I was in fourth grade and Mabel was in fifth. Every day in our joint classroom, I stared at her longingly. She had a small waist, big boobs, a wash and set that always lasted through the week, and baby tees that clung to her body that way. Her sense of style was insanely enviable. But it was what hung from her neck—a giant, hollow, diamond-studded plate—that really made Mabel an elementary-school fashion icon.
Mabel wasn’t the only girl I knew who rocked a nameplate necklace—she was just the coolest. All the Puerto Rican, Dominican and black girls wore them, and each had their own special take. Mahogany, whose grandma Ms. Helen lived across the street from my family in a single-room occupancy building, had one with bubbly script but no diamonds. Another girl from around my way had a heart decal in her nameplate, and nearly all the girls had a thick squiggly line underneath—a clever decoration to emphasize the importance of what sat above.
Nameplates have always leapt off the chests of black and brown girls who wear them; they’re an unequivocal and proud proclamation of our individuality, as well as a salute to those who gave us our names. The necklaces are a response to gas-station bracelets and department-store mugs emblazoned with names like Katie and Becky. But most of all, they’re a flashy and pointed rejection of the banality of white affluence.
Nameplates have always leapt off the chests of black and brown girls who wear them.
For most black and brown girls, nameplates meant growing up.
“All the older girls got nameplates when they were in high school, and it was sort of a cosmopolitan rite of passage,” said my friend and writer Doreen St. Félix. “The girls I knew had names that were long and original and hard for some people to pronounce—the names you don’t see on keychains in gift shops. So getting gold jewelry at the mall with your proud American, Latinx, West Indian, African name was an insistence on gaudiness and the inviolability of our names.”
In New York City, where I was raised, the nameplate economy has never involved white people. Purchases always happen on main thoroughfares inside of the hood or in Chinatown. (Over the summer, I bought a nameplate for a friend in New York City’s Chinatown and the ease and comfort with which one of the shopkeepers broke free from her limited English to rap to me about the virtues of those diamond-studded ornaments overwhelmed me with joy.)
I began asking for a nameplate at around 10 years old. At 13, I got a solid pair of hood name earrings, but not the big door-knockers I’d shown my mother. At 16, I got the nameplate’s “proper” cousin: a silver “C” from Tiffany. Then in my later teens, I opened a jewelry box to find a scripted “Collier,” bought from a craftsman at an Upper West Side art fair. No matter how many times I begged her for the kind of nameplate she knew I wanted, it never appeared.
“No child of mine is going to look ghetto,” she told me flatly.
The “ghetto” is familiar to my mother; she spent the first 13 years of her life in an infamous one. I spent most of my early childhood shuffling between the all-black Dance Theatre of Harlem and my neighborhood’s overwhelmingly black and Latinx elementary school. I’d only been friendly with four white kids until middle school. And though my father sometimes gave me quarters to buy an after-school snack when his cash flow was interrupted by lots of bills, I didn’t know what it meant to be poor.
My mother’s unwillingness to wear blackness beyond her skin, natural hair, and the occasional “nigga suit” she “pulled out” when white people didn’t treat her properly, made a lot of sense to me. The nameplate is as much a class signifier as it is a racial one, and I didn’t dare challenge my mother’s desperate need to look away and shield me from the poverty she experienced growing up—a poverty that was, of course, compounded by her blackness.
Unashamed of her blackness or mine, my mother shuddered when I asked for a nameplate out of a fear of white reproach—which had dire consequences. If I wore a chain, maybe I wouldn’t get the summer job I wanted, or be accepted into the college of my choice. Black women, my mother always reminded me, were rejected for much less.
It wasn’t until Christmas morning in my early twenties, after Barack Obama became president and I’d held down my first full-time job, that a nameplate finally appeared under the tree. Why, I asked, had she change her mind? “I know you can handle it,” my mother told me.
This coveted chain, one she’d designed herself in Chinatown, dangled more delicately from my hand than any piece of jewelry I’d ever gotten before.
