Want to dress like Frida?

Since seeing the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum I have been thinking of being more like Frida. At least in terms of dressing. Could I make a blouse and skirt that I could wear in London, influenced and inspired by Frida, without looking exactly like this?

Mexican dress

The key elements of the style are a round necked (occasionally square necked) waist length, boxy, blouse that is usually worn over a skirt. This T shaped garment is sometimes white or lacy, often brightly coloured and sometimes embroidered. The skirt usually matches or coordinates, and is either below the knee with a longer under skirt, or with a white lace floor length border. An even simpler look is a long, full skirt, a loosely fitted blouse and a shawl draped over the shoulders. Hair is usually worn up and enhanced with flowers, ribbons or plaits. Jewellery includes showy necklaces and earrings. Here is Frida, in New York, where they went crazy for her style.

So here is my suggestion. Fresh from my success in hosting a knit along, what about a Frida sewalong for those that don’t knit?

Shall we spend a month or two (finishing by the end of August say) making a Frida influenced outfit?

You don’t have to interpret this completely literally, but you could. Even though they can be worn together for dramatic purposes, I am thinking a maxi skirt and a blousey top would blend into most wardrobes, and would be fun to make. They could both be embellished with lace, braid, panels, hand or machine embroidery, or they could be relatively plain. You could use one main fabric, or several co-ordinating fabrics in bright colours. You may have an old table-cloth or embroidered hand towels or African prints, or Chinese embroidery or even Mexican artefacts you could combine? If your local climate is considerably cooler than Mexico you might want to think about using velvet, wool or heavier fabrics – this might make a splendid Christmas Day outfit. If you are in a hot climate then this outfit would be perfect in lighter weights. By making separates we get lots of wear – the little top with jeans, or the long skirt with a shirt for work or formal occasions, maybe.

I will look up some simple patterns that we could use or adapt and I will share them over the next month.

Today, the Huipil. Pronounced like Pupil, but with an H.

It’s a simple doubled over rectangle to produce a square. The effect is a bit like a cap sleeved blouse, with no shaping or fastenings. So it can be pulled on over the head. The basic shape is so very simple that all the interest comes from the fabric or embellishment. The Huipil is not essentially different from a T shirt.

I haven’t seen a feasible pattern on the internet so I will make one and share how I did it next week. If you want to buy a pattern Marilla Walker has a “Maya” pattern on Etsy, which is a modern version based on similar Guatamalan Huipul. The key issue is less the shape than the fabric or the embellishment. Many of these blouses are created in strong bright colours, but black/navy or white is equally attractive. And if you go in for some embroidery black or white backgrounds are the best as they make the colours come forward. But braid would be good too, or lace. I am planning a white one as I am not so good with black. The embellishment is traditionally just stripes or geometric patterns but there are many flowered versions too as you can see in the top photograph.

I have put together a Pinterest board with some inspiration on it, but I am going to use what I already have at home. This project is a perfect excuse to use up some of those ethnic fabrics you may have collected, or bought on holiday, but struggle to fit into your day to day wardrobe. Or to use some of those flashy trimmings that you were attracted to on market day but are now sitting sadly in a drawer.

Having just had a look in my cupboard this is what I have found that might come together in a nice outfit. In many of the photographs of Frida we see she has chosen a red-green-white colour scheme, the colours of the Mexican flag. While I don’t find British nationalism the least attractive I thought I might try a red, white and blue colour scheme. Mainly because I have two pieces of fabric I dyed with Indigo, a plain piece of blue silk, some 1930 windmills and houses I got in a charity shop, an old piece of Chinese embroidered silk and a Spanish embroidered tray cloth. It needs more red, but I think I can do that.


Frida Kahlo sew along
Frida Kahlo sew along

Let me know if you will be joining in – maybe just with one item that you will make. It would be great to finish this with images of us all in our home environment, including ready to wear items if you like, with hair, make up, flowers and trimmings, monkeys and hairless dogs if you have them. What do you think? (Grace I am relying on you!!)

62 Responses

  1. Lisa

    Sounds like a fun idea Kate. I would like to join in. I already have the Maya pattern but I think there is a free boxy top pattern on the Peppermint Magazine website which might be suitable, I’d need to have another look. I’m going to the exhibition in a couple of weeks which I’m really looking forward to.

