Read my pins: fashion meets politics

06/18/2012 11:25 AM

07/10/2012 5:38 PM

On the rare occasion that politics and fashion meet, it’s often because someone has made a gaffe or suffered a very public lapse in stylish judgment. So it’s fitting, then, that the woman to defy convention and stand at the pinnacle of fashion and world affairs would be Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State.

Tough, fair and armed with a smart, playful wit, Secretary Albright single-handedly legitimized accessories as more than just pretty decorations with a single serpent pin in 1994. Saddam Hussein’s government-controlled press referred to her (then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) as an “unparalleled serpent.”

At her next meeting on the subject of Iraq, it was no coincidence that Albright wore a golden snake brooch. Since then, her pins have taken on a life of their own, sending subtle (and sometimes not too subtle) messages to the world.

Such is the impact of Albright’s pins on international politics that a selection of more than 200 were assembled and put on display by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. The exhibit, and companion book of the same name, is a peek inside a diplomat’s jewel box.

It reveals a surprisingly eclectic, understated and often outspoken collection featuring compelling pieces from around the world, unified less by precious gems or metals (the collection is largely composed of costume jewelry) and more by symbolism. Crabs to signify aggravation, turtles to illustrate the often glacial pace of negotiations, artfully broken glass to hearken her role in breaking the glass ceiling and, of course, sentimental ties. Among her favorites? A clay heart made for her by her youngest daughter Katie when she was 5 years old.

The Mint Museum Uptown welcomes “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection” on June 30 (running through Sept. 23), just as Charlotte prepares to receive the Democratic National Convention in September. In anticipation, Secretary Albright spoke exclusively with SouthPark Magazine this spring. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Some women love scarves. Some obsess over earrings. Others love shoes or handbags. Are pins your thing? Pins are definitely my thing. They’re readily available. Most of my pieces are costume jewelry, colorful things that I’ve been drawn to for most of my life. I do like jewelry, and not just pins, but it became a serious obsession while I was at the United Nations in 1993.

Q. There are 200 pieces of jewelry in the exhibit that will visit the Mint this summer. How many pins do you have all together? I have no idea. Not every pin went into the exhibit, and I’ve been given more since then – I call them my “pity pins.” Those pity pins are accumulating. I’m too embarrassed to count. Q. Where is the most unusual place you’ve purchased or were given a pin? I’ve mostly purchased, especially in fun places. I’ve bought things at bazaars in Uzbekestan and Turkey. I’ll be out wandering around, and if it speaks to me, I have to get it. I usually find flowers, and among the more recent ones, I bought a peacock in Turkey. It was pretty and it caught my eye. I’ll figure out a reason to wear it. I recently wore that to my daughter’s investiture because I was proud as a peacock, so that’s what I wore.

Q. Other than the well-known example of the serpent pin and Saddam Hussein, what is an example of using a pin or cluster of pins to send a message?

The way it started with Saddam Hussein, the other ambassadors started asking, “What are we doing today?” and rather than answer them, I told them to read my pins (much like President George H. W. Bush coined the phrase “read my lips”), and they began to do so. It was fun. They came to know flowers were a good thing, bugs not so much.

Q. Have your choices in accessories been misconstrued? Have politicians or diplomats read more into a pin choice than you’ve intended to send? Yes, the pins have gotten me into trouble. During preparations for the 50th anniversary of NATO, a picture was snapped of Defense Secretary William Cohen, President Bill Clinton and I doing the ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys pose. Somebody began hand over the mouth, ears and eyes, so there we were, the three monkeys. I didn’t have a monkey pin at the time, but came to find a set of monkeys. The first occasion I had to wear them was when meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. I wanted to let him know I disapproved of the Russian treatment of the people in Chechnya. Putin said he always watched my pins, and he was not pleased. It almost screwed up with whole summit.

Q. During your brief visit to the Mint Museum in February, you mentioned that you used pins to help make foreign policy relatable. How does jewelry bring policy down to an understandable level? The bottom line is there are different layers to this pin issue. Anywhere I am out, some people feel comfortable talking to me: “Why aren’t you wearing a pin? What does that pin mean?” What is interesting is that when two officials get together, they still have to open the conversation. When people give me a pin, or know about my pin collection, it helps showing that there’s another human being on the other side of the conversation.

Q. Do you think women spend enough time considering how/what they wear and the audience? It all depends on the situation. If you are in the public eye and representing your country or a businesswoman representing your company, there is a huge difference in what you wear. Jeane Kirkpatrick (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and professor at Georgetown who passed in 2006) told me that I had to get some different clothes, that I had to get a different look, that I needed to have a look put together in a way that signifies that I want to be taken seriously. Professional women have to be careful; there was a period when it was really boring. Women dressed to look like men. ... I never never wore slacks as Secretary of State (unless culturally relevant). What I did go out and buy were suits in color – red, light blue and then various kinds of elegant, colorful clothes. You have to be thoughtful, too. You have to be comfortable sitting in meetings for hours. You want something that doesn’t wrinkle and travels well.

Q. First Lady Michelle Obama has defied expectations by rarely wearing a suit and embracing designers well outside the political fashion norm. What does that say, if anything, about the role of women in politics? Are they being judged less by what they wear and more for the work they do? The First Lady is a different story. Part of what a first lady does is to set an example. ... Michelle Obama is remarkable because she is a young professional woman with children, who is sending a variety of messages, while being relaxed and beautiful at the same time. Rachel Sutherland’s fashion and beauty blog, If The Shoe Fits, can be found here.

Want to go?
WHAT: “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection,” a selection of jewelry pieces from the former Secretary of State’s personal collection.
WHEN: June 30-Sept. 23; Secretary Albright is scheduled to be in Charlotte July 13-14 for a series of events around the exhibition. Tickets are still available for the members-only event on July 13. Satellite seating tickets (with access to her book signing) for the July 14 event are also still available.
WHERE: The Mint Museum Uptown, 500 South Tryon St.
DETAILS: 704-337-2000;

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