Frida Kahlo and Shalimar

“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Frida Kahlo once said. An artist is inseparable from their art, and this idea is particularly dramatic in the case of Kahlo, whose body of work is based on the explorations of self. Of the 143 paintings Kahlo left behind, 55 are self-portraits, brutal, honest, startling. What’s more, Kahlo was conscious of the power of the image, and she also fashioned self through her choice of clothes, colors and accessories.

I admit that I didn’t appreciate the importance that Kahlo assigned to her clothes, jewelry and perfume until I saw the exhibit of the artist’s possessions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The image of the Mexican artist—the colorful skirts, the flower-decorated braids, the unibrow—entered pop culture to the point that we risk forgetting the artist behind a fashion icon. In order to understand her art, is it necessary to know that Frida Kahlo wore Guerlain’s Shalimar and Schiaparelli’s Shocking and draped herself in Mexican dresses and Chinese silk?

Kahlo may not have anticipated how influential her look would become, but she clearly selected her outfits with a specific idea in mind. Her art didn’t start and finish on the canvas. She made the Frida we recognize today, and she did so consciously. As her personal possessions at the Casa Azul went on public display for the first time since they were unsealed in 2004, her attention to fashion, colors, accessories became even more obvious.

Born in Mexico in 1907, Kahlo grew up in a family that supported her creative ambitions, though initially she planned to study medicine, rather than art. Then in 1925, at the age of eighteen, she suffered a bus accident that would leave her with a broken spine, crushed pelvis and a lifetime of extreme pain. It was this accident that made her channel her anguish into art. Bedridden for a month, she began to draw, and as the injuries forced her to leave school, painting became her main occupation.

Kahlo would have more than 35 operations to repair the damage of the accident and at times when she wasn’t able to get up, she would paint lying down. When she wasn’t able to approach the canvas, she would draw on the corsets encasing her body. When paints were out of reach, she would use iodine and lipstick.

People who knew Kahlo said that the more pain she experienced, the more vivid became her outfits. She favored dramatic colors, red, blue, green, yellow, magenta, “the brightest and oldest,” both in her art and her clothes. She adapted the huipil blouse of the Tehuantepec region of Mexico, the square shape of which allowed her to pair it with long, full skirts. She personalized her outfits by adding elements from the places she visited and whatever caught her attention, such as Mayan jade beads or Chinese dragon embroideries on her prosthetic leg. Her clothes could be construed as a statement of her politics, but they were also a manifestation of her rich imagination.

At the exhibit of the artist’s possessions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, I spotted a bottle of Guerlain’s Shalimar. Shalimar wasn’t the only perfume in Frida Kahlo’s collection. The Casa Azul archives also contained a bottle of Chanel No 5 lotion relabeled “acetone,” Dana Emir, Schiaparelli Shocking and Roger & Gallet Eau de Cologne. The large Shalimar bottle, however, drew my attention.  Kahlo selected her outfits with a specific idea, aware of the effect they had on others, but above all, on herself. 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 said of his most famous creation.

The fragrance is rich in notes that evoke the exotic and the mysterious, such as vanilla, ambergris, jasmine, and sandalwood, but the 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-synthesized ethyl vanillin that allowed Guerlain to craft the bold structure of the composition and achieve harmony between richness and radiance. Today, Shalimar is available in several versions, such as the effervescent Eau de Toilette and the rose and iris inflected Eau de Parfum, but it’s the Extrait de Parfum that’s closest to Guerlain’s 1925 composition. The production of Shalimar even continued through WWII, when Guerlain introduced refillable bottles to save on the costs of packaging. Kahlo’s bottle of Shalimar is dated to 1940-1954.

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you,” Kahlo said. 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 and to weave a fantasy and immerse us in it.

The photograph of Shalimar bottles by Bois de Jasmin as well as the images from Frida Kahlo : Making Herself Up. Edited by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa. London: V&A Publishing, 2018. Frida Kahlo’s paintings, via wiki-images, public domain.



