Claire Stemen likes to think and write about fashion as a vital form of communication. She loves clothing and the way we style ourselves, despite always buying the same black turtleneck over and over again. You can find her on Instagram @claire_stemen, or or at clairestemen.com.

Getting Choked Up: Why We Love Chokers

Willow Smith in a tattoo choker, very much a nineties look
Willow Smith in a tattoo choker, very much a nineties look
Don’t worry, in spite of what you may think, the choker isn’t a ’90s nightmare, come to entrap our necks yet again — mainly because it’s not an accessory from the ’90s. The controversial neckpiece (you either love or hate the trend, it seems) originates further back in history than a mere twenty-or-so years.

Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians were the first to don the iconic pieces — though obviously not of the plastic tattoo variety. Worn pragmatically, as protection for the neck, as well as as a symbol of power and status, the choker has been around the fashion cycle and back many times. Chokers encompass multiple cultures, demographics, and time periods, making them an exceedingly interesting piece of jewelry to investigate.

Ancient Egyptian Choker (via MFA.org)
Ancient Egyptian Choker (via MFA.org)

During the Renaissance, chokers made a comeback as a stylistic choice for higher class citizens and, later, they were popular during the 1700s in Europe. As time went on, the manner in which one wore a choker could mean multiple things. Commoners wore red ribbons for countrymen who were victim of the guillotine and, by the 1800s, a single black ribbon around the neck meant prostitution. Thus, a strange clash between higher class and conventionally “virtuous” women and lower-class women emerged as the accessory evolved.

Commoners wore red ribbons for countrymen who were victim of the guillotine.

Scandal regarding the appearance of chokers in art burst forth, especially when Degas’ paintings of ballerinas often featured the scandalous black ribbon.

L’Étoile by Edgar Degas
L’Étoile by Edgar Degas

Degas’ paintings of ballerinas often featured the scandalous black ribbon.

However, the most influential woman to wear a choker was Queen Alexandra of Denmark in the mid to late 1800s, who brought the popularity of chokers to a boil. As a long-standing royal and, finally, a queen, her influence in fashion made the choker a popular neckpiece. She was often seen wearing elaborate chokers.

Alexandra of Denmark
Alexandra of Denmark

Not all chokers at the time were decorative; as usual, the choker often had a function. Wearing the pieces for more than a show of power (though that, in itself, is an excellent reason to don one), Germans and Austrians wore “goiter chokers” called Kropfkettes, between 1840 and 1870 to hide less-than-attractive bumps on their neck due to iodine deficiencies. While beautiful, they were an example of womanly innovation when faced with physical issues, much like the imaginative scarf wrappings of cancer patients.
 

This is a Kropfkette (goiter chain) that Austians and Germans wore circa 1840-1870 to hide lumps on their necks from iodine deficiencies.  (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This is a Kropfkette that Austians and Germans wore circa 1840-1870 to hide lumps on their necks from iodine deficiencies. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1920s a resurgence of the choker began once more with Art Déco fervor. Most notably, master glass designer René Lalique created dreamy and complicated pieces, a breathtaking collection of chokers now spread amongst museums. One can imagine the liberated women of the Lost Generation feeling powerful when wearing their chokers with their daring bob haircuts.

'20s icon Josephine Baker wearing a choker
’20s icon Josephine Baker wearing a choker

Finally the choker as we know it best made a comeback in the ’90s, where it graced the necks of goth queens, high schools rebels, and young girls looking to follow the trend. Drew Barrymore, Winona Ryder, Britney Spears, and anyone else in the spotlight were seen wearing chokers, inspiring envy.

The choker is back now, but they’re not quite like the chokers we’ve seen in the ’90s. Instead, they echo the history of the choker; its tribal beginnings, its ribbon promiscuity, and its tattoo-rainbowed joy. It is as much of a rebellious accessory as it ever was, encircling the necks of influential and powerful women everywhere. The choker is not simply a trend cycling back; it is a testament to an ideal, to the woman who ought to intimidate you.

A beautiful warning sign that you’re dealing with feminine ferocity.

The choker is back now, but this time they echo the history of the choker.

René Lalique, 1906-08. France. Via Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.
René Lalique, 1906-08. France. Via Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.

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