I must have been about 10 years old when my mother, rummaging through a stack of boxes in a closet, discovered the remains of a handbag she had bought for her honeymoon. On the upper shelves where she put out-of-favor purses and shoes, the exotic tortoiseshell basket with handles had disintegrated, literally crumbling to pieces. I remember looking at my mother’s horrified face and it dawned on me that a handbag can be both a carrier of objects and a carrier of discarded dreams. The Judith Leiber show opening today at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, with smart alligator day bags and rhinestone-encrusted minaudières—small jeweled boxes molded into the shapes of birds or rabbits or even bundled asparagus—brings to mind an added dimension: that a handbag can be a carrier of history and a carrier of secrets.
Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story is full of glitter and glamour, posh with materials ranging from woven horsehair and mink to Lucite. Leiber built her company through business acumen as well as artistry, designing her last handbag, Buddha’s hand with rhinestones, in 2005. As is the case with the achievements of any fine designer, you can recognize her signature on the objects she’s made—in the workmanship, the proportionality of form, and the refinement of her luxurious and jeweled surfaces. Today, at the age of 96, she lives in East Hampton with her husband of over 70 years. Almost everything on display comes from the Gerson and Judith Leiber Collection, the bags she began audaciously buying back in 2010. If this show is perhaps something of a swan song for a woman whose fashion house is now being run by a new generation, she remains a doyenne in the industry with more than 80 of her handbags in the collection of the Met’s Costume Institute.
As material culture, what do these bags say about their time and the designer at hand? To prepare for the exhibit I took a walk down Madison Avenue, their natural habitat, and visited the consignments to look for vintage Leiber bags. I wasn’t disappointed; there were a few at every stop. I saw a nude snake embossed clutch and a black lizard handbag, a minaudière with pink, black, and green cabochons—polished stones that aren’t faceted—popping out like jelly beans, and a flip-top box with black rhinestones and a gold frame. I opened it up to peek at the lovely gold coin purse resting on the gold leather lining inside. Is it possible to think of Leiber handbags as miniature memory palaces validating the existence of an orderly and prosperous Austro-Hungarian Empire, its Jews held in fragile and impermanent balance? Aren’t they also carriers of postwar frivolity, silence, privilege, and even blindness? A handbag specialist said to me, “Leiber always kept in mind that you need to put things inside an evening bag. These days, cellphones are necessary. In the past, you only needed a handkerchief, your credit card, keys, and maybe a little mad money. But that was it. Even 20 or 30 years ago, her bags had the capacity to carry something extra if necessary.” What was the something extra? Was it possibly a cinder of homelessness, I wonder, a record of humiliation and instability tucked between the glitter and the memory center of a life?
Judith Pető was born in 1921, into an assimilated, well-to-do Jewish family that had lived for three generations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She began apprenticing her trade in Budapest in 1939, when she was 18 years old. In careful and uninflected syllables, she has said in many interviews, “Hitler put me in the handbag business.” Among her family’s documents donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, you can find a ticket to the 1916 coronation of the Emperor Karl IV. In Vienna, her maternal grandmother owned a women’s hat factory. Her father, Emil Pető, worked in the grain department of the Commercial Kereskedelmi Bank and the family acquired a vineyard in the countryside.
In 2009, she published her biography, No Mere Bagatelles, written by Jeffrey Sussman and introduced by Harold Koda, who was curator at the Met, and it fills in the details of her life in Europe, during childhood, and through the war. The Petős were accomplished businesspeople, not moguls; appreciators of fashion, not socialites. The museum exhibit shows a studio photograph of Judith at about the age of 5 and her older sister Eva in blousy white, 1920s-style dresses with matching gold necklaces. The girls played with fashionable, pressed-felt Lenci dolls their parents bought in Italy. When their father traveled to Vienna where her grandparents lived or to Western Europe for business, he brought back finely made handbags for his wife. The family belonged to what Stefan Zweig refers to as the “good Jewish bourgeoisie,” and if they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the incrementally growing anti-Semitism in Budapest, like other Jewish families that had risen up the ladder, their prosperity provided the illusion of insulation.
Since there was a numerus clausus law at the universities, Leiber’s parents decided she should go to England to study chemistry. Her uncles from Vienna had recently emigrated there and a distant relative had developed a successful cosmetics company after studying chemistry. It was possible she would follow in those footsteps. In 1938, she went to King’s College to prepare for the matriculation exam, which she took in the spring and passed. While she was home for the summer, war broke out and she didn’t want to leave the family to go back to school. As edicts against Jews had started coming down, it became evident her father would lose his job at the bank and it would be necessary for Leiber and her sister to find work and contribute to the family income. With the help of a government minister who was a family friend, Leiber got a position at a prestigious handbag factory owned by another Jewish family and she learned the trade from the ground up, from sweeping the floors to making patterns and piecing. In Budapest in the early 1940s, it was still possible to have access to quality textiles and there were even wealthy patrons to purchase luxury products. Leiber rose from being a journeyman to an apprentice. Eventually, she became the first master craftswoman in the Hungarian Handbag Guild.
What about the reversal in social roles? How did it feel to become a maker of goods rather than a consumer of them? Leiber has always discounted the incongruity, saying she was interested in fashion; handbags, in particular, had a special meaning in her family. She was proud of her grandmother’s business sense and creativity as well as her contribution to Viennese society. Undoubtedly, work diverted her mind during the early, frightening years of war, and mastery of a craft can be empowering. As was the case for many other Jews, there was also the dream that, if she survived the nightmare, she would emigrate and it would be useful to leverage work experience when it was time to become a refugee.
