The symbol of the skull is frequently used throughout the fashion industry and is perhaps the longest standing fashion icon in existence. The skull is worn in multiple ways and is a common feature in tattoos, piercings, face paint, clothing, jewellery and accessories.
When you consider the symbolism of the skull and what it represents it does pose a query as to why it is so popular amongst designers and fashionistas. But then again, the skull doesn’t just represent one thing; it carries different meanings for all cultures, eras and beliefs.
Regardless of its numerous associations, the geometry and structure of the skull connect to a specific region of our brains, helping us to recognise the human face. We are quite literally programmed to identify the human face and this region of our brains prevents us from detaching the image of the skull with familiar faces. The familiarity of the structure of the skull intrigues, whilst the eerie connotations of death and the afterlife repel us.
What Does it Mean?
The fashion industry has glorified the symbol of the skull for years but the skull itself stems back to the beginning of the human race and the first of our species. Some tribes would keep skulls as trophies of their conquests and kills where as others would craft bones into jewellery and piercings to carry their loved ones with them once they had passed on from this life. People used to wear real bones – the larger the bone the more skillful and highly respected the tribesman was. They would pierce their skin and wear bones through holes in their skin, or alternatively, they would string bones together to wear as accessories.
Skulls are most commonly associated with death and mortality, which is why they frequently feature in horror films. We all have an underlying fear of death and the unknown, and as skulls are a reminder of this it may explain why some of us may find them mildly offensive.
We are all familiar with the Jolly Roger flag, used by pirates to strike fear into the hearts of others. Whereas the Jolly Roger flag is merely an image of imminent threat, others have used real skulls and bones to alert others to their presence and intent. With a similar purpose to the Jolly Roger flag, some tribes used to mark the outskirts of their territory with skulls and bones to ward off trespassers.
Not all associated meanings of the skull carry negative connotations, in some ancient societies the skull is believed to represent the afterlife and the promise of our soul’s immortality. Crystal skulls are supposed to represent life rather than death, by preserving the human face in an eternally precious form.
To many the skull symbolises the afterlife and spirituality, reminding us that although our bodies remain our spirits move on. Typically a skull with wings symbolises the freedom associated with death and the adventure that awaits in the afterlife.
The skull is also often associated with religion and Christianity in particular. Penitent saints are often pictured with a skull and crucifix, supposedly to remind sinners of the afterlife and the choices they have made.
Mexico celebrates Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” every year on the 1-2 November. The symbol of the skull plays a prominent role in this holiday as it is used to remember and pray for the lives of those who have passed away and help their spirits move on peacefully. The skull is used to represent the deceased and is decorated with bright colours, flowers and all of the deceased’s favourite foods and beverages. Sugar skulls are traditionally crafted and offered up on private altars called ofrendas.
Skulls have been used as good luck charms in various cultures in the past as they are believed to ward off illness and guard against evil spirits.
During the Elizabethan era skull rings were fashioned so the jaw would disappear under the finger, giving the illusion of the finger piercing the mouth. Skull rings have been popular in fashion ever since, with many cultures and ages embracing its enchanting design and style.
So why is the skull so popular in fashion? Most likely because of its universal appeal and versatile meaning. It's never going to go out of fashion because it was an iconic symbol before fashion ever existed. For some of us we simply choose to wear skull jewellery because we find it visually appealing (this links back to the region in brain that finds familiarity and with the skull), whereas others will choose to wear skull jewellery because it carries meaning for them.