For black Americans, names can be a form of resistance to white supremacy. Plucked from our homes in West Africa and forced into chattel slavery, bodily autonomy wasn’t the only thing stolen from us. Our names were stolen, too.
After more than 200 years of slavery and decades of Jim Crow laws, black Americans began to subvert whiteness by coming up with our own names. “The diversification of baby names in America started in the late 1960s during a larger sociocultural shift that emphasized individuality, and that’s where names for black and white Americans began to diverge,” Morgan Jerkins wrote in the New York Times.
Today, in some areas of the United States, “nearly a third of African-American girls are given a name belonging to no one else in the state (boys’ names tend to be somewhat more conservative),” David Zax wrote in Salon. So when black and brown girls and women wear nameplates, it’s not just an aesthetic choice—it’s political.
In their podcast on the subject, hosts Marcel Rosa-Salas and Isabel Flower interviewed American fashion experts, who traced the nameplate we know back to hip-hop culture. It was with the advent of MTV in the 1980s that “black street style became something everyone, everywhere had access to,” said Monica Miller, Columbia English professor and author of Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity.
The first time Miller remembers seeing nameplates in pop culture was at the end of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do The Right Thing. Ultimately, Miller told me in a phone call, “The jewelry has some cultural specificity to it, a historical specificity to it.”
The nameplate necklace was always a cultural touchstone of black and brown urban fashion—that is, until Sex and the City, something Rosa-Salas and Flower also noticed. I first began to encounter white girls wearing nameplates in the early 2000s, after the HBO show exploded in popularity. The series’ main character, Carrie Bradshaw, wore a single-plated version of the necklace that had a tiny diamond dotting the “i.” Google “Carrie Bradshaw…” now, and the search autofills to “necklace,” yielding results such as “Unique carrie name necklace related items” and “Personalized Boutique, Inc.: Sex and the City Style.”
“I have a shop in New York City, and a lot of the kids in the neighborhood wore them.” Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field told InStyle, when asked how she “found” Carrie’s nameplate necklace. “I thought: Maybe I’ll show it to Sarah Jessica and she’ll like the idea. She did, and she made it happen. It became a universal, long-lasting thing.”
In the show’s series finale, Carrie becomes distressed after thinks she lost her necklace. “It costs like nothing, but it’s priceless,” she says. (For reference, I find nameplates generally cost around $200—hardly cheap.)
“It’s a look and a look we did to be outside, and now they realized they are boring, so they’re copying.”- Judnick Mayard
When it comes to seeing a nameplate on white girls and women in a post-Sex and the City world, St. Félix told me, “it’s just not realistic, always looks ‘put on.’ Part of what has always been distinctive about nameplates to me is that they were such natural adornment; they seem like they should have always been on our brown necks.”
I asked Judnick Mayard, another writer and friend, about whether she thinks nameplates are appropriative.
“I don’t mind white girls wearing nameplates. Where I grew up [in south Brooklyn], it just meant they weren’t wasps,” she told me. “Now that there are more of them trying to look like pale Latinas, I’ve become sensitive to it because I’m so used to it being a sign of lower-classness.”
My mother gave me my first name, Collier. “No other name seemed right,” she’s told me on many occasions. It’s her maiden name. I’m adopted, so the passage of my mother’s last name to me has always been symbolic. What my parents and I don’t share in biology, we do in manner: I throw my hands around madly like my father, and curl my lips when I’m angry like my mother. My nameplate is them. It’s my grandmother, too, who is also a Collier. And it’s her ancestors, the slaves from South Carolina who didn’t get to choose their name.
White girls and women have other stories, but they don’t have ours. It never feels like a homage to me when I see a white woman rocking a nameplate. Instead, it comes across as nothing more than an awkward replica—true “biters” of our shit.
As Mayard says, “I’m not tryna march or impose a ban, I just see you wack hos for what it is. It’s a look and a look we did to be outside, and now they realized they are boring, so they’re copying.”