This fall, an exhibition at London’s V&A Museum celebrates Mexican painter Frida Kahlo for her personal style and how her fashion choices informed her art. “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” explores Kahlo’s career through the lens of some of her most intimate personal belongings.
So how does personal style reflect artistic vision? In the case of eight 20th-century visual artists, attire is approached with the same precision and deliberation as art-making. With the V&A’s exhibition in mind, we look at Kahlo and seven other artists for whom “dressing up” became a fundamental aspect of their art.
1. Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979)
Ukrainian-French artist Sonia Delaunay was one of the founders of Orphism, a modernist art movement focused on color and abstraction and influenced by Cubism and Fauvism. Later in her career, Delaunay’s skills took her beyond translating geometric abstract prints to canvas; she eventually became a textile creator and fashion designer. Some critics suggest that Delaunay steered away from her original passion for painting and pursued needlework in order to avoid rivaling her husband, painter Robert Delaunay, so that the two artists could work harmoniously side by side.
Delaunay focused on translating their shared aesthetic vision – known by most as the Orpheus movement, but which they referred to as “Simultané” – into textiles. She was enthusiastic about moving women’s fashion away from the restrictive, unhygienic clothes that predated World War I. Delaunay referred to the collaboration between Piet Mondrian and Yves Saint Laurent as “ridiculous” because the dresses were a flat translation of the Mondrian work, which would look just as good on a hanger as on a woman. Delaunay, in contrast, sought to make clothes that would look best hanging comfortably on a woman’s body while still conveying the artistic vision of Simultané.
2. Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)
Most recognizable for a wide-eyed stare and his signature mustache, Salvador Dalí is a man who took surrealism to personal lengths. Although he often wore simple black trousers and a plain white shirt, Dalí frequently accessorized with unusual items such as lobsters, doves and other creatures. He also donned a variety of headwear, including a red Phrygian cap worn by the Sans-Culottes during the French Revolution. Dalí used a walking stick, for which he chose decorative canes to create more drama as he gesticulated.
Dalí famously collaborated with the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli to translate some of his surreal visions into wearable art for Parisians on the hunt for more daring attire in the 1930s. The controversial socialite Wallis Simpson, who married into the British royal family in 1937, was seen wearing one of the results of the collaboration: a dress with a bold lobster print.
3. Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
Frida Kahlo has become a household name, and now is decidedly the moment for this thoroughly modern artist. She has been critically acclaimed for her art since she was welcomed into the Surrealist group by writer and poet Andre Breton, yet the broad popularity of Kahlo as a historical figure can also be credited in part to her bold, colorful fashion style and forward-thinking attitude.
Kahlo was emancipated from her famous husband Diego Rivera at a time and place where to do so was daring. She was politically engaged and socially conscious. Kahlo was unabashedly herself, whether that meant wearing her traditional Tehuana dress in Europe, where she rejected the intellectual elite that tried to welcome her, or emphasizing her unibrow. Kahlo loved freely, both men and women, and upon her emancipation she was determined to make a living from her art. In every respect, Kahlo seems to have been a woman for the 21st century.
Her personal style has been emulated often, sometimes as the subject of respectful Halloween dress by celebrities like Beyoncé or in murals and street art, and even served as the inspiration for a recent and controversial Frida Kahlo Barbie doll. Many of these bear little similarity to Kahlo’s actual features, but the image of Kahlo with a singular eyebrow and flowers in her hair is so ubiquitous and recognizable that all are still unmistakable interpretations of the artist.
No doubt, Kahlo is best known for the hallmarks of her signature style: feminine, bright colors, Tehuana-woven fabrics and floral patterns, flowers in her hair, and plentiful accessories. Yet since her adolescence, the artist also enjoyed flouting convention by wearing men’s suits, as a series of family photos showing her in her father’s attire demonstrates. Upon her divorce from Diego Rivera, Kahlo dressed in oversized suits that mimicked those of her ex-husband. Her 1940 painting Self Portrait with Cropped Hair shows her wearing a large suit standing on a floor that is littered with the long hair that Rivera loved and which she cut off following her divorce.
4. Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)
Louise Bourgeois, French-American artist, grew up helping her parents in a tapestry workshop, which instilled a deep connection to textiles from early in life. Bourgeois may be best known for her monumental sculptures of spiders and phalluses, but the artist was also a prolific maker of textile works.
