Last week, an image went viral. It was simple: just a picture a girl, Katie Rosebrook, had taken of herself as she took a current fashion craze to its logical extreme. She had taken a shoelace and turned it into … a choker.
The image proved popular in part because chokers are having, as Rosebrook suggested, a(nother) moment right now. The simple adornment—a slim strip, usually composed of metal or fabric, that wraps around the neck, evoking both delicacy and boldness—has recently graced the necks of Willow Smith, and Kendall Jenner, and Taylor Swift, and Gigi Hadid, and Katy Perry. Chokers have walked down the runways for Balenciaga and Dior and Saint Laurent and Alexander Wang. Poppy Delevingne wore one to this year’s Met Ball. Olivia Wilde wore one to the Oscars. Beyoncé wore a stack of them in “Formation.” You can buy the most common version of the moment—a ’90s-tastic stretch-plastic situation that resembles a tattoo—at Forever 21 for $2.90.
The choker is, on the one hand, simply one more way that the current culture has been looking back nostalgically to the ’90s. But they evoke much more than ’90s grunge: Chokers were common across ancient cultures, and cycled in and out of style during the most recent centuries in the West—prized for their ability both to conceal the neck and to highlight it. Today they most readily suggest the romantic (and the Romantic). But they also carry a note, visually slicing as they do across the most vulnerable part of the human body, of violence. And, with it, control. As this year’s New York Fashion Week blog put it, commenting on the sudden ubiquity of the simple necklace, a choker is a “beautiful warning sign that you’re dealing with feminine ferocity.”
Chokers have wound around human necks for thousands of years—symbols, always, of the delicate dance fashion enables between vulnerability and power. Whether worn by people in Western Africa or Egypt or Sumer, the adornments may have served similar purposes. As Yvonne Markowitz, the curator emerita of jewelry at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, told National Jeweler, “a lot of ancient jewelry is protective and amuletic.” People tended to concentrate their ornamentation, she noted, on the parts of the body that were thought to be in particular need of protection—the head, the wrists, the ankles, the throat—and believed those items to be infused with special powers. Necklaces, though, could also have a more practical purpose: Native Americans wore versions of chokers, often made of the bones of birds, to protect the jugular in battle.
As they were adopted by Europeans during the Enlightenment, chokers ceased to serve explicitly martial or protective roles—but retained some of the suggestions of danger that earlier versions had evoked. Worn by the upper classes (which is to say, by people who could afford jewelry)—and also, now, almost exclusively by women—they were simultaneously subtle and ostentatious. Unlike other necklaces, chokers were never in danger on being visually sacrificed to the competing adornments of a complicated dress. They stood out, announcing themselves (and the ostentatious jewels that composed them). The most famous portrait of Anne Boleyn portrays the fated queen wearing a long necklace of large pearls that she had fashioned into a choker. Hers featured a charm in the shape of a “B” that dangled over her clavicle, daringly and, in retrospect, ironically.
In an age in which execution sentences were often fulfilled via beheadings, chokers also summoned their ancient origins to suggest the dangers of life in “interesting times.” In the aftermath of the French revolution, women took to tying red ribbons around their necks in silent remembrance of those who had lost their lives to the guillotine. But the semantics quickly evolved: Soon, prostitutes were identifying themselves according to the black-ribboned versions of the same style. (See: Édouard Manet’s “Olympia.”) Degas gave his otherwise pastel-delicate ballerinas black ribbons that wrapped around their necks in a similar fashion, the loose ends fluttering as they moved; it remains a matter of debate, today, whether he intended their adornment as a commentary on the demands their art placed on the dancers, or whether he simply borrowed the fashion to emphasize the dancers’ long necks.
Whatever the ribbons meant, they had their match in bejeweled counterparts that, as Degas did his work, served once again as signifiers of their wearers’ upper-class status. (Not to mention of those wearers’ youth and youthful beauty: Slim is the neck, generally, that can successfully rock a choker.) Queen Victoria wore the style, even in her older age. Alexandra, her daughter-in-law, was thought to have favored a stacked version of it because of the layered necklaces’ ability to hide a scar on her neck. The trend trickled down, in the manner of the cerulean sweater, to women of slightly less lofty station.
And it would continue trickling! Chokers were trendy into the 1920s—think Lady Mary in Downton Abbey—and would make a comeback again in the ’40s, as women in the U.S., in particular, began experimenting with “colliers de chien.” (An issue of Life magazine, in October 1944, announced that young girls had been reviving “a dowager fashion of 40 years ago”—and illustrated the trend with photos of models proudly wearing the now vaguely rebellious “dog collars.”) Chokers would be revived again, this time often by men, in the ’70s—one element of the experiments with gender-bending that Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and Elvis engaged in—and again in the ’90s, when the necklaces favored by Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani would also be worn by Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and Jordan Catalano.
And so, now, chokers are in style again, gracing the necks of the women (and occasionally the men) who are American culture’s readiest answer to royalty. “Like hemlines, necklace lengths go up and down,” Sophie Quy, Net-a-Porter.com’s fine jewelry buyer, noted of the choker’s inevitable return. But the style—that enticing blend of delicacy and danger, of control and its absence—makes particular sense for a moment in which women are finding new ways to be powerful. And one that finds many things coming, as they so often will, full-circle.