Yesterday morning, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a visit to the Smithsonian Castle where she unveiled "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection," an exhibition of over 200 of her famous brooches.
During Secretary Albright's diplomatic career, lapel pins became her trademark fashion statement. It all started, she explained, right after the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein's poet-in-residence called her an "unparalleled serpent." To parry the blow, Secretary Albright wore a gold snake pin to her next meeting on Iraq. From then on, she picked up pins, mostly costume jewelry, at flea markets and antique shops or as gifts from other diplomats, which she would use to express her opinions and moods. On good days, Secretary Albright would wear flowers and balloons, and on bad days, things like spiders and crabs. "I wore a bee when I was going to sting Yasser Arafat," she said. And if talks were particularly slow, she had several bejeweled turtles to choose from.
"The pins allow me to tell stories," said Secretary Albright, whose book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box hit shelves last year. One she likes to tell is about the eagle pin, studded with diamonds and rubies, that she wore the day she was sworn in as the first-ever female Secretary of State. Apparently, she hadn't fastened it correctly, and it was "just swinging around" as she recited her oath. She feared it might land on the Bible.
In writing the book and loaning her pins, first to the Museum of Arts and Design, then to the Clinton Library and now to the Smithsonian, Secretary Albright says, "I wanted to make foreign policy less foreign."
The collection drips with personality, showing the sassy, sentimental and intensely patriotic woman Madeleine Albright is. She calls her pin collection her "diplomatic arsenal" and yet particular pins are deeply personal. In it is the Theta Delta Xi fraternity pin that her husband "pinned" her with "back in the olden days," as she says, and the ceramic heart her daughter Katie made for her that she wears every Valentine's Day. What is particularly surprising is the size of some of the brooches. A zebra she once wore on a visit with Nelson Mandela arches over her shoulder in a picture. It's no wonder they caught the attention of other diplomats.
In some respects, she said, "I have created a monster." Pins aren't really practical when you're exercising or catching a flight (they might trip up security), she explained, but people have come to expect them from her all the time. To the press preview, she donned patriotic, World War II vintage pins that matched her red heels. ("I only hope my heels can fill his shoes," Albright famously said when she was designated Secretary of State Warren Christopher's successor. And coincidentally, there's even a pin of a red, slingback pump in the exhibit.)
When Secretary Albright opened the floor to questions, the cameraman filming the event asked her, If you could have a pin made to describe you, what would it look like?
"Tall and thin!" she said, without missing a beat.
For more of Secretary Albright's wit, read my interview with her. (An abridged version appears in the June issue). "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection" opens to the public this Friday and continues through October 11.