  • Annie: What an interesting article! I had no idea Frida Kahlo wore Shalimar. May 10, 2019 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! I’m glad to hear that you liked it. May 10, 2019 at 2:21pm Reply

  • Kelly MacNeil: Beautiful, thank you for writing about two of my favorite things FK and Shalimar! May 10, 2019 at 10:35am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! I’ve enjoyed researching this topic. May 10, 2019 at 2:21pm Reply

  • John Luna: Another remarkable artist, Louise Bourgeois, also was interested in Shalimar…If you google her name and Shalimar, you will find an interesting article by a blogger identifying herself as the ‘mad perfumista’… Now I will think of both of these formidable women whenever I smell this perfume — Thanks! May 10, 2019 at 12:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s fascinating, I didn’t know this, but yes, Shalimar seems like a perfect choice for either artist. May 10, 2019 at 2:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: “Wearing Shalimar means letting your senses take over,” is a quote by Jacques Guerlain I like very much. May 10, 2019 at 2:23pm Reply

  • Jeff: Would you consider Shalimar to be a unisex fragrance? Can a male fan of Frida’s wear it convincingly? May 10, 2019 at 12:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Absolutely! It’s essential a cologne, and it can be worn by men easily. May 10, 2019 at 12:22pm Reply

    • Paula Gourley: A friend of mine in Alabama wore Guerlain’s Jicky, which I found quite similar to Shalimar (one of my favorite perfumes), I think Jicky was formulated in the 1920s, from my research in Paris. May 11, 2019 at 4:13pm Reply

      • Victoria: Jicky was created in 1889, while Shalimar in 1924-25. May 13, 2019 at 3:33am Reply

  • Mel Bourdeaux: Thoroughly enjoyed this post!!! A great start to the day! May 10, 2019 at 1:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Mel! May 10, 2019 at 2:21pm Reply

  • Andy: The Kahlo exhibit I saw many years ago remains among my favorite art experiences, so it’s a pleasure to get a glimpse of this spectacular collection on view at the V&A. I was craving some vibrant Mexican flavor to brighten the day, and now I think I’ll enjoy some images of Kahlo’s work and fashion while I prepare some guava paletas later on. A drop of Shalimar extrait sounds like it just might complete the experience. May 10, 2019 at 2:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: For me, it was also a moving experience. It was important to see her art and all of the objects that she surrounded herself with. Everything about her was about creating, concealing something or revealing another aspect of her personality. Since perfume is such an intimate expression of our ideas of selves, it was interesting to reflect about Kahlo’s choices. May 13, 2019 at 3:22am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Splendid! I love all those riotous colours, and the way they are mixed and matched so superbly. How I wish, we’d see more colours here in the northern European countries where—at least here in Germany—the young wear dark and the old beige. May 10, 2019 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, aren’t they! The combinations are so vibrant and I love the way she matched patterns and textures. They’re contrasted and yet they harmonize. May 13, 2019 at 3:24am Reply

  • Gabrielle Langley, Poet: Wonderful article. The choice of Shalimar makes perfect sense! Thank you for this radiant story, Victoria! May 10, 2019 at 5:20pm Reply

  • Fazal: It really saddened me to read in an article a while ago that Kahlo lived most of her life in immense physical pain. The perfume I associate with her is Dana Emir because an empty bottle of Dana Emir kept appearing in pictures of Kalho Museum or exhibits (don’t remember which one). I did not know until today that she wore Shalimar, too. I think I might have read about Shocking though had forgotten about it.

    I did get Emir in parfum concentration due to Kahlo and it is actually a good one. I have Shocking in early as well as 70s formula and I like the 70s version more. May 10, 2019 at 6:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Dana Emir is not a perfume one sees mentioned often these days, but once it used to be very popular. It’s one of those enveloping and yet radiant perfumes. I don’t have any, apart from an empty bottle, but it still retains its scent. May 13, 2019 at 3:27am Reply

      • Fazal: I would not have suspected Dana Emir was popular once if you did not mention it.

