If the elegant fashion icon Audrey Hepburn were still alive today, would she don a scarf patterned with skulls around her neck?
Over the past few centuries, the meaning of the skull has changed. Depending on the culture and context, skulls symbolize either a vessel of the soul, an object of wisdom and guidance, or morbidity like death and decay. Gliding back into the age of the Celtics, they believed that the skull represented the seat of power or the house of the soul. Used as offerings into sacred wells, the symbolism also included time, power, divinity, gateway, creation, initiation, and concentration. Stacks of skulls seen in the Mesoamerican architecture and in the catacombs of Rome and Paris are the results of human sacrifices.
Throughout Christian artworks, especially during the Renaissance, skulls were a frequent occurrence and were often paired with a book as a symbol of studiousness. Shakespeare is well known for his writings during the Elizabethan age, which often included skulls as a symbol for melancholy (“to be or not to be, that is the question”).
“Totenkopf,” the German word for the skull and crossbones, was created as a symbol for the Prussian military during the early 19th century. During that same time period, the emblem spread to the Caribbean where pirates used it as an international symbol for death or danger. When the emblem waved high above the Jolly Roger, death’s head personified the sea dogs as ruthless and threatening. They began placing it upon bottles to represent poison (and this is still used today).
Decorated on altars, gravestones, and shop windows, skulls illustrate the belief in an active afterlife in the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead. Fans of the American rock band The Grateful Dead were rightfully called “deadheads,” who often had the persona of consuming psychotropic substances and emboding the iconic emblem of the psychedelic skull. Walking around an ancient graveyard in New England, it is not hard to spot a skull sunken deep into the head of a worn-down tomb. This sign of mortality is usually supported by a pair of wings representing the flight of the soul at the moment of death.
Unlike its historical past, today the skull has become a widely popular icon on clothing and design. It is seen more as a “trend” than it is a somber, evil visual. Whether the emblem is displayed upon people who are more “punk” or “hardcore,” or stamped on the shirt of an upper class New Yorker, the skull has different meanings depending on the context. Despite its past melancholic symbolism, it has been accepted and progressed into a new craze of looking cool with a hint of punk.