Frida Kahlo is a distinguished mid-20th-century female artist, feminist, and fashion icon. She has become a symbol of the strength and bravery of Latin American women. People recognize her for her vibrant and iconic Tehuana dresses. These colorful and captivating dresses cause many to wonder: Why did Frida Kahlo wear Tehuana dresses?
Frida Kahlo wore Tehuana dresses to hide her injuries, show her heritage, and make a political statement. Frida’s right leg was shorter than her left because of polio. She survived a terrible bus accident that broke her spine and leg. Tehuana dresses distracted people from her condition.
Frida Kahlo has several Tehuana dresses that fashion designers and enthusiasts are inspired by today. Read on to learn more about Kahlo’s Tehuana dresses and their deeper meanings for her and her family.
What is a Tehuana Dress?
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A Tehuana dress is a cultural heritage of the Matriarchal Zapotec culture from the Oaxaca region in Mexico. Tehuana women play a significant role in society and create an atmosphere of equality. Made out of squares of garments, weavers have their version with a native backstrap loom.
The dress is skillfully woven together using the Brocade technique, in which weavers use the threads that span the fabric’s width to create a variety of embroideries, including birds, animals, and flowers. 
The Tehuana dress is an entire ensemble with three sections to the dress: the hairstyle, blouse, and skirt:
- Hairstyle – Starting with the intricate floral headdress, the women began adorning their heads with this headpiece called the “Resplandor” during church visits in the 1500s. Tehuana women also wore their hair in braids decorated with beautiful flowers made from silk or paper.
- Blouse – The huipil is a blouse with Nahuatl origins. Lace, braid, ribbons, and embroidery are essential to the beauty of a huipil, which is made from various materials and woven on a loom. The use of specific patterns reflects the belief of the Mayans and Zapotecs in “dream girls,” which are said to be a part of the spiritual world.
- Skirts – The enaguas or long skirt is typically made of cotton or lace and has floral motifs, which is a necessary component of any Tehuana outfit. In the isthmus region of Mexico, enaguas are still worn for formal events.
How Did the Tehuana Dress Distract People from Kahlo’s Injuries?
With the long skirt covering her legs completely, Frida Kahlo was able to draw attention away from her illness and toward the intricate patterns and bright colors of her dress. Frida grew up with a right leg shorter than the left due to polio, and her right leg fractured due to a tragic bus accident when she was 18.
Want to know all about Frida’s tragic bus accident? Read all about the bus accident in my deep dive covering all of the details.
Frida had to deal with bullying at school that led to her wearing Tehuana dresses in her 20s. She believed it made people focus on the frame of her face, filled with an ornate headpiece and the beautiful huipil.
Kahlo also looked taller in tehuana dresses because of how they were cut and how long they were, which was helpful for her since she was sometimes forced to use a wheelchair.
The loose fit of the skirt also provided comfort, as Kahlo had to wear corsets or braces to support her spine. Tehuana dresses not only gave Kahlo style and comfort, but they also took her life beyond the pain she was often familiar with. I wrote a post doing a deep dive on why Frida needed a back brace for her injuries.
Eventually, Frida’s injuries would lead to her amputation late in life. If you want to learn the tragic details, check out my post discussing the operation.
How Did Frida’s Tehuana Dresses Evolve Over Time?
Many people know Frida Kahlo was an artist, but only a few know that she was highly politically involved. Through her dresses, Kahlo was able to express her commitment to the fight for women’s rights and her support for the Mexican revolution.
Frida declared herself a communist when she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, a heightened period of radical global politics.  While she heavily criticized capitalism, she was an advocate for the oppressed. If you want to know all about Frida’s activism and political beliefs, check out my complete coverage.
The choice to wear Tehuana dresses was a more profound decision than it looks like on its surface, as it alluded to art, culture, and heritage. For Frida Kahlo, it reflected a culture that brought her resiliency above her life’s battles as she grew up.
Frida was proud of being a Mexican woman and used her love of traditional Mexican clothing as a way to show who she was and define her identity. She saw the dress as a sign of strength and determination, and by wearing it, she was honoring her Mexican heritage.
Frida Kahlo’s Tehuana dresses inspired her to incorporate Mexican culture into her wardrobe. Additionally, when she paid visits to San Francisco, she took her time experimenting with other types of cloth. She incorporated Chinese materials and Guatemalan sashes and coats into her Tehuana dress outfits. 
Frida also added accessories such as necklaces and frills to complete her striking looks, and it influences how she is still remembered today. When Frida’s dress collection was discovered the Frida Kahlo museum opened a dedicated exhibit. To promote the event Vogue Mexico magazine put Frida on the cover in 2012. If you want to learn the whole story, read my post detailing Frida Kahlo’s history with Vogue magazine.
What Other Motivations Did Kahlo Have for Wearing the Tehuana Dress?
In a self-portrait titled “Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as a Tehuana),” Frida is seen wearing a Tehuana dress. It is said it was also her choice because her husband adored it, and she believed that would convince him to return to her.
Frida painted it in 1940 when her tumultuous marriage with muralist and self-proclaimed womanizer Diego Rivera ended briefly. 
Growing up with a mother who enjoyed Tehuana dresses, Frida Kahlo was heavily influenced by her mother’s roots. A family image was discovered in Frida Kahlo’s home showing her mother proudly donned the traditional outfit growing up. A colorful display of color and culture, Tehuana dresses are still proudly worn in Oaxaca, even in modern times.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- Admin. “The Traditional Tehuana Costume.” Mexican Arte, 18 July 2022, https://mexicanarte.com/en/the-traditional-tehuana-costume/.
- “The Only Real Reason to Live: The Radical Politics of Frida Kahlo.” Radical Tea Towel, https://radicalteatowel.co.uk/radical-history-blog/the-only-real-reason-to-live-the-radical-politics-of-frida-kahlo/.
- Judah, Hettie. “The Real Story behind Frida Kahlo’s Style.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 June 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/fashion/frida-kahlo-museum-london.html.
- “Photograph of Frida Kahlo with Her Painting, Self-Portrait as a Tehuana – Unidentified – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/photograph-of-frida-kahlo-with-her-painting-self-portrait-as-a-tehuana-unidentified/gAGR-5t_1Z_wXw.