        It seems Tabu might have been the best seller but Emir had more loyal fans. Unlike Tabu fans, Emir fans really finished their bottles, which may be why Emir is relatively quite scarcer on auction sites as compared to Tabu. May 13, 2019 at 4:54am Reply

        • Victoria: Exactly! It wasn’t as best-selling as Tabu, but it had a cult following, as it were. Tabu became a statement of the epoch, while Emir was a beautiful fragrance. Those who wore did so because they liked the scent. May 13, 2019 at 6:01am Reply

          • Annie: Are Tabu and Shocking similar? May 14, 2019 at 12:47am Reply

            • Victoria: They’re very different to me, but both are warm, rich, sweet and balsamic in the drydown. Shocking is more animalic than Tabu, but it’s also drier. May 14, 2019 at 9:43am Reply

  • Sariah: I was so happy to see the Frida exhibit in Brooklyn last week. The most striking pieces for me were the plaster corsets she had painted on. One was painted with a cracked column representing her spine, another with a fetus – heavy stuff.

    I was interested to read that she never visited Tehuantapec, though she dressed in their clothes. I had assumed she travelled there and bought the clothes there but that’s not the case. It’s a fascinating place to visit, though not a trendy destination – l didn’t see any other foreign tourists there when l visited in 2011. Many of the ladies still dress in the embroidered huipiles and skirts. It’s a matriarchal society which makes sense with the loose fitting, comfortable and highly decorated clothes. I definitely see the appeal to Frida. May 10, 2019 at 7:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: My friends visited there not long ago, and they also found it fascinating–the local food, clothes, culture in general. I would very much like to visit.

      I think that Kahlo was very conscious about crafting her image, and she delighted in people noticing her and admiring her look. May 13, 2019 at 3:29am Reply

  • Aurora: It is poignant to realize that in life, she dressed to conceal in these beautiful Mexican outfits while in her paintings she revealed so much. Shalimar and Shocking seem such appropriate scents for her (I’ve never smelled Shocking but you wrote a brilliant post about it), they are as iconic as she is. May 11, 2019 at 11:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, indeed. For this reason, she remains so enigmatic. May 13, 2019 at 3:30am Reply

  • Ariadne: SUPER POST V! Inspired me to read some reviews of the V&A exhibit as well as the Brooklyn one. There was an element of disapproval in the reviews regarding the focus on her personal expression as more important than her artistic expression. While It was interesting to know what brand nail polish she used and to appreciate the fabulous embroidery in her garments, and sad to share what she wore beneath them, it was very revealing to me to know her perfume choice. Perfume is such an intimate adornment it should really be shocking that it is worn publicly…. but how fascinating that it is NOT, ;+) May 11, 2019 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t know how the Brooklyn Museum exhibit was structured, but what I liked about the V&A one was the way the personal expression illuminated the artistic one. After all, the two don’t exist in two separate worlds, and especially an artist like Kahlo was very particular about the way she presented herself. Her art didn’t start and finish on canvas. She herself was her own foremost artistic creation. May 13, 2019 at 3:32am Reply

  • Richard Goller: Thanks for the wonderfully informative post. Beautifully illustrated too. May 15, 2019 at 1:09pm Reply

  • Dr. Robbe Lynn: OUTSTANDING ARTICLE! This was one of your best publications so far! I loved the pictures, photos, everything! I thoroughly enjoyed every word and shared it with my mother and other family members & friends! Are you considering writing a book on Kahlo and/or women & their perfumes? I would certainly buy! Again, thank you for an article worth reading several times, as I have this one. May 16, 2019 at 10:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your kind words! I’m so glad to know that you’ve enjoyed reading it. This topic is very special to me. May 18, 2019 at 10:10am Reply

  • Laila: What a great article, thank you. May 27, 2019 at 3:08pm Reply

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