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What if I told you that a Minions slap bracelet, available for $6.50 at Claire's, in its own small way encapsulates our society and how we got here? No, I have no idea why it says "banana" on it. But I do know that in its taut-one-second, curled-the-next form, it carries a succinct, full-circle history of the last 30 years of American youth culture.
Slap bracelets were the biggest fad of Christmas 1990. Years earlier, friendship bracelets were all the rage. More recently, it was Rainbow Loom-weaved bracelets that were hanging off the wrists of girls around the country. Every few years, a new bracelet craze; every few years, a braided, beaded, collectible, dispensable, authentic, synthetic peek into young people's lives. As millions of girls head into another school year, their wrists blank slates on which we will project the next chapter of cultural history, it is time to ask the question: What does it all mean?
This is a working paper toward a grand unified theory of bracelets. Specifically, we're talking bracelets for teens and tweens. It is girls who drive all of society's innovation, be it in tech, style, or elsewhere — we know this. So naturally it is girls who are on the bleeding edge of that new-new next-next bracelet shit year in and year out. And here we will define "tweens" as kids aged 6 to 12, like the marketers do. A caveat: Words are meaningless/a 6-year-old is not an actual tween. It's also true that things aimed at teens inevitably gain traction among tweens, just like it is true that Seventeen is often read not by 17-year-olds but by 12-year-olds.
In terms of how trends work, the cerulean sweater scene in The Devil Wears Prada is practically a cliché at this point. Has any other bit of Meryl Streep dialogue so perfectly distilled a complex industrial process? The scene illustrates the concept of trends coming from on high. But perhaps more applicable when we're talking about teens and tweens is the scene in Mean Girls when Janice Ian cuts two holes over the boobs on Regina George's tank top. Regina shrugs and decides to just go with it; because she is the most popular girl in school, she kicks off a trend, and everyone else starts cutting holes over the boobs in their tops too.
You see, Regina is an influencer, that particular breed of trendsetter young girls are especially susceptible to. If a school's queen bee has a cool new accessory, it won't be long before the lemmings start copying her. Historically, this was true, anyway; social media may be changing things, according to Heather Lunny, director of youth and culture at trend forecasting company Fashion Snoops. "There's something you might know about because the cool older girl is doing it, but you might have seen it first on Instagram," Lunny says. Across the world, girls today are listening to the same music, wearing the same styles, shopping at the same stores online: "They're just such a global generation."
Even if top-down trends are on their way out, as long as girls have wrists, they will be adorning them, and those adornments will say something about the way we live. So now, let's revisit some of the crazes that have led to our current bracelet moment.
When you're learning to make them at sleepaway camp or from instructions in a Klutz book, friendship bracelets seem timeless, an ancient tradition passed down from a society composed entirely of cool babysitters. But they had to start somewhere. During the friendship bracelet mania of the late 1980s — the New York Times fingered them as part of a nascent '60s revival in 1987, and a couple of months later, the Chicago Tribune declared them the hot teen fad — people speculated about their origins, but no one really knew where they came from.
It was a point of pride to wear one until it rotted off. It was symbolic, it was a gesture.
In 1988, the Tribune interviewed a folklore professor who traced the bracelets back to the hippie macramé trend of the 1960s, kept alive by Deadheads into the '80s as "kind of a statement that you're a little outside the square world." But it's safe to say that for many of the girls making them in the '80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, counterculture wasn't a big priority. We believed in counterculture insofar as we bought peace sign keychains and yin-yang chokers at the mall.
We knew even less about the bracelets' connection to Guatemala. A 1990 Chicago Tribune article (so I guess we know who the paper of record was when it came to friendship bracelets) posited that the bracelets actually came from Mayan Indians in the country, who had a long tradition of woven crafts, and spread due to political unrest in the 1980s that forced many people to leave their homes. The article was subheadlined, "There's a compassionate history lesson to be learned between your wrist and elbow."
Friendship bracelets also ushered in an all-important element of the bracelet-craze formula: meaningfulness. "They were cool because they indicated how many friends you had," explains Jacqui Ma, director of accessories and footwear at trend forecasting company WGSN. "That age group is really influenced by their peer group. It was all about the status symbol of how many friends I've got."
Some kids wore the bracelets up and down their arms. It was a point of pride to wear one until it rotted off. It was symbolic, it was a gesture. "When you're making something for a friend, it's more about, ‘I made this for you,'" says Ma. In the same way little kids draw pictures for their parents, "The next step up is, ‘I've made this thing for you to wear.'"
