A Dictator’s Largesse: the Eva Perón Collection of Traditional Costumes

The Museo Español Enrique Larreta in Buenos Aires is currently exhibiting an astounding collection of traditional Spanish costumes that Eva Perón Duarte received as a gift from Francisco Franco during her visit to Spain in 1947.  Although the rationing of basic goods was still in effect throughout the country, Perón was honored with a series of public receptions organized on an almost unimaginable scale. Perón made herself popular with the Spanish public by generously distributing 100 peseta notes to the crowds that filled the streets to see her. She was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic in a solemn ceremony, invited to banquets in her honor in the el Pardo palace and the Hotel Ritz, attended bullfights, and toured historic sites. Shrugging off the summer heat of Madrid, the image-conscious Eva wore a heavy fur coat during public appearances. To Spaniards trapped in a grey and static society, she must have been the epitome of glamor and sophistication. She was also the unofficial representative of a country that had donated tons of wheat to Franco’s needy regime and who repeatedly spoke of  the possibility of further shipments of food relief.

In front of a multitudinous gathering in Madrid’s Plaza de España, the first lady of Argentina was presented with a luxurious gift in the name of the Spanish people: exquisitely fashioned traditional costumes from every one of the country’s fifty provinces. The dresses were carried one by one in specially crafted wicker cases by representatives of the Women’s section of the Falange party in each region. Shawls, jewelry, shoes, elaborate petticoats, and hand-embroidered handkerchiefs bearing Perón’s initials and sentimental messages such as “We love you Evita” completed each costume. It must have been a triumphal moment for a woman whose mother had supported her family by taking on seamstress work in an obscure provincial town in the Pampas only decades before.

After her visit to Spain, Perón set out for other European capitals. Although she was received by the Pope Pius XII in Rome, the common Italian people were not particularly impressed. In Switzerland, onlookers hurled tomatoes and stones at her motorcade, but she received a slightly warmer reception in France, where she showed off her exquisite collection of jewels and developed a taste for Chanel and Christian Dior suits that would mark her personal style going forward. Despite the real and imagined slights she may have suffered during her European tour, it was considered a resounding success in Argentina.

Eva Perón died of cervical cancer in 1952. After Juan Perón’s exile in 1955, the collection of regional costumes was stored in various sites in Buenos Aires. It was not put on public display until 1985. As the Museo Enrique Larreta lacks sufficient space to maintain all of the costumes on permanent display, the current exhibition is a unique opportunity to see one of the most complete and best collections of regional Spanish costumes in the world.

Details of Eva Peron’s visit to Spain (in Spanish) may be found in el País and Vida y Estilo.