Spooktacular Skulls: The Trend of Skulls in Fashion and Design
“Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio…”- Shakespeare
I was recently approached by a reporter to discuss the trend of skulls and crossed bones in interior décor. After a lengthy phone conversation, discussing this ghoulish trend, I thought to myself, “What better time than the approaching Halloween season to indulge in some macabre treats? “
The skull has long been a motif found in popular culture. In Elizabethan England the death’s-head skull was emblematic of bawds and rakes who often wore silver rings in the shape of a skull missing its lower jaw to advertise their “interests.” In German courts during the 16th century, rather than swearing on a bible, the accused swore on a human skull to symbolize the gravity of their alleged crime. Dutch artists in the first part of the 17th century began painting vanitas in reaction to what some perceived as the frivolous and merely decorative nature of still life paintings. In North America, skulls are a predominant motif in Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos celebration.
This antique silver watch, c. 1880, sold at auction in London for $5,000 in 2010. Its image of Chronos with his sickle perfectly symbolizes how tempus fugit.
“Death is the universal salt of states; Blood is the base of all things--law and war.”
- Phillip James Bailey
image from M.S. Rau Antiques
An Oath Skull of the Vehmgerichte, or criminal tribunal, was used in a similar fashion as bibles today. These courts handled capital crimes, with the only possible verdicts being either acquittal or death.
“Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity” -Ecclesiastes 12:8
Vanitas - Jan Davidszoon de Heem
The term vanitas comes from the Latin word meaning emptiness. The primary theme communicated in these still-lifes is the concept that all worldly delights are transient and empty when compared to the everlasting nature of faith. Common subject matter always includes reference to mortality and impermanence, sometimes literal and sometimes figurative. Human skulls and bones are often seen and are a direct reference to man’s temporary existence on Earth. Candles and flames represent the intangible essence of nature while decaying flowers often refer to the life cycle of birth, death and decay. Sometimes a timepiece such as an hourglass will be included alluding to the passing of time. Often, one will see items such as jewelry, crowns and other riches – again, a reference to the emptiness of materialism and vanity.
The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity. ~Seneca
In Mexico, the celebrations surrounding Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, appear much less somber through their use of bright colors and wildly stylized skulls.
A beautiful selection of sugar skulls.
The larger skulls might be placed on altars while the small ones can be treats for the children.
Even our Hayslip Design Associates mascot, Oscar, is in on the skull trend. Here he is sporting his festive, leather Dia de los Muertos harness… perfect for those brisk fall walks.
“What a deformed thief this fashion is…” - Shakespeare
For the last couple of years skulls have been all the rage in fashion. No longer is the motif the bastion of bikers and heavy metal bands. Its rock and roll appeal has filtered into both ready to wear and couture.
Alexander McQueen, dubbed “l’enfant terrible” his reputation for controversy and shock tactics, was a British fashion designer known for his avante-guard haute couture and his lavish, unconventional fashion shows.
some of McQueen’s haut couture
After his death in 2010, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosted a posthumous exhibition of McQueen's work titled Savage Beauty. Despite being open for only three months, it was one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum's history.
The cover of the book Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen, produced by the Fashion Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
McQueen adopted the skull as his icon and used it on all his pieces. It adorned handbags, shoes, even zippers. His signature jewelry collections were replete with skulls. I love his work. To me it is fascinating to see McQueen’s psyche made manifest in his creations. There was such darkness in his troubled young life; yet so much creative genius. Rather than simply being shocking or morbid, the collection of his creations featured in the exhibit conveyed deep thought and knowledge of philosophy, politics, and the complexity that is the human concept of beauty (the study of which absolutely fascinates me).
some of McQueen’s prête-à-porter
“Pale Death, with impartial tread, beats at the poor man's cottage door and at the palaces of kings.” - Horace
As is often the case, fashion trends spill over into interior design trends. This has certainly been the case with the skull motif. Its rocker chic has been adopted in both the low and high style elements of interior design.
Kara Mann Designs
Vladi Rapaport chair prototype
skull upholstery – unknown
Barbara Hulanicki wallpaper
Even Herend Porcelain, manufactory of porcelain place settings and accessories since 1826, has gotten on board with the skull trend.
Just the other day flipping through an auction house catalog, I stumbled on several wonderfully spooky examples.
The large skull is wooden with a brown painted finish, c.19th century. The small skull is also from the 19th century and is Japanese ebony with ivory teeth. The pièce de résistance has got to be the little wax skeleton laid to rest in his tiny coffin. So wonderfully “goth.”
And who doesn’t need a giant crystal skull and crossbones chandelier in their dining room?
Mortality, like art, means drawing a line someplace. – Oscar Wilde
Damian Hirst is another Brit who has translated the skull into art. Death is a central theme in his works. He gained fame through a series of controversial pieces that showcased animals, sometimes dissected, preserved in formaldehyde.
In June 2007, Beyond Belief, an exhibition of Hirst's work, opened at the White Cube gallery in London. The centre-piece, a Memento Mori titled For the Love of God, was a human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds weighing a total of 1,106.18 carats. Approximately £15,000,000 worth of diamonds was used. It was modeled on an 18th century skull, but the only surviving human part of the original is the teeth.
“Witch and ghost make merry on this last of dear October’s days.” ~Author Unknown