Taylor Swift called them the new flower crowns, Kendall Jenner is “over them” and Alexa Chung announced that they’re “so dead.” It must be time for us to throw our chokers into the bonfire along with those Kurt Cobain sunglasses and Stan Smiths — once a trend becomes a meme, it’s hard to go back.
Now that two years have passed since the great choker renaissance of 2016, we can perform a postmortem and try to understand how a thin piece of velvet became one of the most divisive trends in recent memory.
Originally part of the ‘90s revival that brought back Dr. Martens and babydoll dresses, the choker quickly evolved beyond its ‘90s evocation to become a polarizing fashion statement. It’s the perfect example of how social media proliferation can drastically shorten the life cycle of major trends. In the span of one year, the necklace evolved from kitschy nostalgia to a played-out meme fast enough to give most casual observers whiplash.
By now, almost everybody is in on the joke. We’ve all seen those “Tumblr white girl” starter packs and the viral shoelace choker tweet that simultaneously mocked and celebrated the low-effort accessory. It’s a look that became synonymous with a certain type of social-media-savvy, Kardashian-kept-up kind of girl who’s satirized in articles with tasteful titles such as “I Got This $8.99 Choker From Forever 21 And Now I Can’t Stop Doing Anal.”
All of these gags, however, have a mean-spirited undercurrent that’s more tinged with slut-shaming than genuine humor. Young women’s interests are historically and unfairly considered the lowest common denominator when it comes to taste. Trends that promote female sexual empowerment are lightning rods for intense and problematic discourse — oftentimes, accessories that are explicitly feminine are heavily critiqued by men and women alike, though this critique is often just a slightly coded way of critiquing an entire gender.
The undercurrent of misogyny in choker discourse isn’t that surprising, given the necklace’s historically sexual connotation. The classic black choker as we know it has a history that goes back a lot further than the 1990s.
Depicted in Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” and pointedly used by Edgar Degas in his ballerina paintings, black chokers were used to identify prostitutes in England in the 1800s before the style was adopted by royalty in the following decades. In 1940s America, wearing “colliers de chien,” or dog collars, was in vogue.
Much like stiletto heels, another highly sexualized and debated article of clothing, the choker necklace easily crosses the boundary between high and low culture. The accessory’s symbolic meaning changes drastically each time the trend rises to the forefront of popular culture.
Also like the stiletto, the appeal of the choker stems from eroticism, femininity and danger. Stiletto heels, first depicted in early-1900s fetish pictures and named for a kind of knife, elongate the legs and exaggerate the silhouette, while forcing the wearer to walk unsteadily by balancing their body weight on thin rods. High heels have long been associated with duplicitous femininity — Massachusetts Bay Puritans actually considered the footwear to be a form of witchcraft.
The choker is a collar that harshly cuts across a delicate part of the body, visually indicating fragility and the wearer’s submission of control. And when it comes to fashion, sexuality and vulnerability often go hand-in-hand. At the peak of the choker craze, leather and hardware-adorned versions of the necklace made the bondage, domination, sadism and masochism, or BDSM, influence on the style much more obvious. Easy to wear, affordable and readily available, choker necklaces played a significant role in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” watered-down, fetish-lite trend.
Fashion is taking more than a few cues from BDSM — it’s more acceptable now than ever to explore dangerous and taboo clothing. Latex dresses moved from the fetish scene to the red carpet and are now in high street stores. Thigh-high boots are having a moment, and lucite heels have gone from the strip club to Barneys New York.
The hope is that by decontextualizing these garments, the wearer can borrow the feeling of sexual confidence typically enjoyed by members of BDSM subculture without the stigma attached. But it’s important to note that they’re taking the aesthetic without risking the alienation. When a subculture is commodified, there are always questions of authenticity, opportunism and respect that need to be addressed.
Some can argue that these trends break down negative associations around BDSM, while others see it as stealing the distinctive look of a community without any sensitivity toward the deeper meaning of the garments. When a culturally charged item of clothing moves from one very different context to another, incongruity is more or less unavoidable; the symbolic meaning of a garment inevitably changes. Contemporary chokers went from a symbol of a particular subculture to insincere attempts to seem more “edgy,” critiqued for the same expression of sexuality from which they draw their historical origin.
Whether it’s inauthentic, oversaturated or just aesthetically unappealing, there are many reasons to pass on a trend. But it pays to look a little closer at the reasons why certain trends and groups receive more backlash than others. From crop tops to contouring, trends associated with young women have been and likely always will be subjected to close scrutiny and criticism. But it’s important to recognize when dialogue starts shifting from harmless fun to misogynistic condemnation — it wouldn’t make sense to get choked up over a passing trend.