Tracing the history of 2016’s most ubiquitous accessory from the guillotine to the runway.
After the Reign of Terror, in late-18th-century France, the young relatives of enemies of the revolution — who'd been beheaded on guillotines — held orgiastic parties to dance off their collective trauma. Or so some newspapers reported. The Bals des victimes ("victims' balls") are a semi-apocryphal phenomenon that, despite doubts by historians, I'd rather just believe were real because these parties sound simultaneously insane and completely reasonable — an appropriately wild, cathartic response to the death of your and all your friends' aristocratic parents.
The Bals des victimes also provide an origin story for that ubiquitous accessory of 2016: the choker necklace. According to some accounts, young women at the balls would tie ribbons around their necks as a tribute to their decapitated forebears.
With this morbid history in mind, look through your Instagram feed. Mine is filled with girls wearing black bands around their throats. They come in several variations: a slim ribbon tied in a bow, a thick strip of velvet, a leather dog collar with a silver O-ring and buckle. There is something inherently provocative about each version, even if it's encircling the neck of a social-media golden girl like Lily-Rose Depp or Gigi Hadid (both high-profile choker devotees). Depp, coincidentally or not, erected a guillotine at her French Revolution-themed "Sour Sixteen" last year. At least ten chokers were spotted.
The choker's cutthroat associations go back further, too. Anne Boleyn appears in her most famous official portrait wearing a string of pearls wrapped tightly around her neck, a golden letter "B" boldly asserting her identity between her clavicles. Not long after the painting was finished, she was beheaded on charges including witchcraft and adultery.
More than 450 years later, on the hauntingly atonal Hole B-side "Old Age," Courtney Love sang, "Someone please tell Anne Boleyn, chokers are back in again." The track is a cover of a Nirvana song of the same name, rewritten by Love with lyrics mourning forgotten concubines and the persecution of female sexuality. It also marks 1993 as a peak year for chokers. (Like many grunge heroines, Hole's then bassist, Melissa Auf der Maur, often paired her ribbed baby tees with a delicate black cord across her neck.) Love's lyric also imagines the comeback of Boleyn's necklace as a sign of timeless female defiance.
The choker has always signified both persecution and power. In Édouard Manet's Olympia, one of Western art history's most controversial depictions of the female form, the artist's model, Victorine Meurent, accessorizes her nudity with a black ribbon around her neck and a "Can I help you?" stare. Critics lambasted the painting when it debuted during the 1865 Paris Salon, but their complaints had little to do with Olympia's nudity (which was common in the era's popular paintings of classical deities) — it was Meurent's flesh-and-blood humanity and powerfully direct gaze. Chokers represented prostitution in late-19th-century Europe, and Manet had portrayed a woman wearing her sexuality proudly around her neck.
Other iconic female outsiders who've made the case for chokers: the high school witches of The Craft, Natalie Portman's child assassin in Léon: The Professional, Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction. And it's not only women of the 90s. The choker had an earlier 20th-century heyday in the 1970s. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's legendary store Sex on London's Kings Road introduced the leather collars of BDSM into more mainstream youth culture, where they have stayed ever since. In a nod to the iconic punk landmark, Westwood recently released a gold choker welded with the letters "S-E-X" in gilded chin-supporting all capitals. No word better explains the source of the choker's lasting power.
Whether one of Phoebe Philo's sinuous silver creations for Céline, or a gold collar punctuating the space between Kim Kardashian's face and breasts, the choker will always evoke a slightly dangerous mix of sexuality, empowerment, and submission. What other accessory encompasses all of that?
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Angelo Penetta