  2. Kerry

    What a fun idea. I’m sure there will be lots of clever, individualised and imaginative designs. I won’t be joining in but will observe with eager anticipation and cheer you all on!

  3. Anne

    I went to the exhibition on Friday past. I may make an embroidered huipil but won’t go the whole hog. Looking forward to seeing what everyone makes

  4. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    ooooh! Go on then, you’ve persuaded me. Already being small and square, I don’t think I can go with the exact shapes as featured or I’d look like a cube, but I can go with the colours and embellishment game!
    Now I have an excuse to buy a monkey…

    • fabrickated

      I was really hoping you would say yes Elaine as you bring such a range of skills to these kind of challenges. And I am sure you are well equipped with plenty in the way of suitable trimmings. Even unsuitable ones. I think the shapes are a bit challenging. I am not a boxy top type, but long gathered skirts are my thing. You may be the other way around. I am pretty sure there is a version for everyone. Frida did wear trousers too and some of your art teachery styles could work well.

  5. Susan wright

    Absolutely yes I’m in, I’ll see what I have . I think white for me. I have the maya pattern on computer.looking forward to seeing what everyone makes ????????

    • fabrickated

      I am thrilled you are joining in Susan and white is a good colour for lighter skinned women – it is nice and summery too. I am planning a white top and underskirt with an indigo overskirt. And some red. I can wait to see the photos!!

  6. Aida

    what an idea Kate! A friend of mine, @elpidasewing in instagram , is a great fun of Frida, she has painted her portrait in her memades a couple of times, I will share with her so maybe along with me she also joins this sewalong and make an outfit inspired by her! I usually am not good with such challenges but I will try to and see what happens!

    • fabrickated

      I have followed your friend who has some amazing work on her IG feed. I think some elements of the Frida look are right up your street Aida, so, as you say, let’s see what happens!

  7. Jay

    Fence sitting here. It sounds like a fun project, though ‘boxy’ top and gathered skirt would need major reinterpretation for a short waisted inverse pear with frontal bulge. I have committed myself to trying to sew down a chunk of stash before the end of August, so may just be cheering from the sidelines.

    • fabrickated

      It is interesting that many of us are seeing these items as suitable, or not, for our shape. I immediately thought – boxy top (not tucked in) was not for me either. But my experiments with less flattering shapes show that they can all work, but with adaptation. Also “national” and folk dress is usually just “woman” shaped. I don’t think they have to comply in exactly the same way with our sensibilities about shape because they convey femininity, group identification and pride perhaps more than individuality.

  8. helen

    I’m not sure I’ll be joining you but I’ll be looking forward to your creations.
    A while back there was a series on BBC 4 called Handmade in Mexico.
    There was a programme about embroidering a Huipil.
    It’s not on iplayer anymore although there is a short clip but I’ve put a link to the programme on Daily Motion, hope it works. It was really interesting and the final garment is so beautiful and there is such pride in making one.



  9. helen

    I thought I’d just posted – but it doesn’t seem to have appeared!


    There was a programme on BBC 4 called Hand made in Mexico.
    One episode was about making an embroidered Huipil.
    It’s not on iplayer anymore but I’ve put a link to in on the Daily Motion website, hope it works. Or just google and you will find it.
    It’s really interesting and there is such pride in making such a garment.

    • fabrickated

      Thanks so much Helen. Like Mrs Mole I watched the video too. It is a very nice programme, and very touching. I will bring some of the learning into the next post. It’s very inspiring and uplifting.

    • Jenny

      Fascinating video. Would be interested in a slow visual of the stitch process. How is the hook piercing the fabric?

      • fabrickated

        I’m not sure. I discussed this with an Indian artist I know, as the chain stitching on some Indian fabrics appears to be the same or similar. I think the hook is rather slender and pierces the fabric, picks up the yarn from beneath and the stitch is made with the hook on the upper side. This is called “weaving” in the documentary. Maybe someone else knows more.

        • chris

          I think it looks similar to how beading can be done with a tambour hook – except the hook here looks like a fine crochet hook – it’s like crocheting a chain but with fabric between the hook and yarn. Lovely video.

