How Frida Kahlo’s makeup helped her construct her identity

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Out of all of Frida Kahlo’s many paintings and creations, her face is the most prominent in public memory. Self-portraiture features heavily in the Mexican artist’s paintings, with over a third of her oeuvre depicting herself. The foregrounding of herself emphasises her now-infamous features: her strong brows, rosy cheeks and rouged lips. Frida Kahlo’s unique self-expression and use of makeup has allowed her to remain one of the most recognisable artists from the twentieth century.

In 2004, hundreds of Kahlo’s possessions were rediscovered in Casa Azul, Kahlo’s family home which has now become a museum dedicated to her. Amongst the possessions were her cosmetic products, giving us an insight into Frida Kahlo’s iconic makeup.

Her famous monobrow was accentuated with a Revlon eyebrow pencil, highlighting her most-recognised facial feature. She emphasised her cheeks and lips with rosy blush and lipstick, which features heavily in her self-portraiture.

Image credit: Frida Kahlo, ‘Self Portrait II’

In 2019, the Brooklyn Museum in collaboration with Revlon unveiled an exhibition dedicated to the artist entitled ‘Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving’. The exhibition displayed Kahlo’s possessions from Casa Azul, covering her fashion, jewellery and makeup. Through exploring Kahlo’s personal style, the exhibition emphasises the construction of her identity through makeup and sartorial choices.

When Kahlo was eighteen, she was in a life-altering bus accident, leaving her with injuries that would majorly impact the way she lived. Her clothing covered her prosthetic leg and medical corsets, decentering her disability from her image. Kahlo’s use of makeup, accentuating her facial features, allowed her to construct her own identity.

In one of her most famous self-portraits, the 1940 painting ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’, her face is foregrounded, featuring her strong brows and rouged cheeks and lips. But concealed in the finer details is a darker context. The dead hummingbird hanging off her neck represents the lack of liberty, through her pain and suffering from her injuries. Kahlo’s self-portraits are more than just her face: they are an exploration of herself.

Image credit: Frida Kahlo ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’

Despite the nuanced messages portrayed in Kahlo’s work, her multifaceted personality is often oversimplified. On Kahlo’s 112th birthday in 2019, Ulta released a makeup line inspired by Frida Kahlo, accompanied with the slogan: ‘Never apologize for who you are’. The Senior Vice-President of merchandising at Ulta stated that the collection was supposed to embody Kahlo’s ‘passion, free spirit and unapologetic approach to self-expression’.

The use of Kahlo’s image in this makeup line was heavily criticised for overlooking her Communist values. Kahlo’s use of makeup in constructing her identity directly opposes Ulta’s commodification of her image for their capitalistic gains. 

Although they seemed to have missed the mark with Frida Kahlo’s left-wing identity, they did get one thing right: Kahlo’s ‘unapologetic approach to self-expression’. Claire Wilcox, the co-curator of the V&A exhibition ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, described Kahlo’s use of makeup as her ‘revolutionary impulse to embrace, rather than conceal, her most off-kilter features’. Kahlo’s unique facial features emphasise her beauty and embrace her individuality. Simply a monobrow and hair adorned with flowers is seen as a representation of the artist, exemplifying the strength of the image she created for herself.

Through Frida Kahlo’s use of makeup, she constructed an image and an identity that remains well into the twenty-first century. However, it’s also important to remember the person behind the image. Through her art, she expresses the intricacies of her identity, such as her political views, her relationships, national identity, and the pain and suffering that she went through. The image she created for herself can paint a thousand words, but the art that she created paints so many more.

Header image: Frida Kahlo, ‘The Two Fridas’