Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber
Judith Leiber is widely recognized as one of the grand dames of couture handbag design, having created more than three thousand different motifs during a career spanning over thirty years. Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber presents a survey of her designs from 1964 through 1998, when she retired. Leiber's handbags have contributed tremendously to the style and sophistication of the well-dressed American woman, yet it is not unusual to learn that many owners display their bags in cabinets when not in use-a testament to the way Leiber's works transcend utility to become objets d'art. In this, Leiber has joined an elite group of designers-Lalique, Tiffany, and Cartier among them-who created high quality products for public consumption that have come to be regarded as art.
Born in Budapest in 1921, Judith Peto (Leiber's maiden name) became, at age eighteen, the first woman to be accepted into the Hungarian handbag guild. She has said that "Hitler put me in the handbag business," as her plans to attend King's College in London to study chemistry were waylaid when war broke out in 1939. Instead, she spent several years studying with the guild until her family, using altered Swiss documents, was eventually able to escape the Nazis.
Judith Leiber's handbags are perhaps best known as White House favorites, having been carried by every first lady since Nancy Reagan and given as gifts to visiting dignitaries, including Raisa Gorbachev and Indira Gandhi. The exhibition includes several bags created for presidential inaugurals, as well as designs inspired by "first pets" Millie (for Barbara Bush) and Socks (for Hillary Clinton).
Design and Construction
The beading of a bag takes two to five days to complete, as each of the up to twelve thousand Austrian crystals is hand-applied. While the bejeweled minaudière may be the style with which Leiber is most often associated, throughout her career she designed handbags using a broad range of unusual materials. These include antique fabrics, seashells, metalwork, carved wood, and exotic skins as varied as ostrich, lizard, karung (snake), and whipsnake.
Leiber culled ideas from a wide array of sources, and her bags reflect her personal interests. A collector of Asian art, she adapted bags from antique tapestries and oriental rugs and patterned her designs after Buddhas, foo dogs, and the Japanese obi, a traditional sash worn over a kimono. A painting by her husband, Gus, inspired a highly detailed scene of, appropriately enough, a cocktail party, while other bags have paid homage to artists as varied as Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, op artist Bridget Riley, and Faith Ringgold.