The tightly-wrapped necklace was worn by queens and prostitutes.
Chokers are having a (comeback) moment right now. The simple piece of jewelry has become a must-have accessory, popping up in street style and on the runway and red carpets. They were all over New York Fashion Week, Coachella and the Met Ball, favored by stars like Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Beyoncé and more.
But these tightly-wrapped necklaces have a past much deeper and darker than their more recent 90s grunge history. While the choker was previously a symbol of violence and control, over time, it developed into a symbol of female ferocity and power.
The choker dates back thousands of years and was first worn by the world’s earliest civilizations: the Sumer empire in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, according to the National Jeweler. Women wore chokers to both hide and highlight the neck, the most vulnerable part of the human body. Women believed these necklaces, especially gold ones, were protective and infused with special powers. “A lot of ancient jewelry is protective and amuletic,” Yvonne Markowitz, the curator of Jewelry at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), told the outlet.
Chokers were later adopted into European culture, but were representative of danger and violence. One of the most famous paintings of Anne Boleyn shows her wearing a pearl choker with a “B” charm on it before she was beheaded. During the French Revolution in the late 1700s, women wore chokers as a political homage to those who died at the guillotine. In the 1860s, prostitutes could be identified by the ribbons they wore around their necks. Some women in Germany and Austria wore them to conceal goiters on their necks, the result of iodine deficiencies common across the Alps during the time.
During the later 1800s, chokers became a royal trend of elaborate style. Alexandra, Princess of Wales, was known to wear thick rows of pearls and velvet to cover a scar that made her feel self-conscious. Queen Victoria, too, frequently flaunted the style, and it became a symbol of wealth worn by the elite.
The choker trend revived in the 1940s, as indicated by the Oct. 1944 issue of Life magazine, which cited a revival of “a dowager fashion of 40 years ago.” Women of the day wore them in different styles, from pearls and lace to velvet and elaborate diamonds. The necklaces were referred to as “dog collars.”
During the late 60s and 70s, rock stars integrated chokers into their fashion—and it wasn’t only women who wore them. Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop and David Bowie defied gender norms by incorporating the jewelry into their style, influencing a new wave of gender-neutral fashion.
With the rise of the grunge scene in the 90s came edgy chokers worn by stars like Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Lenny Kravitz. The choker became even more popular than it was in 70s, becoming a symbol of a rising rebellion in youth culture. The edgy style not only communicated freedom and self-expression; it was also reflected, consciously or unconsciously, the long road women had traveled from violence and oppression to freedom in self-expression and body.
Chokers continue to make a bold statement, as we’ve seen in their recent revival. For Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, she stacked on multiple chokers while singing an anthem of her cultural identity as a black woman in America. It was perhaps the most powerful use of the choker to convey female power.