I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I discovered the work of Frida Kahlo but her stern self-portraits with their challenging, sometimes even hostile gaze, enchanted and disturbed me. I read a biography of her and was charmed by her suffering, her wildness and her impetuosity. Back then I believed in art and style, and thought that suffering might well be a necessary part of that equation. My own physical suffering was limited and I read about Kahlo’s with grim, vicarious interest.
I grew up in Brisbane – in the sub-tropics, and I’d been to Central America when I was fifteen, with my step-grandmother. I’d visited Mexico and seen beautiful pottery in a museum, I’d see women weaving by the roadside in Cusco and walked through markets in Guatelmala. Long after the details of the trip faded, the vivid colours, handweaving and playful pom poms remained in my memory. I wasn’t brave enough to buy anything other the ubiqutous poncho, but when I became interested in Frida Kahlo I had a tactile memory of the clothes she wore in those self-portraits.
If I had a style back then, it was eclectic and based more on economics, reading and a wistful imagined life, like those I read about so voraciously – Anais Nin, Colette, Kahlo and others. A phrase from a novel could inspire me – D. H. Lawrence’s mention of coloured stockings in Women in Love sent me on a search for coloured tights – I don’t think I found any in Brisbane in the early eighties! I bought a pale blue Country Road dress because I imagined it was the colour of a prairie sky. I wore khaki overalls I found in Paddington Market in Sydney and which I’d embroidered with an illustration from Le Petit Prince.
At eighteen, I purchased a hand-spun, hand-knitted shawl – it was unbelievably expensive and ate up a good deal of my student allowance, but I had it for years. There was something about the quality of the undyed yarn that I’d coveted. I had a spinning wheel and could spin then, but I wasn’t a knitter and this shawl, with it’s lace border, gave me a sense of what I could aspire to, one day. I was delighted with the old-fashioned nature of the shawl as a garment. Wrapped in it, I could imagine walking on the moors, composing heartbroken poetry as I laboured against the wind and the rain to reach my home and the meagre warmth of a small fire.
My relationship with clothes was like that – I had an exiled Russian princess dress, an ‘Edwardian’ silk blouse, a Colette French dress and an androgynous corduroy jacket that was part Annie Hall, part Radcliffe Hall. I op-shopped keenly but was just as capable of imbuing new clothes with the same glamour – a sequinned boob tube was my answer to Nicholas Roeg‘s doomed protagonist in Bad Timing – a movie I saw at least three times. I didn’t wear it much – the sequins scratched and the stretchy elastic flattened out my already flat-chest. Still, when I put it on, I was Theresa Russell in my head, if not in my mirror.
What has all this to do with Frida Kahlo? I’m now at an age when I can unravel and embraace my own style and eccentricities. I’ve long since relenquished any notion of being ‘groomed’. I just don’t do that well. I love colour, texture, an eye-catching handcraft feel which isn’t too shoddy. One of my favourite garments is a black wool stole my mother bought for me on my twenty-fifth birthday. The folkloric embroidery is a vibrant mix of colours – it’s very Frida.
Last year I found some machine crocheted material at Spotlight in a similar mix of colours. I snapped up a metre. Helen looked at it with disdain and my best friend tried to hide her scepticism. When I put on that skirt with its carnival colours and scalloped festivity, I feel happier and braver in Melbourne’s grey winter. It’s very Frida.