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Frida Kahlo's dresses on display

Frida Kahlo – Art, Fashion, and Disability

What a difference it makes when your clothes represent you and not your disability.  I make a case in this article for fashion.  Normally viewed as a somewhat frivolous endeavour, I champion that to be a human being is to have a certain degree of vanity.  Sadly, I often see that through the rush of more important things, lack of money, time, or manpower that many people living with disabilities appear sloppy.

“What,” you may ask, “about the person who likes those badly fitting sweatpants?”

It’s true, not everybody cares a great deal about their appearance.  I don’t really care what I look like early on a Saturday morning.  I’ll be wearing my favorite sweatpants and a t-shirt so worn that it’s practically a second skin.  Cue the cup of tea and I’m a happy lady.  But…

Saturday night is a whole new world.  Then comes the fierce eye makeup, swirling skirts, and jewel bright colours.  There’s foundation, perhaps a dose of Chanel #5, and the agonizing dilemma of what belt goes with what earrings.  Should I wear vintage or that brand new pair of turquoise heels?

Frida Kahlo's dresses on displayI care a great deal about how I present myself to the world.  I don’t think that I’m alone.  A multi-billion dollar industry can attest that.  My friend Ryan, a successful local musician, summed it up perfectly, “Ya gotta look cool.”

This reflection on the power of appearance was inspired by the opening of Frida Kahlo’s closet in Mexico City.  Frida’s iconic style continues to influence artists, fashion, and the world today.  Her traditional Tehuana dresses, carefully handmade by local artisans, tied her visually and physically to her matriarchal Tehuantepec roots.

Her dresses were carefully designed to represent her, not her disability. Those incredible skirts hid the ravages of polio.  They masked her grief at the ugliness of her metal braces necessary for walking that was so often represented in her art. It is estimated that Frida endured 37 surgeries over the course of her 47 years. Most of which involved the breaking and resetting of her bones from a trolley accident in her youth. To me, her clothes represent how independent of spirit she was from what could easily have been an all-consuming pain.

Frida’s visual identity had a compelling influence over all around her.   In a profound act of grief Diego Rivera, Frida’s husband, locked her closet and declared that it would never be opened.  Even in death he left the clothes to a friend who swore to never open the closet.  Only recently, after the final guardian’s death in 2002, did the closet finally yield its treasures.  They are currently being showcased by the Frida Kahlo museum.  The exhibit, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo, is a collaboration between the museum and Vogue Mexico.

A true taste-maker, Frida was featured on the cover of the famous fashion magazine Vogue.  Her art continues to influence the painting world.  Her acts of individualism defined her outside of her disability.  People saw her as an artist, charismatic fashionista, and political leader.  Many people are swallowed by disability as definition.  Not everyone, but I believe how people are presented through supports is an important tool to overcoming this societal impression of disability before individual.  Their disability looms in front of them and they struggle to define themselves outside of this identifier. Frida is a powerful example of championing what she was above and beyond her illness and injury.

As a support worker I think it’s important to go that extra mile and pay attention to ‘the pretty’ in life.  In a quest to have people included, respected, and become participating members of our community there is a great deal to be said for how people are visually represented.  Individual style is a creative outlet that we all use to communicate with our fellow man.

What challenges do you face as a leader in supports?  Any suggestions for encouraging supports when it comes to clothes, makeup and fashion?  Do you think this is an important issue?  Why or why not?


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