There's a certain kind of girl who never did master friendship bracelets, but got big into their foil, lanyards. Friendship bracelet vs. lanyard: To this day, maybe only Backstreet Boys vs. NSYNC could more thoroughly polarize a room of '90s girls. Both are dichotomies it's hard not to read into. Friendship bracelets at least had the appearance of authenticity. Lanyards were less sentimental, more neon, visibly plastic. And one of the enduring mysteries of our time is why some people call the stuff and activity itself gimp, boondoggle, or in France, scoubidou. This is not helped along by the further confusion of "lanyard" also being a name for a dorky strap you wear around your neck to hold your keys or ID card.
Friendship bracelets at least had the appearance of authenticity. Lanyards were less sentimental, more neon, visibly plastic.
Lanyards never seemed to reach the trend piece saturation point that friendship bracelets did, but they're an important part of the bracelet story nonetheless. Like many before him, Lane Lowenstein fell in love with lanyards at camp, first as a camper, then as a counselor. Now he's 29 and works in corporate finance in Indiana, where he's a married father of two, but seven years ago, he started posting tutorials on YouTube under the name Laneyards — what better way to simply show people how to start the box stitch, for instance? Back then, the landscape was fairly barren, but after about a year and a half, his channel started taking off.
"What I notice less is a few big channels, and instead tons and tons of smaller ones," he explains of the current craft YouTube space. That box-stitch video he made? It now has nearly 2 million views. Like friendship bracelets, making lanyards can wax and wane in coolness, with a younger group of kids always waiting in the wings to discover the practice once the older ones discard it. YouTube enables this cycle to repeat itself in perpetuity.
Although, it's hardly just bracelet-makers that make use of the plastic lace on the internet: Lowenstein cites fellow YouTuber Yonatan Setbon, who constructs outlandish, three-feet-wide sculptural creations with the familiar camptime material.
The tale of Slapwraps is one of chance meetings and corporate deceit worthy of a period-set prestige cable drama. Slapwraps would also be the first bracelet trend to become a parable about globalization and industrialization, but definitely not the last.
In 1984, Stuart Anders had a vision for what would become the Slapwrap, the original slap bracelet, based on a self-rolling tape measure from his mother's sewing cabinet that he played with as a child. He held onto it through a stint in the army and the beginning of a career as a fashion designer, until 1989, when a toy executive named Philip Bart came into his shop. "When he said he was a toy inventor, I ran out to my truck and got my prototype," says Anders. "And I grabbed his hand and slapped it on his wrist. His eyes got really big. It was from there that the concept of Slapwrap was born."
Together, the two partnered with an upstart toy company called Main Street Toys that was founded by some of the people who had struck gold with Cabbage Patch Kids. They brought their idea to Toy Fair, an annual industry gathering, and it was set to be the breakout gift of the 1990 Christmas season. Unbeknownst to Anders and Bart, though, the sample Slapwraps they made to show buyers — meant to be kept under the level of lock and key reserved for a secret Beyoncé album — were compromised, a turn of events that led to the invention being ripped off by foreign manufacturers. "We sold over 6 million products through the major retailers," Anders tells me. "We suspect that there were 20 or 30 million of the knockoffs sold during that same period of time."
These knockoffs weren't as stringently produced, resulting in injuries and classroom bans. "You can destroy a stainless-steel Slapwrap by bending it in half, but you cannot break it," he adds. Meanwhile, they also had trouble with Main Street Toys, which turned out to be both ill-equipped to actually manufacture the orders they'd taken and guilty of several bits of creative accounting, according to Anders. Anders and Bart ended up in arbitration with the company, and "we never got any of our royalties. I believe there are somewhere above 2 million Slapwraps still in the warehouse of the original Hong Kong manufacturer."
Despite the debacle, Anders looks back on it all fondly. It helps that he's gone on to invent several other products, for pets and tool storage, some of which have been extremely successful, though never quite in that lightning-strike Slapwraps way. "Interestingly, if you look at some of the original patent applications for the Apple Watch, they were actually submitted to the patent office on something that looks amazingly like a Slapwrap," he says.
What is it about toys you can also wear? As per Anders, "I think with children, the more things something can do — can you play with it? Will it read out something? Can you hear a sound from it? — this is what's necessary to keep a child's attention long enough so that they can play with a product."
Slap bracelets may never again reach their '90s heyday, but thanks to our culture's endless appetite for nostalgia, they're being sold at Claire's again, there was that Opening Ceremony fur slap bracelet, and trendy companies like Blade, a Hamptons helicopter service, now give them out as Millennial-bating swag.