Everything changed during the terror of 1944 when it was illegal for Jews even to leave their buildings. The handbag factory was shut down and the owners were deported to the east. Two of Leiber’s uncles, venturing out without the yellow star, were shot and their bodies thrown into the Danube. Her father was arrested while walking in the neighborhood and sent to a work camp where he dug anti-tank trenches until Leiber and her sister were able to obtain a Swiss schutzpass that permitted him (and, with some added forgery, this extended to the rest of his family) to live in a Swiss protected house. But the move was temporary. Late in November, they were forced into the freezing, cramped, and overcrowded cellars of the Budapest ghetto. The mind does strange things in response to trauma. In what must have been half-hallucination, she designed handbags in her head.
The family remained in the ghetto for about a month as the Soviets encircled the capital. When news of the Soviet advances spread in the last days of December, they ventured out to the streets and made their way through the rubble of buildings and corpses, returning to the cellar of their old building. While the battle for Budapest continued for many weeks, it was almost impossible to find food. Leiber’s mother and an Italian friend went onto the street to cut flesh off a dead horse to make goulash. Through the cracks of a basement wall and from the courtyard, Leiber watched a procession of retreating German soldiers and civilians mowed down by Soviet artillery and rockets and, after that, saw feral dogs fight over the dead bodies.
Miraculously, when the fighting came to an end and the war was over, Leiber went back to work making bags. She rented factory space and cultivated customers from the American diplomatic corps and their support staff who paid her in dollars. The money was useful but there was also something salutary in the simple activity of making an object from beginning to end. This was the tradition of artisanship that Leiber learned in the European guild system and the high standards carried over into the bags she designed when she came to the United States. The clutches and purses are luxury items that sell for thousands of dollars. Put one of her bags on its side and look at the way the material aligns, lying flat and smooth along the frame. Even after years of use, the lining will fit snuggly across the interior. Her beads are hand placed and arranged for uniformity so that different size stones fill in the gaps at different angles. Experts will tell you that, over time, no matter what the manufacturer does, beadwork is going to loosen, but Leiber’s takes a lot longer, 20 to 30 years, before something’s going to fall off.
In 1945 she met Gerson Leiber, a radio operator in the Signal Corps and an aspiring artist. They fell in love and, bucking resistance from her family, they got married. In 1947, they sailed to the United States on a bride ship and settled in the Bronx. Gerson went to art school while Judith pursued her trade. It took only a few years for her to establish herself in the industry, cutting patterns for top-of-the-line manufacturer Nettie Rosenstein. When Mamie Eisenhower carried Leiber’s glittering evening clutch embroidered with rhinestones to the 1953 inaugural ball, her reputation was secured. Eventually, the Leibers came to own their own company, which they built up over 30 years. Leiber made bags for almost every first lady. Hillary Clinton’s sleeping tuxedo cat minaudière with rhinestone collar was a whimsical bookend to Barbara Bush’s black and silver Millie the dog, which is in the show.
At first, Leiber’s bags were made from silk, embroidered fabrics, and leathers; the clasps and frames often embellished with polished semiprecious stones like amethyst, jade, lapis, or garnet. These bags hark back to the decorative values of Wiener Werkstätte’s crafted brooches or belt buckles, the jewels arranged in simple geometric or curvilinear lines, all the detail subordinated to the integrity of the object as a whole. Over the years, Leiber collected and studied the frames from old handbags that she adapted to her own work. In the show, you can see how her Iranian textile frame with rhinestones pays homage to the refined carvings of Persian metalwork. One of the pleasures of the exhibit is to see how she translated fine art into decorative art. In a Sonia Delaunay-inspired multi-skin envelope, her layered circles and arches push and pull against each other in optical play. In another bag, she mimics Braque’s cubist collages with cutouts; the natural textures of her leathers provide a witty approximation of the painter’s faux-pointillism. By drawing attention to the smallest details, down to the veins of a leaf, her reembroidered Japanese obi frame bag with rhinestones demonstrates how one culture can expand the possibilities of another.
The minaudières take the work in another direction altogether. Not entirely adornment and not entirely prop, not entirely accessory either, they came up in the era of pop art, pop celebrities, and glitz, and they developed from what could have been a business catastrophe when Leiber placed an order with an Italian company for plated boxes in the shape of chatelaines, antique bags once tied at the waist and used for holding keys. When they arrived tarnished and green, she was desperate to disguise the unsightly stains. Applying paste to the surfaces and then dipping crystals that she had on hand into beeswax, she spread rhinestones so they seemed to drip down in cascades. The handbags were transformed into jewel boxes and they were wildly popular. From there she went on to build the now well-known collection of shimmering and whimsically shaped eggs and stars, cranes and peacocks, snakes, and watermelons, most of them constructed from over 100 parts and decorated with 7,000 to 13,000 beads, often applied in tapestry-like patterns of coloration.
Intended to delight, they can also seem like dream objects, beautiful, comical, or mysterious. There’s a steely silence (and integrity) inside the glittering, even frivolous, exteriors. Collectors have talked about them as chic and strong, feminine and strong. A woman who has one of the minaudière frogs said to me she had carried it at several weddings and it’s always interested the photographers there. “You know, I’d put it down on a pew or seat and, at home,” she said, “I leave it out on a chest of drawers in my bedroom as a work of art.” She thinks of it as a frog prince.
To read more of Frances Brent’s art reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.