National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library exhibit puts everyday accessories in spotlight

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Walking into the Petrick gallery at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, visitors are surrounded by glittering jewels, colorful beads and elaborate costumes.

The “Art of Accessories” display, on view now through Feb. 11, explores the beauty found in the everyday objects people carry with them, from their shoes to their hats and everything in between.

Traditional Czech and Slovak folk dress is on display, but this exhibit focuses not on the dresses and pants and full outfits the museum features in its permanent exhibit but on the smaller pieces, much of it accessories worn in weddings: a feathered headdress, intricately beaded and embroidered vests, a wide belt with metal rivets.

“There are still people who wear the traditional folk dress for weddings, but not everyone does,” museum curator Stefanie Kohn said.

Kohn said focusing on the smaller pieces provides a different perspective than the full outfits do.

“Accessories sometimes get overlooked when you see the whole ensemble,” she said.

Originally, Kohn wanted to do an exhibit on beaded bags, and the idea for the full Art of Accessories exhibit grew from there to include hats, headdresses, vests, jewelry and more.

The beaded bags, purses and clutches in the display are covered with rows and rows of beads sewn in elaborate patterns. They were a popular accessory for flappers in the 1920s, and they connect directly to the history of Czechoslovakia, where prominent glass craftsman houses turned out not just bigger pieces like vases but the minuscule colorful beads used in jewelry and art around the world.

“There’s a Czech tradition of glassmaking and glass beads, and beaded bags are very popular with collectors,” Kohn said. “Beaded bags were made for the export market. In the 19th century they were popular, and they had a revival in the 1920s, when you saw a lot of art deco and geometric designs.”

Czech costume jewelry was also a popular product from the glass houses. Rhinestones and other sparkling false jewels replicated the look of precious stones and gems and made elaborate jewelry accessible to the masses.

Some of the jewelry, made by Czech brothers Max and Norbert Neiger, features Egyptian motifs that were popular in the 1920s. The brothers later were killed in concentration camps during World War II.

The exhibit also contains brooches of bejeweled spiders and bright birds, flowers, cats and elephants.

Some of the brooches on display are from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They are a smaller selection than the extensive “Read My Pins” exhibit the museum displayed in 2013, which featured more than 280 of Albright’s brooches. She was known for wearing different brooches to send messages during her diplomatic missions. Albright lent 22 of her pins to the museum for the Art of Accessories exhibit.

Along with the costume jewelry, real jewels and precious metals are also part of the display, from moldavite earrings made from material left behind from a meteor crash about 14.7 million years ago to deep red garnet necklaces, earrings and brooches.

The Czech Republic is known for a specific kind of garnet that until recently was found nowhere else in the world.

“The Bohemian garnet used to be only found in the Bohemian highlands,” Kohn said. “This particular type of garnet, with this gorgeous color, would have been all over Europe. It is very much beloved by the Czech people.”

With pieces from different time periods and traditions, the Art of Accessories uses the small things people wore and carried as a window into moments of their history and slices of their culture.

“I think accessories say a lot about the person who purchased or made them,” Kohn said. “It’s artistic expression.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: Art of Accessories exhibit

l When: Through Feb. 11, 2018

l Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

l Related events: Guided tour of exhibit, 6 p.m. Dec. 13; First Free Saturday for Students, Jan. 6.

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