Remember that whole ‘90s spirituality moment — feng shui, kabbalah? Circa 1999, power bracelets, also known as karma beads, were how that manifested itself in wrist-adorning form. "Groovy bracelets have ‘powers,'" Wilmington, North Carolina's Morning Star declared. "Evil, Begone! My Jewelry Says So!" a Times Style headline blared.
They were comprised of spherical, bigger-than-pearl-sized colored beads on stretchy strings, and naturally each one "meant" something, like aromatherapy: pink quartz for this, jade for that. I had completely forgotten about them until a friend mentioned them during the reporting of this story, and the first one I had popped right back into my head: The beads on my bracelet were clear purple and it was from Old Navy. (Its specific power I am less clear on.)
Unlike most other bracelet crazes, this trend started with adults and crossed over into teen and tween territory.
Unlike most other bracelet crazes, this trend started with adults and crossed over into teen and tween territory — how could it not, what with possessing many of the qualities that make bracelets such a perfect match for young people in the first place? Anyone of any age and size can wear them, check. They're relatively cheap, check. Kids love to get compulsive and load up a whole armful, which the suite of colors and meanings enabled. Check again. But it's easy to see in these yet another American trend made possible by mass production that capitalized on a foreign culture. Accessorizing is not always pretty.
In her early days of fame, Madonna used to load her arms up with jelly bracelets. It was an innocent time, the ‘80s, when wearing multiple bracelets could apparently register as shocking and alternative. As we know, our wristly zeitgeist is cyclical, and we trace the full-blown craze of jelly bracelets to a later and decidedly more shocking iteration.
Around 2003, the bracelets resurfaced, first as an ‘80s throwback, then as a media controversy that managed to completely overshadow its original incarnation. Somehow, teachers and parents became convinced that jelly bracelets were part of something very untoward indeed: a game, sometimes called "snap," wherein different colors signified different sexual acts. Snopes debunked the myth of "sex bracelets," the bracelet world's answer to "rainbow parties," but the legend lives on.
Tweens and teens wearing plastic bracelets is, on its own, hardly notable at all, just what kids do. As is imbuing the bracelets with specific meanings. Jelly bracelets were particularly versatile though: Teens could go for an Avril Lavigne-style, punky look with a stack of black ones from Hot Topic, while on the younger end of the spectrum, tweens could load up on glittery, rainbow options. It's the media fascination that may have turned a popular style into an out-and-out craze. First comes the moral panic — picture a Salem witch trial where all the accused had been shopping at the mall — then comes increased attention and sales. Which is why jelly bracelets, for better or worse, remain inextricably and probably inaccurately linked with sex.
Before he was a disgraced vampire, Lance Armstrong was a rather beloved cultural figure. Known for overcoming cancer and winning a bunch of bike races, Armstrong launched a charity foundation called Livestrong in 1997. But it wasn't until 2004, when its namesake yellow bracelet launched, that Livestrong really hit the stratosphere. Through a partnership with Nike, over 80 million of the bands were sold to support cancer research. So of course every other disease got in on the action too: "Teal for ovarian cancer. Red for tobacco-free kids. Silver for cancer survivors," as Florida's Sun-Sentinel reported.
Circa 2005, the ubiquitous silicone accessory had become the most unlikely style movement of the new millennium. Compared to the earthier bracelets that came before them, they seem so very post-9/11, George W. Bush-era: wear bracelets now, ask questions later. As a 2004 Times Magazine column pointed out, the bracelets were rooted in earnestness: ''This ties into some very deep-seated emotions that the American public has. There is a desire to have something to believe in.''
Compared to the earthier bracelets that came before them, they seem so very post-9/11.
Let she whose wrist was naked in 2005 cast the first stone; we all had at least one of these things. Demand so outstripped supply that there were waitlists for them. The audience who really went crazy for them, though, who wanted to amass collections of them, were kids. Allow the San Diego Union-Tribune to explain: "The bands have moved from charity symbol to fashion statement. Some teens wear five, six, seven at a time. Elementary school kids trade them at recess, just like earlier generations did with Pokemon cards and Pogs." Also, the bracelets were about fashionable as pogs. Pogs!
Soon enough, kids cut the charity component out of the equation altogether and started ordering custom-made bracelets for events like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We could probably fill entire landfills with them. Thank you, Lance Armstrong, for your lasting sartorial contribution, sorry that your foundation no longer wants to be associated with you.
