Robin Givhan on Fashion: Madeleine Albright's pins were mightier than the sword

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The pins are displayed in glass cases at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York so that the jeweled butterflies seem to be in mid-flight and the patriotic eagles and flags sparkle like Fourth of July fireworks in a vitrine. The exhibition, "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection," features some 200 brooches the former secretary of state has collected over the years. Most of the baubles are not precious, nor are they setting any new standards in design. Albright intentionally shopped flea markets and costume jewelry boutiques to build her collection so that it would not be fancy or rarefied. The brooches are valuable only because of their provenance. They were chosen and worn by the first female secretary of state, one who understood that fashion, rather than being a burden, could be another tool in her diplomatic arsenal. And it was one that men did not have.

Like most women of her generation, Albright, 72, has always had a small collection of brooches, which included her former husband's fraternity pin, her college circle pin and some understated gifts from her mother-in-law. But a serpent pin opened her unique diplomatic dialogue. As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, she criticized Saddam Hussein for his non-compliance with U.N. weapons inspections. The Iraqi press published a poem in which she was referred to as a serpent. Albright responded by wearing a small golden reptile, coiled around a thin branch, on her jacket at the next meeting with the Iraqis. It was, as she puts it, her way of "sending a message."

For Albright, fashion has always had power on the world stage; it says something about who we are. As secretary of state, she was photographed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. She made a point of wearing an American flag brooch that stretched from her shoulder almost half-way down her jacket. It was her way of silently combating North Korean propaganda.

But she was disturbed by the brouhaha over flags during the 2008 presidential campaign, when not wearing one was portrayed as unpatriotic. "I thought the controversy of political people wearing pins was bad news. I had been to North Korea and people have to wear pins with the face of the dear leader," Albright says during an interview in a sitting room at her Washington office. "Why in a democracy would you insist people wear flag pins?"

In addition to the exhibition, Albright has written an accompanying book filled with glossy photographs of her jewelry, as well as historical images of her wearing the pieces and anecdotes explaining how they helped her to engage the global community. "I think my niche in writing books is to make foreign policy less foreign to people," she says. Now a consultant, professor and full-time eminence grise, she receives visitors in a modern parlor, modestly adorned with awards and mementos from her travels. The room is dominated by an imposing mask -- probably three feet tall -- carved from a single piece of wood and purchased in Cape Town. She ferried it back on her diplomatic plane, one of the perks of her position being baggage did not have to fit in tiny overhead compartments.

"I try to talk about foreign policy in a way that people find interesting. I thought this was the ultimate way -- to use the pins to tell the stories.

"They're a vehicle for people to ask questions."

The often whimsical jewelry has been a way into conversations about foreign policy for the mostly female audiences that have come to her book tour talks. (She was scheduled to appear Nov. 7 at the 22nd Annual Washington Craft Show.) Occasionally, the guests ask about specific brooches and the stories connected to them, but typically, the accessories serve as icebreakers. They humanize the former secretary of state and under the guise of a chat about jewelry, guests feel free to pose questions without the pressure of having to preface them with paragraphs of smartypants context. "They might not go to a speech by a former secretary of state, but I do think they think they can go to a bookstore and talk about pins."

The book-tour audiences, Albright says, have asked her about Iran and nuclear proliferation, about the U.S. relationship with Russia and about Iraq and Afghanistan, especially whether the war in the latter is winnable. She usually tells her questioners that she "appreciates the way President Obama is making this decision. I wanted to see a president that was confident rather than certain."

During a morning conversation, for which she has brought extra brooches for show and tell, Albright glides comfortably between a reference to anti-ballistic missile treaties to a recollection of a particularly bad hair day. Being the first woman to hold her position, she says, was filled with uniquely female fashion moments. During a meeting in Paris, for instance, she spilled salad dressing on the skirt of her lavender suit and then had to take a group photograph with the other dignitaries in which she, as the only woman, would be front and center.

Henry Kissinger, she thought, would have been wearing a plain black suit; it would have camouflaged the oily stain; he wouldn't be in this predicament. She didn't even have a handbag to cover her mishap. Her solution? When she stood up, she quickly spun the skirt around backwards. Let a man try that! she thought to herself.

But as easily as Albright shares tales of retail therapy while on the road, the reality is that she would not have written this book when she was secretary of state. First of all, she could never have found the time. But also, "I would not have liked this to be the first book," she says. "I know this is a fun book. It's written with quite a lot of tongue in cheek." Instead, it follows her memoirs, an analysis of the role of religion in world affairs and last year's "Memo to the President-elect," which she inscribed to President Obama: "With the audacity to hope this book will be useful."

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