It is not often that the worlds of science and fashion collide, and yet interest in the human skull appears to be just that universal. To be sure, there is a certain democracy about a skull. Death and taxes, as they say.
In a way, our skulls define us as human. The size of our brains, and therefore our skulls, separates us from other species. The skull protects the brain, and when the brain stops functioning, life (as we largely define it) ceases. We are eternally fascinated with the skeletal remains of our evolutionary antecedents, from which we may piece together a time-lapse image of our increasing capabilities and consciousness from the shape of their skulls. In a recent Harvard Magazine interview, professor Daniel Lieberman, chair of Harvard’s human evolutionary biology department marveled: “How is it that something so complicated and so vital can also be so evolvable?” Lieberman has just published a tome on the subject, 15 years in the making, called The Evolution of the Human Head, which seeks to examine, essentially, why the head looks the way it does.
The skull is clearly a potent symbol.
Because of its association with death, the image of a skull has come to be associated with danger, the universal symbol for 'lookout' - poison, pirate, death, don't touch, taboo. Interestingly – perhaps because of its democracy? – it has also come to be associated with the lowbrow, the proletariat, the criminal even. At home on a pirate flag or a bottle of poison. Celebrated for its indigenous origins by Mexican populists in the face of disapproval by the tonier Catholic classes. Tatooed on sailors and fry cooks, men a nice girl couldn’t bring home for supper. A badge of the disenfranchised, the survivors, the scrappers. Could it be that this symbol was adopted as an anthem by those who uniquely understood and respected the delicate gift that is life?
In Mexico, skulls have long been a celebrated of-the-people motif. The Aztec goddess of earth and death, Coatlicue, wears a skull pendant. The Aztecs viewed the skull as a promise to resurrection, and skulls were molded on pots, traced on scrolls, woven into garments, and carved in lava and jade.
When the Spanish invaded in the sixteenth century, the Catholic priests wanted to discontinue such indigenous ‘pagan’ traditions. So when Mexico won its independence, Skull Art emerged as a powerful symbol of Mexicanidad and of the everyman. It is especially prevalent in Day of the Dead celebrations, which fête the lives of the deceased and imply hope for their rebirth.
Good design, of course, is often inspired by the juxtaposition of high and low, fine and rough, sophisticated and simple. Placing a skull, then, on elegant, pricey textiles or carving one painstakingly from a precious, shiny metal, achieves just such an effect. Enter Alexander McQueen, whose craveable scarves and fabulous jewelry are legendary. Never mind that the Hell’s Angels are suing.
Christian Audigier has created a highly successful fashion brand around tattoo artist Ed Hardy's skull-laden designs, often accompanied by the cheerful little epithets like 'love kills slowly.' Of course, a little thumbing the nose at the establishment has always been eminently appropriate in times of economic or political uncertainty.
Humanity. Danger. Democracy. Mischief. Mortality. Hope. The skull works hard.
And then there is the story of the Polish pianist, André Tchaikowsky, who donated his own skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used in the graveyard scene for their production of Hamlet. According to Tchaikowsky’s website, “André had his time on stage and was returned to a box in the RSC prop room.” So the skull – on top of it all - is in fact a proxy, for the actual person. André – not the skull – had his – not its – time on stage.
And that particular skull in the production of Hamlet is such a poignant symbol precisely because a key theme of the play is the universality of mortality. It’s ashes to ashes, even for Caesar. Alas, poor Yorick.
Death comes for us all.