Eva Perón: First Lady and Style Icon

By Megan Diehl

Since her storied rise to fame and power, Eva Perón’s dramatic biography has been one made to be told onstage. Born into squalor in 1919, this illegitimate daughter of a wealthy planter was able to escape her own harsh reality and trade on pure ambition to achieve much more than what was imaginable for a woman of her economic stature at that time. Musical legends and collaborators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice eventually took on this story in a signature rock opera style—originally recorded as a concept album in 1976—which would go on to become one of the most successful works of musical theater of its era.

Webber’s score follows Eva Perón, affectionately named “Evita,” meaning small or little Eva, through her time as a child in the rural village of Los Toldos, her struggling career as an actress in Buenos Aires, and onto a happenstance encounter that would go on to change her life. Within a year of their meeting, Eva married soon-to-be president Juan Perón and became the most powerful woman in the country at the age of 27. She remained in that role for only a few years, but Eva Perón would leave a significant political and cultural legacy. In her rags to riches rise to power as the first lady of Argentina, Eva became both a polarizing historical figure and a style icon for the entire world.

ZinniLisa Zinni has designed for PSF for many seasons, including Les Misérables, Macbeth, Sweeney Todd, The Importance of Being Earnest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Antony and Cleopatra. Her regional theatre credits include theaters from all over the country, such as Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Syracuse Stage, Walnut Street Theatre, Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, and many more. Lisa also served as the associate costume designer for the Broadway productions and national and international tours of both Rent and Hair, as well as for the recent mountings of An American in Paris, School of Rock, Cats, The Glass Menagerie, and The Play That Goes Wrong.
Festival favorite and Broadway veteran costume designer Lisa Zinni will adapt Eva Perón’s classic style for this summer’s production of Evita. “There are a few iconic looks that will always be seen with Eva,” Zinni says. “The floral dresses from her youth as a poor actress, her famous grey suit with black velvet lapels, and of course the white Dior gown worn on the balcony.” It is from this balcony of the real life Casa Rosada where Eva would address her beloved countrymen and “descamisados,” a location which would eventually become the setting for one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous anthems, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

In her role as the costume designer, Zinni is tasked with displaying both the passage of time and the increasing fame and wealth throughout Evita’s years on the world stage before her early death at the age of 33. Designed through collaboration with director Dennis Razze, Zinni’s costumes will tell the dual stories of both the decades passing in Evita’s life and her struggles through Argentina’s class construct in the early- to mid-20th century.

As Zinni describes, “Eva Perón came from nothing, the lowest parts of society, and you’ll see that grittiness visually throughout the show. It’s very much about the contrast of the poor and the extremely wealthy as she rose to power in Argentina despite her circumstances.”

 Eva Perón lived in a dual existence as she grew, never satisfied with her poor upbringing, but never truly fitting in with the upper classes. As a young actress she bleached her hair bright blonde, and as she rose to fame in the political sphere, her fashion became more and more ornate.

Born and raised in Argentina but descended from French and Spanish Basque ancestry, Eva chose looks that evoked the spirit of her homeland, but much like Argentina itself, she was largely influenced by international aesthetics. According to Zinni, “She rarely did anything on a small scale when it came to her fashion. Her hair was large and coiffed, she wore plenty of expensive jewelry, and she was draped in mink as often as possible. Even though her influences were from Europe and Hollywood, she had a unique Argentinian style.”

Eva often expressed that she owed it to her country to look glamorous. In her constant fight for the rights of women and the oppressed, she felt her beauty inspired even the poorest in Argentina. She famously owned rooms full of hats and shoes, and legend held it that she once wore 306 different custom-designed dresses in one calendar year. On her famous European tour in 1947, she was accompanied by a full staff of personal maids, a hairdresser, and a dressmaker.
She was both loved and loathed for her appearance and political views. Many of the upper class pointed to the hypocrisy of her indulgence while advocating for the poor, while others admired her romanticized Cinderella story and her passionate political acumen.

Both in condemnation and praise, Evita’s story has transcended her time, in no small way owing to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical setting. She spoke fervently in support of labor rights and women’s suffrage, condemned the upper classes, and as she grew ill toward the end of her life, her rhetoric became more and more violent. As seen in the musical’s opening scenes, news of Evita’s passing in 1952 at the young age of 33 was met with both a national period of mourning and, in certain political spheres, celebration. Her legacy remains in Argentina as one of their most revered and refuted national figures, echoed in Webber’s complex score and captured in her iconic appearance both in memory and onstage.