So arty and image-conscious was Frida Kahlo that she even turned her prosthetic leg into a fashion statement. In 1953, after decades of ill health and various surgical interventions, her right leg was amputated below the knee. Within three months, she was walking and painting again, but to hide her new leg, she had boots made of luxurious red leather, decorated with bows and pieces of silk embroidered with little bells and Chinese dragon motifs.
The leg, and a couple of boots, are currently capturing admirers' attention at Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, the latest crowd-pulling show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London's South Kensington. Displaying over 200 exhibits, with intimate personal possessions and wardrobe items that have never before been seen outside Mexico, this exhibition explores how Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon became the international icon Frida Kahlo. It's staged around a reimagining of the Blue House, a single-storey property built by her German father, Guillermo, in Coyoacan, on the fringes of Mexico City.
Frida was born (in 1907) and died (in 1954) in the house, and spent virtually her whole life there, sharing it with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, her husband, 21 years her senior. The couple, who had a famously stormy marriage, welcomed many influential guests to the Blue House, not least Soviet exile Leon Trotsky – with whom it's rumoured Kahlo had a romantic tryst.
Many items on display here were hidden away in the Blue House for 50 years and only rediscovered in 2004. Entering the exhibition, you're greeted by a blue glow, morose background music, and a portrayal of Kahlo's formative years. The defining moment came when, aged 18, she was almost killed in a tram accident. Left bed-bound and immobilised for protracted periods of time, Kahlo began to empower herself through her art, using a mirror in the canopy of her four-poster bed to hone her self-portraiture skills.
There are dozens of her own paintings to browse here. In some, she's semi-nude; in most she's clad in typically vibrant attire – part of the indigenous dress sense that she cultivated, eager to embrace Mexican traditions and her own mestizo (mixed-race) identity (her mother was of Spanish and indigenous descent).
Kahlo was so fuelled with cultural pride that she even changed her birth date to 1910, aligning it with the start of the Mexican Revolution, a decade-long conflict that sparked myriad changes to society. It also ushered in the so-called Mexican Renaissance, which saw Mexico become a hotbed of artists, activists and writers, and encouraged new-found appreciation of indigenous ways of life.
The most alluring section of this exhibition is a huge glass cabinet containing Kahlo's trademark long skirts, blouses, shawls and tunics – many hand-embroidered in Mexican regions like Oaxaca and influenced by pre-Colombian civilisations such as the Aztecs and Olmecs. Another item to grab your attention is Kahlo's resplandor – a spectacular ceremonial headdress conventionally worn by the Tehuana women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a matriarchal society in southern Mexico.
Kahlo had another reason for dressing the way she did. Throughout her life she had to wear orthopaedic aids – such as supportive bodices and spine back braces – and, self-conscious about her image, she made every effort to conceal them. Yet she ensured they still looked the part. You'll see her corsets etched with decorative flourishes, including Communist symbolism (think: hammers and sickles), Catholic saints and tragic images relating to her miscarriages (the tram crash caused permanent physical damage and meant she could never have children).
Also here for perusing are her medicinal ointments, family photographs, personal letters and jewellery, including some jade beads she strung herself. Cosmetics also played a key role in Kahlo's highly choreographed appearance and a make-up selection flaunts her "Raven Red" nail varnish, eyebrow pencil "Ebony" – which she used to emphasise her signature mono brow – and her favourite lipstick, Revlon's "Everything's Rosy". She often kissed letters and photos, leaving sensual red imprints.
After enjoying this absorbing insight into this most compelling and contradictory of characters, visitors can nose through an exhibition gift shop rich ih Kahlo-inspired souvenirs, from replica prints and stationary to coffee-table books and clothes. And the V&A has a programme of Kahlo-themed events to sign up for, too. A standout, on November 2, is a celebration of Mexico's exuberant Day of the Dead festival, complete with an altar dedicated to dear Frida.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, runs until November 4. Tickets are priced £15 ($27) – with concessions available. Advance booking is essential. See vam.ac.uk/FridaKahlo
Steve McKenna was a guest of the Victoria and Albert Museum.