Madeleine Albright’s brooches tell a story at Bowers Museum

Los Angeles Times

It’s hard to fathom that Saddam Hussein inspired a fashion trend. But he did for Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of State under President Clinton.

It was after the first Gulf War, after she criticized Hussein during U.S. sanctions against Iraq, that a poem published in the government-controlled Baghdad press referred to her as an “unparalleled serpent.” She wore a golden snake pin to her next meeting with Iraqi officials, and a tradition was born. From then on, wearing pins became an integral part of what she has referred to as “my personal diplomatic arsenal.”

“Read My Pins,” a display of 200 of the colorful brooches Albright wore during her diplomatic career, is slated to open Oct. 20 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

The pins “are a way to make foreign policy less foreign,” Albright said in a telephone interview, explaining the main purpose for the exhibition and her 2009 book of the same title. “It’s a fun way to tell foreign policies stories.”

The pins made for a sophisticated, stylish and subtle form of nonverbal communication. Foreign dignitaries and politicians could gauge their standing with Albright by the type of pin she wore to meet them.


Albright’s preference is for American memorabilia-themed pins, but on good days she’d also don butterflies, flowers or balloons. For bad days, it was various types of insects or carnivorous animals. One such pin got her into hot water when she decided to wear her speak-no-evil trilogy of monkey pins to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2000 as an expression of her feelings for his Chechnya policies. He was not happy, and neither was President Clinton, she said.

Albright talked about a few of the pins that will be on display at the Bowers exhibition, which is scheduled to run through Jan. 13.

Mickey Mouse

Albright found this bejeweled Mickey pin in Brussels, Belgium. “I wore it once with the Girl Scouts. I thought it was so cute,” she said. “I’d also wear it when I thought we weren’t getting anywhere on something, when it seemed like it was a Mickey Mouse operation.”


“I’d wear this bee when I felt like I should float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, like Muhammad Ali,” Albright said. “I had it on when I was talking to [former Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat, who I felt needed to be prodded along a bit in terms of some aspects of negotiations with the Israelis. I’m sure he felt stung, but he didn’t make the decisions he needed to in the end.”

Lady Liberty

Designed by Dutch artist Gijs Bakker, this pin was commissioned for a show in Albright’s honor at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. “I love it. It’s perfect. Her eyes are two clocks, so one faces up so I can read it, and the other is upside down so the other person in the meeting can read it.”

Uncle Sam

Albright combined two separate pieces she picked up from an antique show on the piers in New York while living there as ambassador to the U.N. “I found the eagle first, then the Uncle Sam top hat and angled it a little off to the side, which adds a nice bit of humor to it,” she said.

Secretary of State diamond eagle

Albright purchased the eagle from the Tiny Jewel Box, her favorite shop in Washington D.C., to wear when she was sworn in as secretary of State without realizing the antique had a rather complicated fastening system. “I’m there with my one hand on the Bible, the other hand swearing allegiance to the Constitution, and all of a sudden I look down and this pin is just swinging there, and I thought it’s going to fall on the Bible and it’s going to distract everybody.” It didn’t fall, but it was memorable nonetheless.

Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Weekday admission, $13 adults, $10 seniors over 62 and students over 12. On weekends, $15 adults, $12 seniors and students. Children under 12 free.