- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

MEXICO CITY

The trunk, discovered in the back of an old wardrobe that had been forgotten in an unused bathroom, was like stepping into the past.

Curators opened the lid to find hundreds of Frida Kahlo’s colorful skirts and blouses, many still infused with the late artist’s perfume and cigarette smoke.

It has taken two years to log and restore the nearly 300 articles of clothing. Next summer, the embroidered and sometimes paint-smeared pieces will be put on display at Miss Kahlo’s family home-turned-museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the painter’s birth. The exhibit will offer the public a new glimpse into her flamboyant and tortured life.

The wife of muralist Diego Rivera, Miss Kahlo is known as much for her outspoken and sometimes outrageous style as for her intensely personal paintings. She survived a horrible bus crash and polio as a child, was openly bisexual and had an affair with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Her tumultuous life has inspired several plays and films, including the 2002 movie “Frida,” starring Salma Hayek.

Miss Kahlo was known in part for her fashion leadership and was featured on the cover of Vogue’s French edition.

While most women were turning toward the simple, elegant dresses, Miss Kahlo was wearing long, full skirts that borrowed heavily from Mexico’s traditional Indian dress. She often had her hair in braids, and refused to remove a mustache or trim her unibrow, both of which she exaggerated in her signature self-portraits.

The trunk of clothes was found in 2004 during a renovation of her family’s home, where she died in 1954 after a life of nearly constant pain and dozens of surgeries for broken bones she suffered in the bus accident. Inside were dresses, tablecloths and a letter from Mr. Rivera.

The clothes were a window on Miss Kahlo’s life. The curators of her museum were struck not only by the actual garments, but by the fact that they still smelled of Miss Kahlo.

“There is still a trace of that very particular odor,” says Magdalena Rosen Zweig, who helped restore the clothing. “It’s not mildew or mothballs, but the smell of a person, cigarettes, perfume. It’s a very particular smell, something that makes the clothing come alive. It’s something that helps you understand a person.”

Some of the skirts were stained by Miss Kahlo’s oil paint, and one had a small, scorched hole from a cigarette.

“We respected that during the restoration process … because it is part of history,” Miss Rosen Zweig says in an interview.

The clothing was fumigated, studied, logged, classified and photographed for an exhibit catalog.

Besides providing a comprehensive look at Miss Kahlo’s style, the clothes also reveal how tiny she was. Mr. Rivera, more than 6 feet tall and about 300 pounds, towered over the 5-foot-3 Kahlo, who weighed less than 100 pounds. The disparity prompted her mother to nickname the couple “the elephant and the dove.”

“She has such a small waist,” Miss Rosen Zweig says. “You can’t find mannequins her size. She had a tiny waist and a very small back. Everything about her was tiny.”

Her body, crippled by disease and the bus accident, was the main topic of many of her paintings — stark self-portraits that depicted her unending pain and inability to have children.

Clothing became a way to hide or even address her physical disabilities. After suffering a broken back, she often wore a hard, plaster corset that she painted with intricate designs. During her months of bed rest, “it was a ritual to get dressed,” Miss Rosen Zweig says.

She noted that the clothes showed how Kahlo’s style evolved. As a young woman, she wore high-neck blouses and black gloves that may have belonged to her mother. Later, she mixed loose-fitting dresses with ornate necklaces, earrings, flowers and hair ribbons.

Miss Rosen Zweig hopes the new exhibit will spark interest in native Mexican textiles and clothing.

She says it was hard to calculate the value of the clothes.

“You can’t put a price on the rescue of this collection,” she says.

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