Once an ominous symbol of doom, the skull has moved beyond Halloween and crossed over into mainstream fashion. Skulls in all sizes and colors now adorn everything from elegant silk scarves and women’s bikinis to children’s onesies and men’s ties. Rock this ubiquitous trend with the knowledge of its roots and subsequent rise to prominence.
Death, Art and Literature
The skull, with its death head grin, remains an unmistakable and timeless symbol of mortality. Skulls began to be used in 16th and 17th century art as a symbol of memento mori, Latin for “remember that you must die.” The skull is closely associated with writers and poets such as Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare who often used death as a theme. One of the most famous and enduring scenes in theater history is when the title character in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick.
Skulls, skeletons and skulls with crossbones are often used to signify danger. Bottles or labels with these symbols might mean they contain poison. Pirate ships sometimes bore the skull and crossbones symbol on their sails as a warning of the peril that could befall those who crossed them. The popular Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise that begun in 2003 helped revive the popularity of pirates and the associated imagery, including the skull.
Rock and Roll
Skulls in clothing and jewelry have been favored by musicians and bands in several musical genres such as punk rock, Goth, and heavy metal. The morbid symbol helped convey the message of darkness, rebellion and outsider status reflected in the music. Fans of these bands began dressing in skull clothing, which has become a symbol flexible enough to signify any of these musical styles.
Modern Fashion and Art
Acclaimed high-end fashion designer Alexander McQueen, known for his rebellious style and unconventional fashion shows, helped popularize the skull in haute couture in the 2000s. His trademark symbol was the skull and now the iconic silk skull-print scarves he designed are sought-after among high fashion lovers. The Alexander McQueen label continued making men’s and women’s clothes and accessories with the popular logo after McQueen’s death in 2010. Designer Lucien Pellat-Finet also mixed skulls with high fashion with his high-priced, cashmere sweaters. Perhaps the most expensive skull in history was the one artist Damien Hurst created “For the Love of God” in 2007. It was made from the platinum cast of a real 18th century skull. Encrusted with 8,601 diamonds juxtaposed with the actual teeth from the original skull, the sculpture is valued at over $100 million.
References and ResourcesTime Out New York: Trend watch: Skull-Print Clothing, Accessories and Home Decor
303 Magazine: Fashion Fridays: Skull Crazy
Merriam Webster: Memento Mori
Psychology Today: Why We Love Dead Things
Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation: Yorick's Afterlives: Skull Properties in Performance
The New York Times: Fashion & Style: Skull and Bones
The New York Times: The Heyday of the Dead
The British Museum: Jean Morin, Memento Mori (The Skull), an Etching after Philippe de Champaigne
BBC News: Bequeathed Skull Stars in Hamlet
Damien Hirst: Artworks: For the Love of God, 2007