PORTUGUESE POLITICAL history in the 20th century was often turbulent, chaotic and at times oppressive.
The end of the monarchy, the First World War, the instability of the first republic, military coups, dictatorship and ultimately revolution all marked their painful presence of the psyche of a nation.
Yet behind it was always a touch of feminine glamour provided by the little known story of Portugal’s First Ladies – the presidents’ wives.
A fascinating exhibition tracing the history of presidential wives from the first – Lucrécia de Brito Furtado de Melo Arriaga (1844-1927) to the present first lady, Maria José Rita
entitled, ‘Primeiras-Damas da Republica Portuguesa 1910-2005’ is currently running in Lisbon at the IADE Cultural Centre in the Palácio Pombal, Rua de Alecrim (off Baixa Chiado).
It is spread over two floors with colourful and exquisite exhibits including jewels, gowns used in state visits and receptions, letters, memorabilia, photographs, and even school reports. The first ‘first lady’, Lucrécia de Brito Furtardo de Melo Arriago, was a modest and simple woman who could speak French and English, devoting herself to charitable causes during the First World War, such as the Cruzada das Mulheres Portugesas which collected clothes and money for the families of troops fighting on the Western Front.
Maria Joana Perdigão de Almeida (1885-1965) was married to President José de Almeida who took office in 1919. She was one of the first president’s wives to be seen in public and lead a ceremonial political life, when she was the hostess for the official state visit of King Leopold of the Belgians in 1920.
Belmira das Neves (1886-1967) married the dried fruit exporting businessman Manuel Teixeira Gomes, who subsequently became president in 1923. Described as a simple woman of the utmost humility she stayed in the background but proved a strong support to her husband.
Sometimes that support was all the more important during a crisis, as in the case of Elzira Pereira Machado who was married to President Bernardino Machado. In 1917, after two years as president, the troubled first republic was overthrown by a military coup under Sidónio Pais.
The two were forced to flee abroad to Brazil, where tragedy struck once again with the death of their daughter Maria Francisca from the 1918 flu epidemic. Returning to Portugal in 1919 her husband once again took the limelight, this time as Prime Minister, until the couple got thrown out again in 1926 by the dictator António Carmona.
For those with a more contemporary interest, one can see a black evening gown worn by Maria Helena de Barroso Spinola and a striking pale peach silk sashed gown, once sported by Gertrude Tomàs who was consort to President Americo Tomàs in 1958.
A rather dour black late Victorian outfit, once worn by first lady Lucrécia de Melo Arriaga, is the oldest gown in the collection. There are also a whole host of posters and memorabilia from the film career of Mario Soares’ wife, Maria Barroso from the time she starred in the film Mudar de Vida.
There are also gloves, fur wraps, fans and other accessories once sported by Maria das Dores Cabeçadas, who was first lady in 1926 and cut a dashing figure in her 1920s flapper-style dresses.
The flowing style and fluid elegance of current first lady, Maria José Rita is represented by a whole host of dresses worn on various foreign state visits to Brazil and other countries around the world. Particularly interesting is the lemon yellow Dior-style two-piece suit she once wore when she worked for TAP Portugal in the 1970s.
A fascinating exhibition into the private lives of diverse and famous Portuguese women who made their mark behind-the-scenes, supporting their husbands in an often arduous task, while themselves quietly devoting themselves to charitable causes and being the hostesses of Bélem Palace.
What: Portuguese First Ladies Exhibition 1910-2005
Where: Sede Cultural do IADE, Pombal Palace, Rua de Alecrim, 70, Baixa Chiado.
When: Daily 3pm-11pm.