Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Skull and Crossbones; the macabre fashion shows no sign of dying

children's hoodie by "725 ORIGINALS"; photo SwF
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Give the blog a bone. As Halloween approaches, we are exposed to images of death and spirits on decorations and in illustrations. In the past, skeletons and skulls were traditional motifs of this holiday, along with owls, pumpkins, ghosts, and witches, but the skull motif seems less evocative of Halloween because we see it throughout the year.

In my book, wearing a skull and crossbones is associated with negative things such as 1) convicts, toothless pirates, and rebel outlaw biker gangs and, by association, organized crime and drugs, 2) nuclear and hazardous chemical waste, 3) a motif on tombstones and memorial monuments from the 15th to 18th century, 4) toxic household products such as drain cleaner or chlorine bleach, 5) Nazi SS regalia and medals. Skeleton chic seems to have arisen simultaneously with the current, insatiable taste for tattoos. Why, when there is so much violence, darkness and crime in the media and in entertainment such as video games and music, is it necessary to add a negative aspect to one’s daily presentation of self?

detail of a label of Recordsol Paint Thinner Poison showing skull and crossbones symbol, early 1990s; photo SwF

Earlier this year, I viewed television news coverage of people protesting against a Whitby, Ontario waste incineration facility. One person carried a large sign with the skull and crossbones symbol on it. In western culture, one becomes aware of this symbol from a very early age. Children see it associated with villains and evil as is seen in many Disney films and it has become shorthand for death or danger. The message that the skull on the protesters sign conveys is, “Incineration equals death," or, "Beware of toxic effects on our health.”

In a recent Canadian criminal trial, a father was convicted of murdering his young daughter. Entering the courtroom, he wore a grey sweat shirt with a very large skull motif on the chest. Amazing that none of the journalists covering the case commented on the irony of it. Certainly his solicitor wasn't dispensing any sartorial suggestions. Is it that the "numb skull" is now so ubiquitous we barely notice it, let alone make the association with toxic materials, death, or criminals?

The motif was first appropriated by Goths and then high stylers like Alexander McQueen. Subsequently it filtered into mainstream fashion, and went from being predominantly on male clothing and moving to young women's wear. It is now available from street market vendors as the least expensive, mass produced, Asian manufactured clothing. The last group to take up the bone head was the young; it now emblazons the clothes of toddlers to teens. Symbols of death, decadence and toxic dangers being worn by children is a disturbing trend. I don’t understand what is appealing about youth, our hope for tomorrow, wearing the skull and cross bone motif. Surely our future isn't that bleak.

In the 1960s and 1970s, young people wore daisies, yellow happy faces, and peace signs. Nowadays many of them wear tattoos, piercings, and skulls. What does this say about our culture? What does it say about parents who allow impressionable children to wear these subversive motifs? I suppose that in the development of the adolescent mind, I can understand the proclamation of independent thinking and a wish to assert identity, and independence; thus we see the edgy, rebellious trend of youth wearing skulls, smoking, and listening to antisocial music with profanities. But after half a decade, I cannot see that it still has the desired anti-establishment effect.

For the past few years, the skull and cross bone motif has been seen in various forms in fashion. When I was in Paris two years ago, I visited the Dior Joaillarie Boutiques on Place Vendôme and on Avenue Montaigne. I was surprised, actually I was disappointed, to see that talented Dior (formerly Chanel) jewellery designer Victoire de Castellane has included pieces with jeweled skulls in the Dior precious jewelry collection. Considering that Dior is associated with refinement, quality, and taste, and is the paragon of Paris couture, I was perplexed by this inclusion. If it was intended to shock and surprise, I don't think that any fashion feathers were ruffled, although for me it would certainly detract from the grace and prestige of Dior.

Tête de mort” pendants/charms(☠), Dior Joaillerie design, 2004, by Victoire de Castellane detail from a child's hoodie by "725 ORIGINALS", photo SwF

As the motif becomes more and more familiar, and loses shock value, I wonder if it will take on a different, less sinister aspect, somewhat like the skull and skeletons one sees everywhere in the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebrations


  1. yes, I think the pre-conception of the motif has now lost some of its meaning and has become a mainstream symbol to be exploited to see how much money acn be made out of it.

    I must admidt that in my childhood we had a rather naive few of the motif, as it invariable represented pirates and buried treasure. The actual images used in the childrens books etc were very graphic and almost cartoon like which somehow sanitised the meaning.

    Now as you say images are more grotesque and now mean a lot of different things to different people.

  2. I think a lot of this started with Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Chronicles. Your story about Dior is interesting - how is it that high fashion aspires to be low-brow?