Over the years, the human skull has somehow represented almost everything – life and death, perilous danger and good luck. We see it worn by Hell’s Angels and Hello Kitty alike. I am far from a casual observer in this strange fashion phenomenon: even as I write I am surrounded by trinkets and textiles, all adorned with that grim and grinning motif.
The skull’s association with the Gothic hardly needs much explanation – a culture that is nourished by an artistic fascination with the dead is sure to find beauty in one of the most consistently used symbols of death – a beauty backed up by centuries of funereal art. However, the fallacy that skull symbolism belongs to fans of the Gothic alone has caught me out before, assuming that skull-wearing acquaintances share a certain morbid outlook with me, only to realise that they are simply following fashions with little thought to the symbolism behind the design.
It is not unusual to see children decked out in cartoonish skull-and-crossbones motifs. And why not? The image is evocative of pirate adventures and Halloween fun – that innate curiosity that children have with all things a little dangerous. In fact, I can recall that one of my own favourite childhood storybooks featured the daily adventures of two jolly skeletons (and a dog skeleton).
Never once did it occur to me that these characters represented the dead – they were simply comically spooky comrades, human enough in form to inspire empathy, yet abnormal enough to evade the limits of the everyday. However, psychological study shows that there is perhaps a deeper link between the appearance of the skull and the ‘cuteness’ attributed to children.
With its bulbous cranium, large eye sockets and otherwise comparatively small features, the skull is considered ‘neotenous’, eliciting similar neural responses to the features of a child or juvenile animal. While the idea that this symbol of death is subconsciously associated with the features of a newborn seems disturbing, I suppose it accounts for how the image of the skull can be divorced from its deeper symbolism and seen purely as an aesthetically pleasing shape.
Even when we do look at the skull purely in terms of a symbol of death, historical interpretations of this imply that even that thought is not so doom-and-gloom as it may seem, but an invitation to celebrate life through awareness of its eventual end.
The ‘vanitas’ is a particularly striking style of 16th and 17th Century European art, intended to remind the viewer of the meaninglessness of earthly riches in comparison with the Catholic view of eternal life.
The name of the style is taken from the Bible verse, ‘Vanitas vanitatum omni a vanitas’, meaning roughly ‘Vanity of vanities! All is in vain!’ Alongside equally somber images such as rotting fruits and hourglasses, the skull takes a central place in the majority of vanities paintings, symbolizing the transience of bodily strength and beauty.
This singular concept led in turn to various well-known optical illusion artworks, framing beautiful figures in the shape of a skull.
Chief amongst these is L’Amour de Pierrot, which, by the way, is featured on some of Baba Studio’s corsets and bags. While few of us want to be reminded of the imminent decay of our earthly bodies, combined with the Christian doctrine of eternal life, the paintings were seen as a reminder of the salvation of those who turned aside sinful vanity and pride.
On the face of it, the traditional artwork of Dia de los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead – couldn’t be more different than the vanitas paintings. Instead of rotting fruits, these skulls are bedecked with bright colors and garlands of flowers, one of the most popular images being Catrina – a jolly skeleton wearing a very fetching hat.
In this bizarre and beautiful fusion of Catholic dogma with ancient Aztec observances, the skull represents death in a far more overtly celebratory fashion than typical Western artworks on the same theme.
Like the festival itself, the vivid skull artwork is seen as a joyful memorial of the lives of the departed, and a reminder that death is inevitable, and a life spent worrying about it is a wasted one. Instead, families gather to tell funny stories about the dead at their graves, hoping that the spirits of the departed are laughing along with them.
Traditionally, tattoos of the decorated skulls or small skeleton dolls carried about the person through the rest of the year are believed to be a good reminder of this philosophy, and even a symbol of luck. Perhaps it’s through this ritual that the sugar skull design found prevalence in modern fashions.
If there is one culture that combined the morbidity of the the vanitas images with the unbridled curiosity of the Dia de los Muertos, it would have to be the culture that gave birth to the Gothic itself – Victorian England.
As with most Gothic motifs, the Victorian attachment to the skull in art and particularly in jewelry stems from a fascination with Medieval religious art and architecture, with ‘memento mori’ images appearing on tombstones and in chapels of rest, reminding churchgoers to remember the dead, and in doing so remember that their own days are numbered.
Some such images are delightfully macabre, such as the brass plaque in my own home church depicting a corpse with worms pouring from every orifice. While the initial purpose of such mementos is that of the vanitas, when Queen Victoria began to carry mourning jewelry bearing locks of her deceased husband’s hair, the memento mori became a fashion in itself. Skulls carved out of jet became common, as did timepieces bearing skull images and the legend ‘temps fugit’ – time flies.
Meanwhile, the piratical jolly roger flag had been adopted by several naval fleets following the decline of piracy, intended to fill enemies with the same dread that a genuine pirate ship would, and comparing the toughness and tenacity of the crew to that of legendary outlaws. In fact, British Navy submarine crews continue to use the skull and crossbones in their insignia as a symbol of victory over death.
This trend for skull insignia spread to land and air warfare throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, and the symbol was seen on both allied and axis aircraft in WWI, as well as in Nazi military insignia during WWII, where it represented loyalty beyond death. It is perhaps mostly due to the sheer shock value of this fact that punk bands and organisations such as the Hell’s Angels began to incorporate skull designs into their onstage costumes and uniforms.
Enter the goths. Taking musical cues from punk rock and style cues from Victorian England, it is small wonder that this unlikely subculture brought anarchy and historical macabre back together in the form of the skull. Strangely enough, to my mind the modern Gothic interpretation of the skull is philosophically closest to that of the Mexican Day of the Dead – remembering death to celebrate life – while visually closer to the somber memento mori designs of Victorian culture. To this day, skull-encrusted jewelry, jeans and jumpers are most readily associated with ‘the goth look’. However, strangely enough it was haute couture that brought the motif out from the underground and onto the high street.
Fashion rebel Alexander McQueen is widely credited with fathering the now recurring skull trend, with his iconic scarves and clutch bags bearing the image. The skull scarf has become a timeless classic, with everyone from Johnny Depp to Cameron Diaz pictured wearing the original, and copies flooding high street shops on a regular basis. What motivated McQueen to adopt the skull motif remains uncertain – perhaps it went with a reputation built on tailoring for rock stars such as David Bowie, or perhaps it was simply a capitalisation on the skull’s shock value.
After all, McQueen is renowned for his controversial imagery on the catwalk, from nudity to hints at sadomasochism to inhumanly outlandish makeup designs that certainly lean more than a little toward the Gothic. The one thing certain about the sadly deceased designer is that he loved to make people sit up and take notice, and perhaps employing a touch of the vanitas into the vain world of fashion was a wry statement in itself.
Throughout history just about every culture and subculture has reacted to the human skull in some artistic manner – many entirely at odds, but all centred around the inevitability of death, and our own reactions to that. Whether the skull serves as a reminder to consider sin and redemption or simply the glory of a dangerous rock’n’roll lifestyle, for the gothically inclined amongst us there is no doubt that its many layers of meaning will continue to survive the rise and fall of fashion.