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Colourful dresses of Mexican painter on show for first time

The colourful dresses of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo will go on display for the first time in November after being kept hidden from public view for 50 years at the request of her husband, acclaimed muralist Diego Rivera.

Curators of the Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City discovered a trove of 300 dresses, bathing suits, accessories and photographs in 2004 and are now ready to show the public 22 items from the unique wardrobe that turned her into a fashion muse.

The exhibition explores Kahlo’s fascination with Mexico’s indigenous women and her penchant for richly embroidered ethnic frocks, flowery headpieces and ornate silver jewellery that earned her a photo shoot with Vogue magazine in 1937.

It also reveals how she chose clothes to hide her disfigurement after a bout of childhood polio that left one leg thinner than the other and a devastating bus accident that broke her spine in three places and left her in constant pain and scarred from subsequent surgeries.

“We must remember that Frida – like Diego – wanted the colours, the dress, the culture of Mexican women to be public and known,” said Carlos Phillips, head of the museums that exhibit Kahlo and Rivera’s work.

“They were attempting to rescue a people which had been abandoned. Mexican society dressed like Europeans. Those types of clothes weren’t appreciated as much anymore,” he said.

Kahlo and Rivera are two of Mexico’s most celebrated figures, and their on-off stormy marriage was among the most prominent of the 20th-century art world.

Kahlo, who died from pneumonia in 1954 aged 47, led a troubled life fraught with illness and tumultuous love affairs.

A member of the Mexican Communist Party, she was a fierce supporter of the country’s traditional culture.

“Frida Kahlo without a doubt is a very important icon in the fashion scene,” said Kelly Talamas, editor of Vogue magazine for Mexico and Latin America.

“She had more of a dark side, and also had her side in which she was inspired by the colours and the textures and the people and the culture here in Mexico,” she said. “I think that’s what’s most inspiring to designers, that the pieces that she wore create a story.”

Vogue has commissioned contemporary Frida-inspired pieces from several designers to display alongside the originals.

Kahlo began painting as a teenager while convalescing from the crash in 1925 and her work and the numerous self-portraits, for which she is best known, reflect the searing pain she lived with until her death.

The museum had respected Rivera’s request to keep Frida’s clothing under lock and key for half a century after she died in 1954. Rivera had wanted to preserve the items and protect them from people who might not take care of them properly.

When they did start examining the items, they were thrilled to find the exact outfit worn in the 1937 Vogue shoot.

Seen by Reuters, it features a European-inspired green ruffled blouse with high neck and long sleeves, with small buttons down the back and a voluminous, ivory-coloured, silk taffeta skirt with a floral print and lace hem. A magenta shawl wrapped around the shoulders completed the look. The blouse now has some stains from Kahlo’s oil paints.

“She didn’t just choose any dress. This particular dress... symbolises a strong woman,” said Circe Henestrosa, the exhibit’s curator.

“It’s also a dress that projected her political beliefs and her desire to promote her Mexican identity. As far as her disability, it’s a dress that allowed her to hide her physical imperfections,” she said.

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