- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

Two outstanding museum fashion shows going on simultaneously in Washington are remarkable as much for the women behind them as for the artistic items on display.

Former U.S. diplomat Marjorie Ransom, who spent much of her career in Middle Eastern posts, is having the first museum exhibit ever of her private collection of traditional jewelry from that region.

"Silver Speaks: Traditional Jewelry From the Middle East," which is at the Bead Museum at 400 Seventh St. NW, illustrates the intricate handwork of skilled artisans in Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. The silver jewelry and costumes on display once worn largely by the women in those countries represent a disappearing art form. The exhibit is her tribute to cultural life in a part of the world more often associated in the public mind these days with political tension and turmoil.

By contrast, the distinctive handbags and minaudieres designed by the Hungarian-born artisan Judith Leiber now on view in "Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber," a stunning presentation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, have been seen before in a museum setting. The majority are from her personal collection, and they have never before been so beautifully displayed, Mrs. Leiber said during a recent personal appearance at Neiman Marcus Mazza Gallerie. She was at the store celebrating the launch of her newest work, a line of sterling silver tableware and decorative objects produced under her maiden name of Ditty Peto.

(The 81-year-old artisan-entrepreneur, having sold her business and her name three years ago, has embarked on a second career with such silver "objets" as napkin rings, vases and candlesticks. At least one pair of candlesticks on sale was inspired by the 17th-century pair from Florence that she has in her New York City apartment; a silver "bag" is derived from a Chinese hand warmer, she noted.)

Unlike the largely anonymous Middle Eastern creators of intricate jewelry and adornments, Mrs. Leiber's name has been prominent for years among a certain glamorous cognoscenti who carry her small glittery beaded clutch and shoulder bags like status symbols. Nearly all living U.S. presidents' wives have been photographed with their respective Leiber bags shaped into representations of family pets. The most famous Leiber bags are colorful whimsical crystal rhinestone-embossed animal, fruit and vegetable look-alikes worn to complement an equally expensive wardrobe.

The only animal she was unable to adapt in her designs, Mrs. Leiber told an interviewer recently, was the giraffe. The long neck was too tall to fit anything inside, she determined.

This is the woman famous for saying that all a woman needs in her evening bag is a tube of lipstick and a hundred dollar bill.

Middle Eastern women, in most instances, also wore their elaborate stone and silver possessions to show status, but the pieces often had symbolic meaning, as well. Far from being considered simply pretty baubles, the jewelry in poor rural areas was a woman's bank account. It was an identity card that, in addition, provided her with an aesthetic lift in Muslim societies where she often had to go about veiled and silent.

Today's Middle Eastern women usually favor modern designs. The old-fashioned folk jewelry has lost favor and was in danger of disappearing, along with many tribal and clan distinctions that Mrs. Ransom discovered early in her Foreign Service postings.

Thus, the Bead Museum exhibit, which is funded in part by Saudi Aramco and the Mosaic Foundation begun by Arab ambassadorial wives, is organized almost as an historic survey course to alert viewers to customs of the countries and the tools of the trade. Some 285 pieces out of her 1,000-piece collection are on display. A handsome catalog the museum's first accompanies the show.

Nearly all of the work was done by male artisans from all religious backgrounds with the exception of some bridal headdresses created by women, Mrs. Ransom said at Monday's opening reception. Guests included many members of the Bead Society of Greater Washington, the museum's founding organization, as well as Yemeni Ambassador Abdulwahab Abdulla Al-Hajjri, who first met the Ransoms when they were in Yemen in the mid-1970s.

(David Ransom also was a diplomat whose last job was as U.S. ambassador to Bahrain. Unusual at the time for State Department personnel, the couple often worked together in the same country.)

The Corcoran's retrospective, which opened with a private reception for Mrs. Leiber on Oct. 10, highlights four decades of craftsmanship in luxury fashion goods that are now generally regarded as art. Her career began early as the first female apprentice and then master in the Hungarian handbag guild. In hiding during World War II, she married a U.S. soldier whom she met in the streets of Budapest when the city was liberated. She formed her own company in 1963, at first doing all the designs and production work, as well.

The show features more than 160 bags from the first beaded bag created in 1967 to some of her last ones. Sample bags now are owned by many of the world's leading museums. Partial support for the current exhibit was given by Mrs. Leiber's longtime Washington friend, Evelyn Steffanson Nef.

WHAT: "Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Daily except Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, through Dec. 30.

TICKETS: $5 for adults; $8 for families; $3 for seniors and members' guests; $1 for students with valid ID.

PHONE: 202/639-1700

WHAT: "Silver Speaks: Traditional Jewelry From the Middle East"

WHERE: Bead Museum, 400 Seventh St. NW (at D Street).

WHEN: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m.; and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m., through May 31

TICKETS: Admission is free, but a donation is appreciated.

PHONE: 202/624-4500

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