You don't have to be particularly observant to notice that the image of a human skull has been a huge trend in the 21st century. T-shirts, pants, jackets, ties, socks, underwear, headpieces, and even evening gowns adorned with death’s heads are all the rage these days. And when it comes to jewelry, skulls are all over the place. Just go outside and every other passer-by is going to flaunt a skulls pendant, necklace, earrings, leather belt, or watch. Fashionistas seem to be into skulls even despite the fact that they represent death. So why do we love skulls and where did this quirky trend come from? This is what we are going to talk about in this post.
Skulls Steeped in History
In ancient times, the skull was an emblem of mortality. There is nothing surprising about this meaning. After all, death is the first thought that pops in our heads when we look at skulls. What is remarkable is that ancient people masterfully combine the significance of death with immortality and representation of the human soul (more specifically, a receptacle for the soul). When a single item had so many interpretations, it came as no surprise that skulls were endowed with a special ritual significance. For example, the art of the Aztec culture revolved around a single idea - to propitiate the gods. Therefore, Aztecs adorned ritual statues and themselves, too, with gold skull necklaces and silver hearts. Together, they symbolized the rite of sacrifice.
Celts revered craniums as the vessels of sacred power. This power was supposed to protect a person from adversity as well as bestow health and wealth. According to ancient Mexicans, a skull is subject to the depths of the earth and their powers. To this day, the country celebrates the Day of the Death to honor the memory of the deceased and pay respect to those living in the other world. For a regular Mexican, death is not the end; it is the beginning of a new adventure. Therefore, the Day of the Dead is not mourning for the departed ones. Rather, it is a lavish celebration that brings together young and old, alive and dead. People enjoy themselves eating sugar skull candy and cookies and drinking from skull cups. Sugar skulls (sweets shaped like skulls) even spawned a nice fashion trend. Covered with vibrant enamel and adorned with exquisite floral patterns, they inspired jewelry, garments, masks, and even make-up designs.
Skull influence is seen literally everywhere in the ancient world. In Peru, people worshipped elongated skulls. They denoted aristocratic, and even divine, origin. Therefore, since early childhood, Peruvians had to go through the painful ritual of the artificial cranial deformation. In ancient China, immortal sages had huge heads – they had so much Yang energy in their brain that their skulls had to grow to contain all of it. In neighboring India, people did not deprive skulls of attention either. For Hindu hermits, craniums were a symbol of renunciation to save the immortal soul. Skulls also represented the mighty Tibetan deities, and in the Christian world, they were associated with apostles and saints such as Apostle Paul, St. Magdalene, St. Francis of Assisi, and many others.
As our world got older, skulls obtained more meanings and renditions. Shamans, witches, and sorcerers used skulls in witchcraft rituals. Alchemists tried to find wisdom in craniums. Masons kept the skull of the Grand Master of Knights Templar, Jacob de Molay, who was burned at the stake in 1314, as a magical relic.
As you can see, skulls have been an integral part of human existence since time immemorial, although ancient people used real human and animal skulls rather as worship and rituals objects. However, when the Renaissance came on the scene, skulls started their successful fashion expansion.
Military Skull Fashion
The first to explore skull appeal in the fashion sense were military people. In primitive societies, warriors believed that they could get the skill and strength of the enemies by taking possession of their skulls. They made necklaces out of these skulls, used them instead of cups or as embellishment for their battledresses. Not only did skulls give strength to warriors but also they were supposed to intimidate inimical tribes as if saying - this is the fate awaiting you if you do not retreat.
Skulls and bones symbolized the victory over death in the army of ancient Rome. Triumphal processions followed major victories displayed solders in full glory, with their armors and weapons adorned with skulls. But even at the moment of triumph, they never forgot about death. The military leader spearheading the procession had a slave behind him whispering ‘Memento mori’, a reminder that nobody can avoid death.
Gradually, skulls took over military fashion, and by the 18th century, their images could be seen on the military insignia of virtually every European army. Historians associate this phenomenon with the spread of the romanticism style in literature, painting, and architecture. Succumbing to its influences, officers put on skull badges on their formal dress uniforms.
The first regular army to officially adopt skulls was Totenkopfhusaren (dead-headed hussars) of Prussia. They complemented their shakos with silver skulls and crossbones. The meaning behind this symbol is the unity of war and death on the battlefield.
After that, the death’s head occurred in the Finnish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Austrian, Italian, and Polish troops. The solders of the Russian army during the foreign campaign against Napoleon were covered with skulls from head to toe as if imitating their Prussian comrades. The death’s head is still one of the insignia elements in the Queen's Royal Lancers (QRL), the cavalry regiment of the British Army.
Skulls as Jewelry
The first skull jewelry dates back to the 15th - 16th centuries. The Metropolitan Museum in New York exhibits Catholic rosary made 400+ years ago. The ivory beads display heads on one side and skulls with skeletons on the other. In the 17th century, skull pendants and rings made of gold and encrusted with gemstones and black enamel were in vogue all over Western Europe. Such jewelry was beautiful in itself but its meanings were even more remarkable. For example, widows often wore mourning rings that carried the names of their deceased husbands and various sorrowful inscriptions either in Latin or in the local language. Queen Victoria initiated this trend after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Other aristocrats and wealthy individuals followed suit.