  10. Joyce latham

    Sounds like a lot of fun ( I have too many other goals on at this moment)…looking forward to following along and seeing the end results though! Bring it!

    • fabrickated

      Thanks Joyce. I was rather hoping you might join in as you are always up for a bit of dressing up. Maybe you can find items in your existing wardrobe to put a look together – I think it would be a stunning look on you!

  11. Liese Sadler

    Here’s a link to a Mexican artist Carla Fernandez who rifts off tradtional clothing using handwoven cloth from weavers who collaberate with her. http://carlafernandez.com/en/collections/
    You can see this years’ and several other years. NPR did a piece about her work back in 2014.

    As a weaver myself I’ve pulled out my box of smaller pieces to brain storm some possibilities in a contemporary version.

    • fabrickated

      Thanks so much for the link Liese, which is very interesting. Also I love the idea of you using some of your hand woven fabrics for this project. It would be nice to show them off.

  12. ceci

    My local city paper had a big spread about the London exhibition and I read it carefully looking for an announcement that it is coming to one of our local museums. Sadly, no.

    In some areas the huipil is tunic or even short dress length (still worn over a skirt however) and works great for maternity wear (not an issue for me anymore but I did have a couple I wore during pregnancies……), so really very versatile.

    This sounds like fun……


    • fabrickated

      Hi Ceci – we are indeed fortunate in our V&A – it is a world class museum just 20 mins walk from my home, and as a member I can go back again and again (I saw the McQueen three times I think). But I must say I even the Americans who can go to Mexico relatively easily – this exhibition has certainly deepened my interest in its unique traditions.

      Wouldn’t it be fab if a pregnant sewist did a maternity version? But why not a dress instead of a top and skirt? The possibilities are abundant.

    • fabrickated

      Yes, you are probably right sweaty knitter! I have always had a fascination with traditional T shaped garments and how they use the intrinsic qualities of their woven fabrics.

  13. Rachel

    Sounds like fun! I actually wear the huipuls fairly regularly because I am from South Texas and the are wonderful for the hot weather. I don’t know about the skirt though, I am not very comfortable in maxi type length dresses. That being said, I have thought for a while now to embroider my own dress to wear. I may take this on as a personal challenge.

    • fabrickated

      Hello Rachel – you are lucky to be so close to Mexico and to be able to acquire a genuine Huipul so easily. But as you say you also have the climate for loose fitting little tops. It is wonderfully hot in the UK at the moment so I am really attracted to the idea of something that lets the air through. Full length skirts look good on most people, although I would have thought the whole look could be done at various lengths.

      I would be very interested to see an embroidered dress – certainly the video Helen shared is most inspirational.

  14. Vancouver Barbara

    A great idea.This will prompt me to use the ancient family artifacts I recently found. I will not make a huipil (the H is silent) as I don’t think I would get as much wear out of it as a more fitted top. A long skirt is a great idea too though I might make it as a dress (see Ogden cami for inspiration) as I don’t want much fabric touching me when I am hot. And this definitely feels like a hot-weather item. I also LOVE your idea for velvet in winter

    • fabrickated

      It would be wonderful to see your interpretation Barbara – this is a very loose project brief if you like. I have been thinking about an inspired by Frida knitted hat! Just using more colour, or trimmings or embroidery, or lace, or the shapes – its up to you. And I am thinking velvet myself (just not at the moment!)

  15. Maggie

    I would like to join in. I have a large piece of royal blue embroidered eyelet I bought, and have not yet been able to determine what to do with it. I would enjoy at least having a flowy skirt out of it, I need to figure out what to do about a lining. I’m wondering if a boxy top could be layered over a cami or tshirt and then I could skip the lining. OR maybe I need to buy white for the top…

    • fabrickated

      I had you in mind when I mentioned machine embroidery Maggie. I think the fabric you have would be great for this project, so long as it is not too stiff. Lining might make it a bit too solid if you want the flowy skirt. I did see a model in a broderie anglaise dress with no lining, and no underwear either… But I would consider wearing it over a bra in the same colour, or a little cami as you suggest. Another idea is back the over-bust area with some plain (maybe contrast fabric like red or white) and do some machine embroidery on top of that.

  16. Sue

    I am definitely in! I have boxes of old tablecloths plus tat from the op shop. I will start with the top and see how I go. Exciting times ahead!

