As the nights lengthen, and we approach the spookiest of seasons, we investigate the history of fashion’s obsession with the skull, and discover why its appeal endures.
A skull is more than just a design, it’s a statement; one of man's oldest and most powerful symbols that dates back long before catwalks existed; and its symbolism is complicated and meaningful.
Skulls have instant visual appeal – they’re beautiful and defined, their ivory gleaming, contrasting with dark eye sockets and shadowy niches. They’re also familiar; their geometry and structure connect to a specific region of our brain which allows us to recognise the human face. So attuned are we to a skull’s shape that we can recognise faces from only a few dots and lines, from few fragments of a partial cranium.
Skulls are most commonly associated with death and mortality, the skull and crossbones sign is even the universal symbol for toxicity. However, the symbol is also used to celebrate the memory of the dead – you’ll find them everywhere at Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, where they’re decorated with bright colours and piled in altars alongside marigolds and food offerings.
As early as 7200 BC people in the Middle East etched skulls on benches, floors and shelving; however the reasoning behind this is unclear, as it predated any writing system. In ancient times death wasn’t necessarily negative. The Egyptians and the Aztecs believed life on earth to be something of an illusion and death a positive step forward into a higher level of consciousness. Skulls were symbols of death but also rebirth, representing the afterlife and spirituality - the promise of our soul’s immortality.
In the 15th century bones and skulls symbolised power, kept by tribesmen as trophies of their conquests; it’s thought the size of bone indicated a level of skill and respect. The bones of loved ones were crafted into jewellery, worn through body piercings, as rings, or strung together as accessories. These objects of adornment were termed “Memento Mori” (Latin translation "remember that you have to die"); reminding that life is transitory and that we will all meet the same end. In Victorian times, after the death of her husband Albert, Queen Victoria popularised among smart society wearing jewellery to commemorate a loved one.
Skulls also have a more rock and roll side, symbolising toughness, bravery and indifference to death. Rakes and prostitutes of Elizabethan England would wear death’s head skull rings to signal their preferences to each other. Bony heads were, of course emblazoned on Jolly Roger flags flown by pirates, and medieval knights used them to signal the membership of their legion. Modern knights of the road, bikers, often use the sign as their insignia, as a symbol of nonconformity and defiance; and the ultimate rock and roller, Keith Richards understands the power of a good skull; he has been known to wear a cranium-shaped ring on each finger.
Artists have co-opted the rebellious nature of the symbol; Andy Warhol’s ‘Skulls’ (a series of ten pictures of human skulls in distinct colours) and Damien Hirst’s "For the Love of God," (a diamond-encrusted platinum skull which cost $23.6million to make) are both iconic pieces, while designer Alexander McQueen used a skull-print as his calling card, the image adorning scarves, bags and rings.
When you look at a skull, all you know is that it belonged to a person. In death, we are reminded that we are all truly the same. An ironic twist perhaps then, that fashion; an industry based around individuality and expression has embraced the symbol so wholeheartedly.