Is it important to know that Frida Kahlo wore Guerlain’s Shalimar and Schiaparelli’s Shocking and draped herself in Oaxaca dresses and Chinese silk? The image of the Mexican artist – the colourful skirts, the flower-decorated braids, the unibrow – has suffused pop culture to the point that she risks being reduced to a fashion icon. Yet when, in 2012, her dresses went on public display, it was clear that Kahlo herself had attributed great importance to everything that she put on her body.
Kahlo’s art is intensely personal; of the 143 paintings she left behind, 55 are self-portraits – brutal, honest, startling. What’s more, her art wasn’t confined to the canvas. Kahlo made the Frida we recognise today. She was conscious of the power of the image, and her choice of clothes, colours and accessories had a specific aim.
At the exhibit of Kahlo’s possessions at the V&A in London last year, I spotted a large, empty bottle of Shalimar. This fragrance was created in 1925 by one of the great perfumers of the modern era, Jacques Guerlain. The inspiration behind the perfume was the splendid Gardens of Shalimar devised by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Guerlain, however, wove his own fantasy, and the testament to his ability to capture the imagination is the fact that almost a century later, Shalimar is still sold by the house.
The fragrance is rich in notes that evoke the exotic and the mysterious, such as vanilla, ambergris, jasmine and sandalwood, but a generous dose of bitter bergamot gives it an uncommon luminosity. It also uses materials novel for the beginning of the 20th century, such as the lab-synthesised ethyl vanillin that allowed Guerlain to craft the bold structure of the composition and achieve a harmony between richness and radiance. Today, Shalimar is available in several versions, such as the effervescent eau de toilette (£88 for 90ml) and the rose- and iris-inflected eau de parfum (£99 for 90ml), but it’s the extrait de parfum (£103 for 7.5ml) that comes closest to Guerlain’s original 1925 composition. The production of Shalimar even continued through the second world war, when Guerlain introduced refillable bottles to save on the costs of packaging. Kahlo’s bottle of Shalimar is dated to 1940-1954.
Kahlo selected her outfits with a specific idea in mind, aware of the effect they had on others but, above all, on herself. The bus accident she suffered at the age of 18 left her with a broken spine, crushed pelvis and a lifetime of extreme pain – people who knew Kahlo said that the worse she felt, the more flamboyant became her attire. Her choice of perfume likewise wouldn’t have been casual. Few other fragrances convey both drama and elegance the way Shalimar does, and it seems fitting for Kahlo. “Wearing Shalimar means letting your senses take over,” Jacques Guerlain used to say of his most famous creation.
As an artist, Kahlo defied labels and classifications. Her paintings contain clues, and yet the personality they present is so complex, so disturbing and multifaceted that it’s bound to mystify. Kahlo’s clothes and perfume are a part of the shell she created around her, concealing her pain – and fighting it. One of the most inspiring aspects of her work is her ability to transform suffering into beauty, to weave a fantasy and immerse us in it.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.