The collar, a staple in BDSM leather culture, appears to have infiltrated mainstream style in recent years. Writers interested in tracing the collar’s appearance in the fashion world often begin with the BDSM scene, detailing the significance of the collar in old guard leather culture before demonstrating its spread through punk and gothic subcultures as an emblem of rebelliousness. This spirit of rebellion, they argue, was later adopted into mainstream fashions and the collar went along with it. In actuality, the collar has a much longer and more varied history.
The Ruff: Elizabethan
Ruffs, gathered fabric collars worn around the neck, gained popularity in 16th century Europe. Since courtly clothes were often ornate and frustrating to clean, ruffs, which could be laundered separately, were both a practical and fashionable choice. While ruffs were available in many tones, yellow, pink, and mauve were popular, as seen in portraits of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth actually banned the use of blue ruffs, which she considered representative of Scottish loyalties.
These ruffs became an extravagant part of courtly dress, some reaching more than a foot from the wearers’ face. Larger ruffs could not be held up by starch alone, so were fitted with wire. In Spain, ruffs grew even larger until Philip IV banned them as a way to reduce the excessive displays of the court. As ruffs fell out of fashion in the 17th century, more modest collars replaced them, leading to the shirt collars of today and paving the way for necklaces and other adornments.
The Choker: European
Before and after the ruff’s popularity, women often wore high necklaces, or chokers. Ann Boleyn appears in portraiture wearing her signature “B”, and women during the French revolution wore red ribbons around their throats to demonstrate their solidarity with those who had been killed. Chokers that resemble collars emerged as the popularity of the ruff receded, and women started wearing bands of pearls high around their necks.
In keeping with the ostentatious jewelry of the era, necklaces were multi-layered and ornate. Because several strands of beads (often pearls) were looped around the neck, the image of the choker or collar began to take root. Some necklaces joined at the meeting of the clavicle before extending a small way down the chest. These styles ultimately led to ornate beaded and metal chokers that highlighted the wearer’s clavicles and neck. These in turn led to the classic choker and the collar of today. Queen Victoria popularized the addition of cameos to a simple flat band worn high around the throat.
The Choker: Native American
The choker has a storied cross-cultural history as well. In some Native American cultures, chokers had immense practical and spiritual significance. Made from bird bones, the collars would protect the wearer’s jugular, and provide spiritual protection as well. Rather than killing the bird, hunters waited to find the bones so that they were given the protection of the bird that yielded the bones. Animal sinews, often from a deer or buffalo, yielded the thread that the spiritual leaders of the tribe used to string the collar together.
Each collar was hand crafted for the wearer, containing immense personal significance. While spiritual leaders or their assistants actually made the chokers, the recipient would sometimes fast or pray for days in order to attract the right kind of bird. The desire to create the choker often appeared to the recipient in dreams before they began gathering materials in order to make them. The tradition of spiritual, handmade collars continues in contemporary culture, influenced by this history.
The Collar: 1950s Fashion
After WWII, American teens began to experiment with slightly rebellious fashions. Applying their creativity, teenage girls began to wear dog collars as additional adornment, and as a way of communicating their availability to boys. Dog collars were worn around the ankles as if to hold up a sock. Worn on the left, the collar signaled that the girl was seeing someone, and unavailable for dates. Worn on the right, these studded collars let boys know that the girl was available to go out.
On top of their ability to functionally signal dating availability, dog collars inspired many studded and beaded chokers. Because small excesses were newly acceptable, multifaceted plastic chokers became somewhat popular. One striking image from the 50s shows a young teenage girl smiling and holding her dog; they are both wearing matching collars.
The Collar: BDSM
As BDSM subcultures developed, the collar took on an important symbolic role. These cultures were largely underground, and, in the days before the Internet, networking and identification could be difficult. Entire sets of practices and symbols developed around the lifestyle, but none so obvious and ubiquitous as collaring. The collar often served as a simple, elegant reminder of the relationship between a dominant and submissive and to celebrate these relationships, collaring ceremonies developed in which the dominant would collar the submissive. These ceremonies often indicated a serious, long-term commitment, a feeling heightened by the collar’s resemblance to a ring. The collars used in these scenarios ranged in their permanence, from leather collars featuring a symbolic lock to metal collars that had to be sliced through in order to be removed.
Aspects of the collars, like the colour, took on different meanings in different scenes. Like the ankle collars worn by teenage girls, collars could indicate availability or lack thereof, letting others know how to approach the wearer. As the old guard scenes dissolved and collars were brought into mainstream fashion, these symbols were no longer reliable indicators of someone’s status.
As BDSM scenes and relationships develop, the meaning of collars and collaring ceremonies has changed. People in these kinds of relationships sometimes collar each other during the ceremonies, indicating that the relationship dynamic is not strictly one-way ownership. Others, on sites such as second life, enter into multiple collared relationships with different avatars, leading to the phrase “velcro collars”.
The Collar Now
Collars have been adopted into mainstream fashion repeatedly, projecting a slightly rebellious tone in their most recent incarnation. Although the collar has ties to the BDSM scene, it’s been used in many ways, cultures, and times. While collars can be used to indicate a committed relationship, they may also function as simple fashion.
Our bestselling collar, the Luxury Square Collar, is still deeply rooted to its BDSM-past, whilst our Classic Collar offers a more historical approach to collaring as a whole. We also craft a range of studded and spiked collars. View our entire collection of leather collars, each of which benefit from our lifetime guarantee.
Image courtesy of Brian Shannow.