1930s Fashion: How Charm Bracelets Held Hollywood's Secrets (And Still Do)

When I was a little girl, my mother gave me a charm bracelet she had worn as a child. Picked up from a souvenir shop in San Francisco, the bracelet oozed with kitsch... a small spinner with a true/false dial could tell the future, much like a Magic 8 ball. A small telephone had a rotary dial that actually spun!

I was so mesmerized that later in life, I used various events in my life, including my first trip to Europe, to collect charms to tell the story of where I had been. Gibraltar was a monkey, Santiago de Compostela was a shell with a tiny cross inside, and for the Tower of London, a miniature guillotine (macabre, I know!).  

 My favorite noisy charm bracelet.

My favorite noisy charm bracelet.

I thought that charm bracelets were a modern idea until I read Platinum Girl, a biography on the life of Jean Harlow. Unless you are a Classic Film buff, you may not know who she is. But you are definitely familiar with the movements she inspired, including silky gowns that almost look like negligees, to Marilyn Monroe, who said that Harlow was her idol.

Jean Harlow's Tragic and Mysterious Death

Harlow died tragically at the age of 26, most likely of kidney failure... although her death has had some pretty hefty mythology that has built up around it (she died from bleaching her hair too much, etc), none of which have been substantiated. 

 Jean Harlow Photo Still from "Dinner at 8" ... the gown she is wearing here is one of her most iconic. 

Jean Harlow Photo Still from "Dinner at 8" ... the gown she is wearing here is one of her most iconic. 

I find the nuances of starlet's lives to be fascinating, so when I found out that Jean Harlow wore charms on her bracelet to signify varying facets of her life, I was... well... charmed by the idea. Eve Golden writes in her book that when Jean had gained a few extra pounds she wore a charm bracelet, "...to remind her to diet. Among the figurines dangling from it were a dancing girl (how she should look), a movie camera (why she had to look that way), and a pig (how she might look if she weren't careful)." 

 My favorite jingly charm bracelet. 

My favorite jingly charm bracelet. 

Elizabeth Taylor, Jeanette Macdonald, and stories

Through the years, many a celebrity has donned charm bracelets to remind them of a particular chapter in their lives.

  • Jeanette MacDonald owned a charm bracelet given to her by co-star Nelson Eddy (a distant relative of mine, many believe they had an off and on again romance that was never fully realized) on her 35th birthday. 
  • Elizabeth Taylor's charm bracelet pictured here in Vanity Fair (it's the 2nd image in the slideshow)... contained gifted charms from Zeffirelli, for Taming of the Shrew; Richard Burton, for Cleopatra; as well as a gold ball-shaped locket engraved with the names of her children.
  • There are stories swirling around another charm bracelet that also belonged to Jean Harlow (pictured below). These charms were gifted by various co-stars: a telephone from Clark Gable, the microphone & film projector from Louis B. Mayer, thermometer, dog, fan, water wagon, fireman's hat, toilet from William Powell (the love of her life that never married her... I wonder if the charms were a consolation prize for the diamond ring she reportedly was wishing for?), a mirror from the original "vamp" Theda Bara, and cup with BABY (Harlow's nickname, the name that is carved on her tomb in Los Angeles' Forest Lawn Cemetery)

Charm bracelets are a beautiful reminder of our most poignant memories... the people who loved us, our hopes and dreams (even the ones that were never fully realized), and perhaps even that goal we might be chasing this year.  

read on for more fashion inspiration from your favorite classic hollywood icons: