Photo via Free People

The Enduring Mystery of the Puka Shell Necklace

Y2K heartthrobs walked so VSCO girls could run.

by Eileen Cartter
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Aug 2 2019, 6:02pm

Photo via Free People

As many men I went to college with might quote, “Time is a flat circle.” New movies are all remakes and new trends are all dregs from the internet’s endless black hole of reference points (it’s the beautiful-but-haunting kind of black hole, you know, like the picture). As follows, what was once a status symbol for hunks of the new millennium and ’70s heartthrobs before them, puka shell necklaces have been back. And they’re evolving.

In the past few years, shell necklaces could be seen on runways from Louis Vuitton to Prada and during rewatches of The O.C. (guess what was clasped around the neck of one Luke Ward when he delivered the line, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!”). They rest comfortably alongside fashion’s longtime love for surf culture and the steady tie-dye renaissance (Proenza Schouler SS10, we’ll never forget thee) while also stoking our affinity for the recently nostalgic.

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Lucas Hedges as puka-wearing Danny O'Neill in Lady Bird, an ode to the year 2002. (Screengrab via Amazon)

Maybe first introduced to the mainland by David Cassidy in the 1970s, the necklaces maintain a baffling foothold in our popular culture, at best conveying a whitewashed sense of easy-goingness. Indeed, “puka shell necklace” has become something of a catch-all term for any necklace made of small, white shells, whether they’re actual puka shells—squarish fragments with naturally occurring perforations (“puka” means hole or tunnel) that are threaded through—or cowrie shells, which are whole and oblong. In their native Hawaii, puka shell necklaces traditionally bestow good luck, though, as GARAGE’s fashion director Gabriella Karefa-Johnson aptly said, “[l]ike most things wonderful and Hawaiian, once they hit the mainland, the shell’s intended power was probably stripped in the appropriation process.”

Twenty-ish years ago, the puka shell necklace befit (almost always white) dude archetypes from preppy dirtbag to lovable bad boy, nestled beneath the collars of a minimum two (2) Abercrombie polos or, alternatively, blissfully, “peeking from the weathered rim of a Volcom t-shirt.” Fictional immortalizations aside, you may also remember them adorning the necks of sunburnt classmates recently returned from Daytona Beach.

This time around, shell necklaces have a new, more feminine association. Because the video-social media app TikTok has proven itself to be the echo chamber we don’t need but do deserve, it only makes sense that the latest puka shell revival arrives thanks to a bunch of lip-syncing teens; as heralded on the app, puka shell chokers are a crucial accessory in the uniform of “VSCO girls,” an aesthetic type defined as “the Tumblr girls of 2019” that more or less connotes, it seems, being “basic.”

They’re named for the other photo editing and sharing app that isn’t Instagram, VSCO, known for its highly stylized filters and, apparently, being to girls what Fortnite is to boys (Gen Z’s cultural relativism is truly wild). In addition to puka shells, a VSCO girl’s arsenal includes oversized pastel tees, scrunchies worn around the wrist, sticker-covered Hydro Flask water bottles, and Carmex lip balm (there are tomes to be penned about the evolution of fad lip products in the 21st century, from Lancôme Juicy Tubes to Eos spheres… Billie Eilish, please advise).

VSCO girls, according to TikTok, have taken over TikTok (echo chamber, I said!), and many users joke that simply donning a puka shell necklace is a one-way ticket to fame on the app. The accessory also signals the sort of mystifying desirability formerly reserved for, well, “girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch.”

“So there’s like a new breed of girls going around and they all have puka shell necklaces, brown hair with obvious highlights, a spray tan, and clumpy mascara,” the TikTok user @mariaa.loveeeee observed. “And like, where did they all come from? And why are all the boys in love with them?” (On TikTok, users can post videos with their own original “sound” or lip sync to the audio from another user’s video; the sound from @mariaa.loveeeee’s video, which is titled “not meant to offend anyone relax,” has been reposted nearly 1,500 times often by girls who fit its description, gesturing to their own puka shell necklaces and obvious highlights.) Do you feel 14 years old and thrumming with anxiety yet? I need a Gatorade.

In our era of enduring ’90s/Y2K revival, puka shell necklaces feel like the normie answer to the more alt stretchy tattoo choker that made its way back onto our necks a few years ago. Checks out—as Buzzfeed News writes, the VSCO girl type “runs counter to the typical Instagram baddie look that’s dominated influencer culture — think heavy makeup, Fashion Nova, and lip fillers.” As the Glossier to their Kylie Cosmetics, the VSCO girl style implies a concerted effort to appear effortless, akin to the puka shell necklace’s legacy itself. The necklace, particularly in proximity to whiteness, symbolizes a strange but storied dichotomy of strained relaxation, a heavy-handed “chill” “vibe” not unlike, say, a highly calculated Instagram or VSCO snapshot of a tropical vacation.

Fortunately for all of us, being chill on its way out—a trend that proudly anxious Gen Z-ers have, frankly, pioneered on our behalf. Stressed out is in, baby. Don your puka shells accordingly.