In her work, she demonstrated an intimacy with the fabrics she used, most of which came from clothes that had belonged to her at one point. Such works are celebrated by the art and fashion worlds alike. She counted among her friends and fans fashion designers Helmut Lang and Simone Rocha, who made a collection inspired by Bourgeois’ textile work after her death.
“[Bourgeois’] father was dapper and stylish, so her relationship with clothes and society was important to her growing up,” said her long-standing assistant Jerry Gorovoy. Bourgeois told Gorovoy that “Clothes are about what you want to hide”, and from the 1990s, Bourgeois almost exclusively wore the color black. Even in the neutral shade, her attention to detail, texture, and silhouette was visible; photographs show her in furs and tailored garments.
5. Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929)
For Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, themes of infinity and repetition have been a lifelong preoccupation. In her art, she traditionally creates surreal settings in which the conventional proportions of objects would be subverted, and patterns repeated. The recent works for which Kusama has become widely known include recurring motifs: giant pumpkins and polka dots. One of her most famous works, Infinity Room, is a hypnotic mirrored room in which multicolored lights create dots that appear to extend without end, which helps to give the viewer a sense of life inside Kusama’s head.
Still practicing and exhibiting around the world at 89, Kusama has been creating works with dots as a recurring subject matter since the 1950s. Having traveled to New York to participate in the Avant Garde art scene, she joined contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd in disrupting the traditions of the art elite. In keeping with the spirit of the time, Kusama would host “happenings,” performance-based works of contemporary art, during which she would paint her naked participants with dots.
Kusama has experienced and documented hallucinations, in which a pattern she sees would repeat and cover the room she occupies, since she was young. The pattern eventually would engulf her so that she too is covered. Besides a bright red bob wig she has taken to wearing in later life, it is this that makes Kusama so immediately recognizable: she is always wearing her signature polka dot pattern.
6. Gilbert & George (b. 1943 & b. 1942)
Since the time they met, British artists Gilbert and George have carried out virtually the same routine in virtually the same attire, virtually every day. This gives the two artists a sense of timelessness that has led to descriptions such as “living, breathing sculptures” by Michael Glover in the Independent.
Gilbert & George dress in traditional suits, usually made from tweed that is “moderately well-tailored in a way which is somewhere vaguely between Edwardian and Burton Menswear,” as Glover describes. The two artists are always featured in their own colorful, bold art sporting a suit and tie (if any clothes at all). As the city, and the world changes around them, these two remain steadfastly suited and committed to routine. After all, Glover notes, “No one would want to see them walking the streets otherwise – naked, say, or in jeans with ripped knees and Led Zeppelin T-shirts. That would be a terrible betrayal.”
7. Grayson Perry (b. 1960)
British artist and Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry dresses like any other man of his age: button down shirts, t-shirts, and jeans. In contrast, his alter-ego Claire, who attends most social events on behalf of Perry, wears brightly colored dresses inspired by dolls or embroidered with childhood narratives. Claire’s style is highly recognizable and elements of it carry through into Perry’s artwork, which he uses to prompt dialogue about social issues and representations of masculinity and sexuality. Perry’s dresses, although often garish, generally feature less challenging subject matter than his work.
Perry frequently works with ceramics and tapestries; media that have been traditionally regarded as a woman’s domain and only recently have been featured on the walls of major galleries.
8. Pandemonia Panacea
Behind a full latex body suit, an anonymous London-based artist is pulling the strings of the art and fashion worlds. Drawing inspiration from Roy Lichtenstein’s “Girl” paintings and inflatable sex dolls, Post-Pop artist Pandemonia uses a bold yet familiar Pop aesthetic to address many contemporary social preoccupations. She presents an amusingly unattainable version of female sexuality, made even funnier when the voice that comes out from under the latex is that of a British man.
Inevitably blonde, Pandemonia exists only in bright colors and teetering stilettos. She is one of a number of contemporary artists for whom an online persona is part, or the entirety, of their art. Pandemonia, however, continues her performance offline. Initially “crashing” events, she is now regularly invited to London Fashion Week and art fair parties. Here, she “acts out celebrity,” recalling the likes of early-2000s socialite Paris Hilton with a small inflatable dog as an accessory. “My dog, Snowy, breaks the ice,” she has said. “People relate to him. Funny how people relate to an inflatable dog, isn’t it?”