Fashioning Eva Perón’s Rainbow Tour

French foreign minister Georges Bidault (R) greets Eva Perón as she arrives at Orly Airport. © AFP/Getty Images

Eva Perón, immortalized in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Evita, was just as much a superstar in real life as her fictional counterpart. A rural girl turned actress turned First Lady of Argentina, Eva cultivated her image throughout her life as a symbol of the potential for descamisados (underprivileged people) to succeed. Her 1947 European Rainbow Tour marked a turning point in Eva’s sartorial evolution, as she stepped out for the last time in celebrity finery before refining her style.

Fresh off the win of her husband Juan Perón in the presidential election, 28-year-old Eva visited Spain, Italy, France, and Switzerland as a sign of goodwill between Argentina and Europe. While she had been dressing to impress the Argentinian people for years, the Rainbow Tour (so named after Eva, dubbed the ‘Rainbow of Argentina’) was her chance to dazzle the leaders and people of the European continent. Argentinian fashion houses Paula Naletoff, Henriette, and Bernarda most likely designed her clothing for the tour.

Eva Perón listens as Spain’s General Franco gives a speech in Madrid. ©Popperfoto/Getty Images

Eva’s clothes displayed the splendor of Argentina to a continent still reeling from World War II, and she dressed to fully exploit each moment of her tour. When General Franco welcomed her to Spain, she wore a carefully tailored suit, a spray of flowers on her lapel, and a towering black hat atop her perfectly coiffed hair. Her suit communicated the formality of her position, while its light color softened her appearance.

From L to R: Eva Perón during a visit to the Commercial Exhibition in Milan. ©Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images; Eva Perón wearing a floral print dress and hat as she leaves a building during her visit to Paris. ©Archive Images/RDA/Getty Images; Eva Perón attending a reception at the Palace of Justice in Rome. ©Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images.

Given that the Rainbow Tour took place in June and July of 1947, most of Eva’s dresses still followed the boxy silhouette of the mid-1940s. Eva updated her wardrobe to suit the New Look through the use of belts and further feminized her outfits with flowers. Photographs from her time in Italy and France show a preference for floral headdresses/hats and floral pattern dresses, appropriate for the summer season.

On one of her last nights in Paris, Eva stepped out with the Argentinian ambassador to France in a striking metallic gown. The figure-hugging cut of the dress, elaborate hairstyle, and sparkling jewels reflect Eva’s origins as an actress. Her desire for a glamourous life was made manifest not at an award show, however, but on a diplomatic mission as the most powerful woman in Argentina.

Eva Perón and Julio Roca (Argentinian ambassador to France) in Paris. ©Hulton Archive/RDA/Getty Images

After the Rainbow Tour, Eva fully embraced the New Look and dramatically toned down her style, transitioning from flashy actress to fashionable and refined First Lady. She smoothed her hair into a low chignon, adopted a clean makeup palette with a bold red lip, and filled her closet with clothes by Dior and Jacques Fath, both of whom had mannequins with Eva’s measurements in their ateliers. Her stock of Parisian couture suits, gowns, and other outfits would be biannually replenished until her death at 33 from cervical cancer.

Flower Making Museum

Brenda Wilson in the flower shop

Brenda Wilson in the flower shop

As my students will probably tell you, I love a good micro-history. Nothing pleases me more than finding out a lot of things about one tiny, specific subject. So imagine how thrilled I was to discover the Flower Making Museum in Hastings. Not only is this tiny museum packed full of history, it is an ongoing concern – making flowers for theatres and designers, and anyone else that needs artificial floral embellishments.

Early 20th century examples

Early 20th century examples

Brenda Wilson, the owner since 1981, is full of stories about flower making, and takes obvious and well-placed pride in the incredible range of items on offer. As you descend the staircase to the museum space, you realize that every surface, every nook and cranny is filled – with fruit, seeds, stamen, that form the basis of the flowers, and with petals of every conceivable variety, and the metal and wooden shapes that are used to punch out the delicate forms.

Petals and completed flowers

Petals and completed flowers

Wedding tiara samples

Wedding tiara samples

What is amazing is that Shirley Leaf and Petal Company has been in business for 150 years, having moved to Hastings in 1910. It gives a snapshot history of what would have been one of hundreds of mini-trades that have serviced the fashion, costume and related industries, past and present, and which are all too often forgotten.  It is the history of many craftspeople that worked from home, and in small factories all over the country making a small but significant contribution to a huge variety of creations.

Shelves full of metal stamps in the shape of petals

Shelves full of metal stamps in the shape of petals

Flowers for Mama Mia - read the label!

Flowers for Mama Mia – read the label!

The myriad tools used to make the flowers are packed into cases around the small interconnecting rooms in the basement museum.  And this includes a big metal machine that one of Wilson’s employees demonstrated to us – he carefully placed a metal stamp in the shape of petals onto a piece of fabric, lined it up under the machine’s arm and then, bang, stamped out shapes, one at a time to be wrapped and sewn together to make the flowers.

A machine that punches out the petal and leaf shapes

A machine that punches out the petal and leaf shapes

The machine in use

The machine in use

I was fascinated to hear about the range of places that have commissioned the company. Not just milliners, and theatre and carnival costumiers, as you would expect, but also chocolate and Christmas cracker manufacturers that used floral sprays and sprigs of holly as decoration.

So if you are on the South Coast, do make a visit, it really is fascinating. And never forget the power of ‘small’ histories.