Skulls. They appear in every style of clothing, accessories, and jewelry; they feature prominently in print graphics and modern tattoo art. But what’s really behind the representations of skulls, wings, and skeletal bones that we’ve all come to embrace as an integral part of fashion? Well believe it or not, the wearing of bones and metallic skull jewelry goes back to ancient history, and the symbolism behind these depictions hasn’t changed much in a thousand years.
Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and the Aztecs used the skull as a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth. In these cultures, death was not encumbered with the same stigma as in today’s Western world, and the cycles of nature (including passage into the afterlife and even the underworld) were treated with the same reverence as the respective gods that were believed to control them. Actual bones were also pierced through regions of the skin and strung together to create jewelry, and in this case, the larger the bone, the more skillful and respected the tribesman.
Some original Aztec ceremonies and celebrations involving skulls and skeletal remains eventually translated into the more modern Mexican holiday known as Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead.” The Day of the Dead is celebrated in most regions of Mexico and portions of Latin America as a two day holiday coinciding with the traditional Catholic observances of “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” on November first and second. The symbolism of the skull still enjoys a heavily visible connection to these celebrations, with shaped and painted marzipan candies called ‘sugar skulls” playing a large role.
During the Elizabethan Period in Europe, rings fashioned with a “Death’s Head Skull,” or a skull that is missing the jaw portion, became a symbol of one’s membership in the societal underworld. This same depiction of the human skull is still used today as a part of the insignia for certain motorcycle gangs and gun clubs, and along the same vein, signifies membership in these groups that are considered in many ways to be separate from regular society.
In a more modern sense, visages of the skull have been seen with wings (which symbolizes freedom in the sense of the release of the dead from their physical form into a freer spiritual one), with crossbones (signifying eternity, danger, or poison), with butterflies (symbolizing the changing nature of life), with snakes (a depiction of immortality, or knowledge of the next world), and with crosses (denoting mankind’s beginnings). The newest addition to this menagerie, the skull with a bow resting atop its cranium, has also become clearly symbolic of the recent feminine embrace of these ideas.
Emblems and graphics containing bones and human skulls continue to evolve and recycle through modern art and fashion. Where these images will take us in the fashion future, only time will tell.