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 parties to dance off their trauma, as reported by some newspapers. The Bals des victimes (“victims’ balls”) are a truly unknown phenomenon that, despite doubts by historians, I’d rather just believe were real because these parties sound insane and a completely wild, reasonable response to the death of your and all your friends parents.
These “victims’ balls” have provided us with quite the back story for the must-have accessory of 2017: the choker. According to some accounts, young women at the balls would tie ribbons around their necks as a tribute to their decapitated relatives.
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 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 well-known 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 track “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 will always evoke a slightly dangerous mix of sexuality, empowerment, and submission. What other accessory encompasses all of that?