Making her self up – Frida Kahlo's cosmetics

Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion, examines Frida Kahlo's make-up collection in this edited extract from the V&A book 'Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up'.

Her light-tan face was not pretty, perhaps, by established norms, but she possessed – and even radiated – a strange and alluring beauty.

Olga Campos describing Frida Kahlo, 1949 – 50

Frida Kahlo paid great attention to her face. Of her small œuvre of paintings, about a third are self-portraits. From the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, she created a series of likenesses that redefined female self-portraiture. In each, her tinted lips are tightly closed (Kahlo never revealed her teeth), and her upper lip distinctly moustached. Rouged cheekbones and dark, conjoined eyebrows frame her side-glancing eyes. In some, her features are set against, or arise from, verdant foliage; in others the background, with its shallow depth of field, has an ominous emptiness.

Self-Portrait with Red and Gold Dress, Frida Kahlo, 1941. Courtesy of Gerardo Suter and The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of the 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation. © 2018 Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

The head and shoulder format of these self-portraits reveal few details of her clothing, although in Self-Portrait with Red and Gold Dress (1941), painted in the year of her father's death, the just-visible embroidery picks up the hue of her lips and cheeks, brightening the sober palette of the upper half of the painting. Above her dark braided hair, Kahlo memorialised her name in large black script, followed by 'Mexico' and the date in Roman numerals. Disquieting and beautiful, the repetition of Kahlo's face in each painting suggests multiple versions of herself.

She had a special skill for applying make-up and achieving a natural look, and spent a lot of time on this effect. She used blush and rice powder by Coty. Her lipstick and nail polish were always in a strong colour, and, for her eyebrows and lashes, which she carefully combed, she used Talika black powder.

Olga Campos, 1949 – 50
Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.

Of all her features, it was Kahlo's eyebrows that became her unique signifier. The doodles and dreamscapes of her diary are populated with figures whose brow marks act as a shorthand for self. Snapshots of Kahlo with the Mexican artist and dancer Rosa Covarrubias and Italian-American photographer Tina Modotti show that she and many of her artistic circle retained their natural brows, rather than conform to Hollywood ideals of beauty by reducing them to a narrow arc, as fashionable women such as Kahlo and Diego Rivera's patron Natasha Gelman did.

However, as well as emphasising their allegorical properties in her self-portraits, Kahlo also enhanced her brows using cosmetics: a Revlon eyebrow pencil in 'Ebony' was discovered in 2004 amongst her hidden possessions, while a description by Olga Campos (a psychology student who studied Kahlo between 1949 and 1950) of the artist's cosmetic rituals shows that she went further, using Talika, a French product that encouraged the growth of eyebrows and eyelashes.

Revlon eyebrow pencil in 'Ebony' and emery boards with packaging; compact with blusher in 'Clear Red' and powderpuff; lipstick in 'Everything's Rosy' by Revlon. Photograph by Javier Hinojosa. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Museo Frida Kahlo.

Even bolder than not plucking in-between her brows to individuate them, was Kahlo's refusal to remove her moustache. Her androgynous attributes were a composite part of her personality and complex sexuality. She wrote:

Of my face, I like the eyebrows and the eyes. Aside from that, I like nothing ... I have the moustache and in general the face of the opposite sex.

Frida Kahlo

In the 1940s, American cosmetics brands such as Coty, Max Factor, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden began to expand their markets in Latin America. Kahlo's eyebrow pencil was not imported, like some of her other surviving products such as emery boards and nail varnishes, but manufactured in Mexico City, where Revlon had opened a manufacturing base in 1948. Western ideals still pervaded, with the American actress Claudette Colbert penning a 'Taking Care of Your Beauty' column for the Mexican broadsheet El Universal in the 1940s. However, the flowering of the Mexican film industry at the same time – which made the Gelmans' fortune, and the success of Mexican film stars such as Maria Félix and Dolores del Rio, who were friends of the Riveras – also helped to redefine notions of beauty. While the beauty department in large stores such as El Palacio de Hierro sold American and French cosmetics and perfumes, new products developed for multiracial skin tones were also becoming increasingly available.

Revlon compact and powderpuff with blusher in 'Clear Red', before 1954. Photograph by Javier Hinojosa. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Museo Frida Kahlo.

Olga Campos describes Kahlo as using "blush and rice powder by Coty" but her surviving skin products only include Revlon blusher and a powder compact. A jar of Pond's dry skin cream, made in Mexico, has also been preserved. Pond's based its advertising campaigns not on race or colour, but on its appeal to universal beauty, being "preferred by beautiful women in all parts of the world".

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1930, during her visit to San Francisco with Rivera following their marriage (her first time away from home), Kahlo attracted the attention of photographers Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, who portrayed her at a moment of transition between ingénue (innocent) and cultural sophisticate. However, from 1937 Kahlo became the subject of a far more knowing series of images, as she began a ten-year affair with Nickolas Muray – a pioneer of duotone colour photography and a regular contributor to fashion magazines such as Vogue. Muray's images, and his film footage shot in 1939, 'colour in' the monochrome of Weston and Cunningham's portraits, forming an illuminating record of Kahlo's Tehuana dress. Its festivity is matched by her bright nail varnish, rings and newly 'made-up' face, using lipstick, rouge and face powder perhaps bought in San Francisco.

Kahlo expressed affection with lipstick kisses on the letters and photographs she sent to Rivera and other friends and lovers. In 1939 she wrote to Muray:

I am sending you here millions of kisses for your beautiful neck to make it feel better ... To you, my loveliest Nick, all my heart, blood and all my being. I adore you. Frida.

Frida Kahlo, from a letter to Nickolas Muray
Lipstick in 'Everything's Rosy'. Photograph by Javier Hinojosa. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Museo Frida Kahlo.

Lipstick gave Kahlo pleasure: in a further letter she describes a birthday present from her mother – "a lovely new lipstick, in pale blue and gold on the outside". Kahlo's effects, uncovered in 2004, include Revlon's 'Raven Red' nail varnish, a smeared, well-used Revlon lipstick called 'Everything's Rosy' and an almost empty bottle of matching nail varnish. The cosmetic industry's language of optimism in describing red, in all its shades, suggested that beauty and well-being were inextricably linked. Kahlo too was preoccupied with the symbolic properties of colour, but for her the meanings were more profound. In her diary, she wrote of magenta "blood? Well who knows?" and red frequently punctuates her paintings from the embroidery on her blouse in Me and My Doll (1937), to the red of the ribbons, flowers, drops of blood and the veins that permeate others. While the warmth of Kahlo's lips and cheeks in her self-portraits suggest a feverish grip on life, their pallor in others such as The Broken Column (1944) suggests a barely beating pulse.

Compact and powderpuff with blusher in 'Clear Red'; Seal-fast nail varnish top coat; Lastron nail varnishes in 'Frosted Snow Pink' and 'Frosted Pink Lightening'; lipstick in 'Everything's Rosy'. Photograph by Javier Hinojosa. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Museo Frida Kahlo.

Adapted from an essay by Claire Wilcox in the V&A book Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, accompanying the exhibition.