Not only in sickness. Skulls adorned rings in health, too. They became a popular motif for wedding bands, and Martin Luther's wedding ring is a great example of this original trend. However, more often than not, the images of death are a favorite technique in Memento Mori jewelry. Its goal was to remind the wearers that at the end of their journey, they will meet death. Therefore, they must live their lives with dignity.
Skulls in Subcultures
After a surge in popularity high on the heels of neo-Gothic in the 19th century, the interest in skulls shortly faded away. However, the period of oblivion did not last long. After the end of the Second World War, a panoply of cultural outcasts adopted clothing of army origin and symbols of war to express their beliefs (remember that the skull is one of the symbols in military uniforms). The pioneers among all these subcultures were bikers. Millions of soldiers returned home from the front line but they found little joy. They hated the American establishment and the romanticization of militarism. They simply couldn’t find their way in this new unfamiliar society. Ironically, the American army lent a helping hand by selling surplus military equipment including motorcycles. Finding solace in riding, motorcyclists enthusiastically set about opening biker clubs and propagating their views. As a protest, they donned military uniforms as well as the trophies they took from the battlefields. Their ideas resonated with hippies, opponents of the Vietnam War, and others like them. All these people chose skulls as a symbol of their worldviews.
Since the 1960s, skulls have affected various musical subcultures and outcast groups. For them, symbols of death have become a means to display despair, rage, and disappointment in the values of the modern world. You can see skulls in the wardrobe of every rocker, punk, metalheads, and grunge aficionado. We have to mention Keith Richards ring, which is as iconic as the Rolling Stones' guitarist himself. His example showed other musicians that skulls are not only welcome, they are a must-have for every self-respecting rock star.
Along with that, skulls caught the eye of outlaw and paramilitary groups such as Neo-Nazis, racists, skinheads, drug trafficking gangs, human traffickers, and modern pirates. For all these people, images of skulls became a death challenge. And at the same time, they are the visual protest and denial of the generally accepted culture.
Skull Fashion in the 21 Century
Today, a skull became more than a symbol of outcasts and rebels. Yes, it is still popular in the biker, rocker, gothic, and emo communities. Along with that, skulls discover new hitherto unknown cultural territories and conquer them. Designers embrace the mesmerizing power of skulls and boldly incorporate them into their collections. You have probably seen millions of variations of skull charm bracelets, sugar skull pendants, and shoes featuring skull buckles. Skulls show their beauty off sitting on unique works of fashion art, too. Let’s count just a few of them:
- belts featuring a skull keychain and a collection of skull scarves from Alexander MacQueen;
- Dior’s skull rings and pendants adorned with diamond crowns;
- perfume skull bottles by Police (‘To be the Queen’ and ‘To be the Woman’);
- gold diamond-encrusted skull cufflinks from the Fine English Company and black gold & diamond skull cufflinks from De Grisogono;
- gold jewelry featuring an emerald, ruby or diamond snake creeping out of the skull’s eye sockets from Theo Fennell;
- the Hangman Skull Ring by Stephen Webster;
- skull watches from the rebellious Swiss watch company Corum;
- $100 million-worth platinum skull encrusted with 8601 diamonds by Damien Hirst.
The list can go on and on. The point is that fashion designers are not scared of experimenting with death symbolism and their fans are not afraid of wearing their creations. We saw a peak in the interest in skulls around 2012 when media stirred the craze around the end of the world. But even after the ill-fated 12.12.12 our love for quirky symbolism has not faded. It is constantly fueled by the exaggerated mystery surrounding crystal skulls. The Pirates of the Caribbean made their contribution, too, because a pirate is unimaginable without Jolly Roger, black spot, and all that stuff.
Whether or not to wear skull outfits and jewelry is totally up to you. After all, tastes vary. However, one thing is for sure – if you choose such a symbol, you won’t stay unnoticed.
Skulls by Bikerringshop
If you’re looking for a skull to make your look complete, Bikerringshop is where you need to be. We offer a panoply of jewelry with bold symbolism for bikers, rockers, punks, Goths, and everyone who likes dark aesthetics. You enjoy something more artistic and life-affirming. Then how about our sugar skull rings and pendants embellished with swirly patterns and vibrant gemstones? These unique pieces are a worthy complement to feminine and exquisite outfits.
We’ll help you put together a full skull look if that’s what you aim for. Massive skull rings, expertly-made necklaces, elegant pendants, heavy-weight wallet chains, impressive bracelets, eye-catching earrings, and stunning leather wallets – this is just a brief list of what you can find in our collections. Our goal is to provide you with jewelry that is big, loud, and bold. At the same time, our jewelry is not disposable. Durably made of silver and leather, it will serve you for decades. Luckily, skull fashion won’t go anywhere anytime soon – you can be sure that your ring or pendant by Bikerringshop will stand the test of time.