Style

The rich history and risky business behind the choker

Its backstory is every bit as exciting as its comebacks.

Its backstory is every bit as exciting as its comebacks

Closeup on a model wearing a silver strapless gown on the Giorgio Armani Privé runway wearing a black sequin choker with a sequin red rose on it.
Giorgio Armani Privé Haute Couture Fall 2023 (Credit: Peter White/Getty Images)

From ancient Egypt and royal courts to counterculture movements and fashion weeks, the choker has been a stylish choice throughout many moments in history. Worn snugly fastened around one's neck, the age-old accessory is straightforward by design, yet visually striking and rich with symbolism. And this year, it's found fresh relevance. 

For proof, look no further than the Fall 2023 runways. At Dior, models sported black pearls tied tightly around their necks. At Rodarte, ensembles featured opulent gothic chokers with dramatic dangling black chains. And in trendsetting circles, a new iteration of the necklace has been particularly popular: the rosette choker. Pulling from 2000s trends, the floral version of the adornment brings that era's fanciful more-is-more aesthetic to the accessory — and to red carpets and TikTok feeds. It's only the most recent example of the choker being at the forefront of accessorizing trends. 

Perhaps the choker's endless allure comes down to its perturbing placement around the neck, which draws attention to a vulnerable area: the pathway through which we breathe. The choker as a fashion symbol evokes the tight neck fittings that have historically been used for punishment. "If you look at the horrible implements of torture and stuff," said Alexandra Palmer, fashion costume senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, "I mean, they're really, really scary and very, very nasty."

It's difficult to pinpoint when chokers were first worn. Their presence has been cited in some of the world's earliest civilizations, such as the Sumer empire in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, where the necklaces were thought to have protective powers. 

Chokers have been famously favoured by royalty throughout history. In the 16th century, Anne Boleyn's signature accessory was a pearl choker with a "B" pendant — a reference to her family name and a perceived act of defiance against her husband, Henry VIII, who later ordered her beheading. Queen Alexandra, who became the Princess of Wales in 1863 when she married the future King Edward VII, was also associated with the look. In paintings, multilayered strands of pearls and jewels adorned her throat to conceal a scar; regardless, it undoubtedly made the look more fashionable for the time.

Chokers themselves were once used to make explicit statements about the archaic practice of beheadings. In the late 18th century, red ribbon chokers were worn in England as a way of mocking the beheadings that were happening during the French Revolution.

A turning point for the choker, said Palmer, was when it was adopted by punks as part of a counterculture movement. Their thick leather necklaces, often called "dog collars," borrowed from bondage imagery and were adorned with spikes and rings. With that subversive usage, chokers began to be seen in the mainstream as dangerous, said Palmer. 

Over the following years, chokers appeared on runways taking on the distinct styles of their decades. The '90s saw minimalist black chokers come into prominence on red carpets and TV screens, while the choker of the 2000s was more embellished and made over with bright colours and glitzy details. In the 2010s, chokers took hold once again in all iterations, from chains to black cords to lacy designs. Like any trend, the choker has gone through its share of variations, all while its inherent design remains unwavering. "The choker is not really very adjustable," said Palmer. "In terms of a piece of jewelry, it's pretty fixed.… A choker is a choker." 

Another through line of the choker is its theatricality. As Palmer put it: "Wearing a choker is a bit of drama." Whether it's a risqué, grungy dog collar or a lavish stack of pearls, to wear one is often about making a statement. There's also a sense of risk built into wearing one. "It's not for everyone, however fashionable it may be on the runway today," said Palmer. "Some people are just not physically comfortable with having something around their neck, which is understandable." 

While it goes in and out of style, the choker always finds new ways to reinvent itself. And of things that come and go, there are few fashion pieces quite as striking as the image of a choker. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalie Michie is a Toronto-based writer who covers the intersection of fashion and pop culture. Find her on Instagram @nataliemichie and on TikTok @natalie_michie.

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