  17. Mary

    Oh Kate, this sounds like a delightful challenge! Count me in. I will make something that is an homage to Frida’s style but will fit my own. And boy do I ever have a pile of raw material to work from. I highly recommend visiting Frida’s home if you are ever in Mexico City. I was there many years ago and I think recently it has been refreshed. It is full of her art and folk collections and is a very inspiring space.

    • fabrickated

      So glad you can join us Mary! I think most of us have something nice and precious at home that we can incorporate, thus creating something that is personal and appropriate for our own style and situation. I would LOVE to go to Mexico one day and see Frida’s house – it just seems a long way away at the moment!

  18. Hélène

    Count me in! I have some pieces of lace and colourful fabrics that would be suitable. Frida Khalo had such a unique and bold style and this will be a homage to the remarkable artist she was. However, if I would walk in Montréal right now all dressed up like Frida, I could be lynched for cultural appropriation. This is a very strong movement especially among university students. Maybe your heard that a major show inspired by negro spirituals was recently cancelled after major protests reported on the fact that it was produced by a white producer and featured a predominantly white cast (two Black artists out of five). Whatever! I will make a Frida top and wear it with pride!

    • fabrickated

      Interesting this is also the attitude in Canada. Obviously Mexico has a very fraught relationship with the US, heightened under the present leadership. I am really putting forward Frida as inspiration rather than Oaxaca. For me, many miles away from Mexico (we have our own issues obviously with the Indian subcontinent, and the Caribbean with appalling policies being pursued here recently), I am coming to value and appreciate its rich artistic and cultural heritage. Sometimes wearing the clothes of other cultures can actually enhance our understanding, I feel.

      I have already written next weeks post and I cover this aspect. However I have suggested people look to their own cultural heritage for inspiration as most cultures include similar elements. For example when my daughter got married I made a headdress with flowers (I have a small photo in my book). This was inspired by Frida, but it was very much an English look (roses and carnations, and more a crown than a head band).

      • Vancouver Barbara

        Well, then. Frida could also be accused of cultural appropriation. She was not from the regions whose traditional costumes inspired her.
        We are not trying to pass ourselves off as Frida or regional Mexicans. Joy springs from inspiration. Let’s leave it there.

  19. Hélène

    Brilliant Kate! I shall look into my French Québécois roots and heritage for inspiration instead of simply reproducing Frida’s own version. I love the idea. Can’t wait for your next post now!

  20. Lara

    I am ridiculously keen to take part in this! When travelling I spend quite a bit of time looking at the local clothing styles, and have often noted how simple many are in cut – the fabrics and the embellishments and the layering are the stars. This is the perfect excuse to dig into my stash from Bali, Thailand and particularly Laos and make something that will work for me! Also wondering whether this could be the perfect excuse for some Aboriginal designs on fabric from Injalak Arts. Thanks for the sewalong.

    • Lara

      I’m actually thinking that the Style Arc Ethel top and pants – both of which I’ve sewn before – would translate really well to this style and work nicely with my everyday wardrobe! I noticed that the V&A website has instructions and a pattern for the huipil.

      • fabrickated

        Yes – I remember that outfit! I think the top is very appropriate and I would like to see how you bring the trousers in. As you say, very exciting….it’s all in the embellishment.

  21. Janet

    Would love to join in with the Frida sewalong. Unfortunately I live 500+ miles from V&A but I’m sure I’ll find plenty inspiration from all of you. Oh and my Mexican friend Pilar is coming round for coffee in a bit and is bringing along a Frida book. Thanks very much for organising this project Kate.

    • fabrickated

      Hello Janet, and I am so pleased to hear you are joining in. It must be nice to have a Mexican friend who can give you information about their styles and traditions. And hopefully their food too! I just watched a film set in Mexico – it certainly is an intriguing country.

  22. Juliana

    Ooh, I am joining in, absolutely. What a wonderful idea! Living in Brazil, I sure am in the climate for this, just not sure about the fabrics. Maybe I need to acquire some. This is awesome! Thank you

    • fabrickated

      So excited about you joining in Juliana. I have a Brazilian daughter in law and she has some amazing local fabrics used for table cloths and runners. Also thank you for your book enquiry – I will get a postage price for you.

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