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July 6, 2023

The Story of Frida Kahlo’s Plaster Corsets

Frida Kahlo was a famous Mexican artist and fashion icon who was known for painting self-portraits and wearing traditional dresses. Something that surprises many people is she spent much of her life wearing plaster corsets.

When Frida was 18, on September 17, 1925, she was in a tragic accident. The bus she was riding was hit by a tram. Badly injured and immobile for the first few months of her recovery, Frida took up painting. Frida wore plaster corsets for most of her life because her spine was too weak to support itself. She painted them, naturally, covering them with pasted scraps of fabric and drawings of tigers, monkeys, plumed birds, a blood-red hammer and sickle, and streetcars like the one whose handrail rammed through her body.

After 1944, Frida’s doctors prescribed months of bed rest, encasing her tortured body in a succession of plaster or steel corsets that helped her to sit or stand. Frida described these corsets and the treatments that accompanied them as “punishment.”

There were twenty-eight corsets in all–one made of steel, three of leather, and the rest of plaster. One allowed her neither to sit nor to recline. It made her so angry that she took it off, and used a sash to tie her torso to the back of a chair in order to support her spine.

There was a time when she spent three months in a nearly vertical position with sacks of sand attached to her feet to straighten out her spinal column. Another time, Adelina Zendejas, visiting her in the hospital after an operation, found her hanging from steel rings with her feet just able to touch the ground. Her easel was in front of her. “We were horrified,” Zendejas recalled. “She was painting and telling jokes and funny stories...”

Additionally, Frida Kahlo contracted polio when she was only 6 years old. At the onset of the virus, she experienced weakness and extreme pain in her right leg, which eventually caused her right leg to be shorter than the left. She walked limply and wore a long skirt to conceal her condition.

In August 1953, her ailing leg succumbed to gangrene. The doctors had to cut off her right foot, which had suffered from polio, and multiple broken bones. A year later, Frida Kahlo died.

The corsets remain to this day in her famous blue house—their embedded mirrors reflecting back our gazes, their collages bringing the whole world into stricture. In one, an open circle has been carved into the plaster like a skylight near the heart.


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