The History, Symbolism and Significance of the Skull in Fashion


To stay relevant over a span of decades in a field as dynamic as fashion, where trends change in the blink of an eye is no mean feat. And if one were to analyze the most consistent image in fashion that has remained unchanged over the years, it would have to be the skull.

Take a look around you. From biker gangs to rock stars to fashion-rebels who prefer to take the gothic look to the boardroom and even celebrities, everyone is sporting the skull in clothing, jewelry, body art and graphics like it’s the most recent voguish trend to hit town.

What gives?

Why this deep fascination with something that has been for long associated with death, mortality, voodoo and afterlife?

The history of the skull in fashion

It remains unclear when the human skull made its way from the dark coffers of Halloween décor to mainstream fashion. But it is believed that the biker gang subculture first bought skulls into the public glare.

They just loved the skull and couldn’t have enough of it. They sported it on rings, t-shirts, jackets, headgear and most importantly, even on their bikes.

Recall the insanely cool choppers of yore with skull shaped handles?

It was the perfect expression of the uniqueness that the subculture yearned for. And boy, did it alienate them from the conventional.

But call it the fascination for the sinister, the skull soon started to make an appearance on the ramp. Hollywood took notice too and from there; it has become ubiquitous in fashion. Today, it’s everywhere.

The Skull and symbolism

A lot of people steer away from wearing the skull because of its morbidity and its extensive use in the dark ages.

But that’s not the only thing that the skull symbolizes even though it always manages to get highlighted.

Art and culture:It was in the 16th and 17th century that the skull first started to be used with the deathly grin. The statement that often accompanied it was ‘Memento Mori’ which in Latin means, ‘Never forget that you must die’. In what was undoubtedly a gruesome ritual, the skull of an enemy was used as a drinking cup in ancient England. The skull was also used as a symbol for death by literary giants like Shakespeare.

One of the most unforgettable scenes from Hamlet features the titular character holding a skull. In more recent times, one of the most enduring images from the Hollywood movie ‘The Terminator’ shows a pile of human skulls in a dystopian world taken over by machines. Once again, the skull symbolizes death. The use of the Skull on the Nazi Secret Service insignia though symbolized undying loyalty to the führer until death. The more recent resurgence of the skull in fashion circles has often been associated with the popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Danger:Due to the grim origins and the obvious morbidity associated with the skull, it made its way into symbols and signs that signified danger. The skull with crossbones for example, became a popular symbol for poison. The same symbol was also used by pirates on their flags to warn others of the potential danger that could befall them if they decided to lock horns with them.

Afterlife, luck & reverse bad luck:In many cultures, the skull was paired with wings to symbolize life after death. A serpent making its way through the eye socket was used to depict the knowledge one gathers in the afterlife. Many cultures like the Aztecs, for example, used the skull to depict good luck. When it comes to gamblers, the skull with a roll of the dice featuring black cats and sevens symbolizes reverse bad luck, which means that they are just going to hit a winning streak putting an end to their bad streak.

Heavy Metal:After popular subculture and art, the next most popular reference of the skull is associated with heavy metal music. Heavy Metal as a genre has always placed a special emphasis on visual imagery and mascots hold a special place in the hearts of fans. Some of the most popular mascots have been inspired from the skull. Be it Chaly, the winged skull that was a prominent feature on most of Overkill’s covers, Vic Rattlehead from Megadeath or Eddie from Iron Maiden. Eventually, the use of the Skull spilled over into other genres like Punk Rock and Goth.

The Skull in Haute Couture

The onus of introducing the skull into Haute Couture undoubtedly goes to Alexander McQueen, the British Fashion Designer who with his rebellious sense of style made the skull even more popular than it was. The skull has featured prominently in many of his creations. So much so, that his trademark creation, the Skull-print scarf is still considered to be one of the most popular fashion accessories among the rich and the famous. After McQueen, fashion designer Lucien Pellat-Finet introduced the skull to his uber-luxurious cashmere which quickly rose in popularity. Ed Hardy is a more recent proponent of the skull motif in his creations.

The future of the skull in fashion

With so many references, symbolic uses and a diverse history behind it, the use of the skull in fashion shows no sign of waning anytime soon. There are so many reasons that anyone can sport it. People like it, they can relate to it and its availability has skyrocketed. A decade ago, it’d be hard to find a skull on a bikini. Today, in the year 2021, there are even diapers for babies with a cutesy skull visage!

Like I said earlier, it is no longer a grim or morbid motif. It all boils down to how you portray it.

And even if you do not want to portray yourself as a rebel or an outsider or show your undying love for Johnny Depp, you can wear it because it’s just cool.