An idea so diabolically simple, of course it struck gold — jelly bracelets you can stack on your wrists, but this time, they snap back into fun shapes when you take them off: guitars! Animals! Fruit? The bracelets hit the big time in 2010, when inventor Robert Croak spoke of sales upwards of $100 million.
Around then, the Times Style section ran a piece with the headline "Older Audience For Child's Bracelet Is Not a Stretch." As one 30-year-old woman told the newspaper, "I thought, ‘This is nuts that a rubber band is causing so much hype. If kids are going crazy over these, I have to have them.'" But the bands were ultimately too beautiful for this world, and not long for it.
"The big question is: When will it drop dead?" a youth consultant was already asking in USA Today's initial report on the craze. The answer ended up being six months, a year tops. Do trends without a DIY element have a shorter shelf life by nature? As per this bracelet analysis, it sure seems like it. And well... just read on.
Cheong Choon Ng puts your meddling dad to shame. One day in 2010, he noticed his daughters making bracelets out of rubber bands, and despite his larger fingers rendering him less dexterous, he became determined to build a machine that would improve the process. The result was the Rainbow Loom, heir to lanyards and friendship bracelets and an ace tool for weaving rubber bands together into bracelets and other doodads.
"I couldn't tell my daughters, ‘You know what, all our money is in the rubber bands.'"
He — and his daughters, and their friends — was so taken with his invention that he decided to see if he could market it. "The idea was to be like a startup home business," he tells me. "That was the initial plan, but we didn't have any real business background except that I'm an engineer. I know how to design stuff." Instead he wound up creating a company that enjoyed sales of $40 million last year. (He left his engineering job in 2012.)
It wasn't exactly an overnight process though. Ng put his family's savings into the business ("I couldn't tell my daughters, ‘You know what, all our money is in the rubber bands'") and initially struggled to get noticed by mainstream retailers. One thing that helped the product catch on was YouTube tutorials. Several years into the craze, there are still new videos posted every day, wherein kids show off projects ranging from basic bracelets to more complicated structures. Ng is skeptical of less complicated trends like Silly Bandz, which left his daughters, now 13 and 16, bored after a couple of days. As he puts it, "It makes it a lot more meaningful if you create something yourself."
There really is something special about bracelets. They've been compared to Beanie Babies, trading cards, and other collectibles, it's true, but don't tell that to the DIYers: they'll maintain that there's something extra-special about the handmade element.
"When you talk about lanyards and friendship bracelets and Rainbow Loom, the difference between those and slap bracelets, is the other items are creative," says Laneyards' Lowenstein. "Some of what makes them so fun is that you are involved in a creative activity, you work on something and then you have a finished product that you can be proud of. Slap bracelets, from what I remember, were more of a fun thing to collect, but they didn't have the same passion to them as making something."
But let's also consider for a moment the inherent properties of the wrist that make bracelets so darn craze-worthy in the first place. After all, the last few decades were not without their other jewelry trends — mood rings come to mind, tattoo chokers too — most of which never quite reached the fever pitch of their bracelet trend counterparts.
You can wear multiple rings and necklaces, but not as many as you can bracelets. Think of all that forearm real estate! And then there's anatomy to take into account. Fingers come in many different sizes and rings must fit just so; when you consider the ease of slipping a bracelet off your wrist, heads are major obstacles in the way of increasing the shareability of necklaces. Bracelets simply have an evolutionary advantage.
Trend forecaster Lunny agrees, summing up the salient points thusly: "First of all, they're cheap. They're easy for anyone to get. If it's the hot item of the moment, you're probably gifting it in the loot bag of the birthday party. Very quick, an entire class can have them. It's not like, ‘Oh, this doll is really cool' but not everyone can afford it or you can't find it. They're so accessible and they're so easy. And they're also so easy to trade."
Put another way, with bracelets, "You know you can pick up something that your mom, your best friend, your girlfriend will like," says Hind Palmer, global PR and communications director for Claire's. There's also the feels factor: "It's more about the act of giving and the act of sharing and the act of creating something for someone," Ma says. "Kids will always be kids. One of the most beautiful things is that those urges to share and give and have best friends and all that will always remain the same."
But there's also always going to be a difference between mere trend and full-blown craze. "A craze is a trend that becomes very, very successful overnight, that everyone is just obsessed with," says Palmer, citing Rainbow Loom. "I will give you another example that came to mind just now. Have you heard of Minions?" Oh, I have.
Editor: Julia Rubin