In Jeweled Fetters: The Slave Bracelet as a Transitional Object From the Victorian Era to the “Roaring Twenties”

At The Fifteenth Annual Richard Marth Visual Culture Symposium, NYU (May 2016)

The object entitled the “slave bracelet” emerged as a fashionable accessory during the late 1910s and early 1920s. An analysis of hundreds of ads and articles from the era reveals great ambiguity: the sources allude to a variety of designs, inspirations, origins and wearing instructions, but all differ greatly from one another. The abundance of primary sources on this object stands in sharp contrast to the lack of existing research on it, specifically in the context of the time’s prevailing views of gender and sexuality. This paper seeks to trace the slave bracelet’s origins and meanings for its 1920s wearer, and will focus on its great popularity and title, which seem to contrast prevailing ideas about the period’s supposed “liberation” of women. Why did the slave bracelet emerge then of all times? This research delves into the Oriental and African crazes of the 1920s in cinema, and harks back to fin-de-siècle Orientalist art, to expose the psychological charge of this ubiquitous object of adornment. Surveying a wealth of sources, this paper will illustrate the bracelet’s complex meanings– representing the dramatic transformations experienced by women at the turn of the twentieth century – at the nexus of women’s fashion and consumerism, their social status, sexuality, fidelity, morality and liberation. Further focus is given to the peculiar detachment existing between the accessory’s title – referring to the charged history of slavery in America – and its decorative function. Situating the slave bracelet in the transitional era in which it shone, the paper demonstrates its emblematic power in the context of its time. As this research will show, during the 1920s the slave bracelet also served as a visual identifier of women committed to a relationship, often called “love links.” Nestled between an era of nascent sexual liberation and the sexual repression of the preceding century, the bracelet not only symbolizes the friction between the eras, but also tried to reconcile them. Decoding the slave bracelet, this paper will offer a definition for it as a transitional object: carried over from the nineteenth century, it formed a new identity for the modern woman of the 1920s.