Madeleine Albright on Her Pins

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Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and author of Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box

In her new book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks about how jewelry became her signature diplomatic tool. From turtles to doves to hot-air balloons, she used her vast collection of costume brooches to send specific messages to everyone from Saddam Hussein to Nelson Mandela.

What do your two leaf pins today signify?
Well, it's a nice fall day today, so these are just in honor of a lovely fall day.

In the book you talk about former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick advising you to "lose the professor clothes." What did you do?
Well, it gave me a great excuse to shop. So I went and bought more professional-looking suits, a lot of suits. But I did buy things with bright colors. I bought red suits and green, and had a good time with it. More formal, absolutely. But I didn't want to look like a man.

What is the most challenging thing about being a woman in a high-profile position when it comes to appearance?
First of all, you're working very hard, so you can't wear things — even if I were that kind of a person — that are high fashion; you need to have practical things. And you also need to look comfortable and feel that you are dressed appropriately. And when you are sitting behind a sign that says "United States" or whatever the country is, there's an extra level, in that you know that people are looking at you in terms of representing your country in a variety of different ways.

Was your use of pins something that you thought might distract from any commentary on your appearance?
First of all, I do like jewelry. But it wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Saddam Hussein, because he called me this "unparalleled serpent," and I had the snake pin. That elicited something from the reporters. And then I thought, Well, that was fun, so I went out and bought some costume jewelry. From everything I can tell, it hasn't distracted. Much to my surprise, because there wasn't anything strategic about this, it has added to my message. And it's an icebreaker. It's even an icebreaker now in many ways. I was on an airplane coming back from Europe two days ago, and I didn't have on a pin because it doesn't work with security. And people would come up and say, "Why aren't you wearing a pin today?" So it's kind of become a thing. And I love to have people come up to talk to me, so it makes it more conversational and approachable.

Why is fashion still considered a liability in Washington?
I'm not sure it is. I think that if you look at the women — members of Congress — they are all dressed pretty well and in a style that is appropriate to their position. I have to tell you, when I was the first woman Secretary of State, first of all, I didn't look good in pants — but I didn't wear pants. And I think that is something that has really changed in terms of looking good and being comfortable. Most of the women, either Senators or members of Congress, have pantsuits. But Washington is not New York. No city is New York. I first moved to Washington in the early '60s, and Jackie Kennedy was a huge deal in terms of the style that she set, but then it kind of went away. And now what Michelle Obama's been doing shows a new youthful style that is very refreshing but also practical for a young mother. I think it's just different; it is stylish in terms of what has to happen in Washington.

What pin would you wear to sum up the political climate now?
I have three pins that I like to wear. One is a pin that was just given to me by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili. It's a pin called America, and it has an eagle in the middle and four little pearls around it, [symbolizing] justice, equality, prosperity and security. I have a dove pin because I think that's very important. And then I'm sometimes asked what I would wear if I were to meet Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it's a dove and an eagle — because we're trying to talk to them and at the same time have a very firm policy.