo asks a friend, “Did you see me in Vogue?” She had posed seated next to a giant agave plant, in  a photo shoot entitled “Señoras of Mexico.” The caption underneath her photo simply read, “wife of the famous Mexican artist.” As much as she tried to control her image through her dress, once she was photographed it was out of her hands.  

***

The woman in the voicemail recording left on my phone spoke with a clipped British accent, “….There will be a photo shoot, of course, and we’ll have to send some clothes. If that’s alright with you.”  The photos would accompany an excerpt of my memoir in Vogue. The shoot was to take place on the UC Santa Barbara Campus, but the campus wouldn’t allow it. It was summer and the woman in charge of making these decisions was gone and no one else knew what to do, so they declined. 

The photographer asked if he could shoot in my apartment or the yard outside, ideally tomorrow. My apartment was a wreck and fit three people maximum. I had a new neighbor out in the front, an engineering student, and I had a hard time imagining myself posing in fancy dresses in our front yard right in front of his windows. I was embarrassed by what I imagined as opulence and attention and I was afraid of being put on display for people to examine what was missing.  

I was also scared also of my own cravenness, of how much I wanted to be a woman in a perfume ad instead of a writer. I have, saved on my computer, the ad that Joan Didion did for Celine. She is wearing a black turtleneck and a huge metal pendant and pitch black sunglasses and her lips are pressed together tightly in disapproval as if the shot had been stolen and not posed. But every picture of me is also a picture of what I am not. I declined.

The shoot disappeared, instead they used a cartoon graphic of a woman with a lemon in her head. On the phone, the editor I was working with exclaimed, “The excerpt is going forward still, so we are happy!” I suspect that she had to fight to keep it in after the shoot was canceled. “There’s just one thing. The editor was hoping for a love interest.” I sighed. “It’s…a very small town.” We went back and forth this way a couple of times as if I’d just misplaced a partner like an earring that had fallen off somewhere between the car and the restaurant. I thought of Coco Chanel’s famous advice, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Dressing and having your photo taken is also a tug of war of control and who gets to tell the story of a self. Frida knew this. Through my own experiences being “on exhibit,” I was learning.

***

 I’m considering a pair of industrial coveralls in English Red online, while on the phone with my sister. “You could pull that off,” she says to me. I know that it’s a compliment, but what does it mean? I’m curious about the implication that there’s a certain grit about a person who could zip up the jumpsuit triumphantly, as if it’s an impossibly overstuffed suitcase, and be on their way.  “Pull it off” began as a British phrase describing winning at horse racing. There are many guesses at what “pull” describes but my favorite is the pull of the horse resisting the attempts of the rider to reign it in. I like the image of wearing an outfit into submission as if it’s a bucking rodeo bronco. Still, I’m not sure that’s how it actually works. To me, it’s more about the pleasure that shines through the wearer, refracted through the clothes — the joy of painting myself, in all of my complexity, into being. 

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Cole Cohen is the author of the memoir Head Case (Henry Holt). She has been a Yaddo Fellow and a finalist for the Bakeless and Association of Writers & Writing Programs Creative Nonfiction Prizes and was a featured contributor for Entropy. She teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art.