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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
Just another trendy loser
This article has been sitting dormant on my hard drive for over a year, mostly because I always think that it's out of date, no longer relevant. Experience, however, suggests the opposite. I wanted to say something about the frustratingly popular trend of "skull" fashion, and as it turns out, the trend doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So here's the old article (revised, of course), which has apparently stood the test of time; a surprising thing considering the usual turn-over rate of fashion trends.

The walking dead seem to be among us, and in more ways than one.

I can hardly go a day without seeing upwards five skulls on somebody’s shirt, shoes, scarf, purse, hat, pet or baby. Skulls with batwings, a skull with caribou antlers, X-Files-esque alien skulls, a skull with “What!” written above it, rhinestone skulls on baseball caps; skeleton outlined jackets with skulls, rear and side views, on the hood. I’ve even seen - in the most absurd and perplexing case of all - the slogan “Vive le FLQ” written in dripping blood letters above a skull. What the 1960s militant Quebec separation group, "Front de libération du Québec", has to do with anything, I'm not sure (I suppose the easy answer is, "They killed people.").

Those are just a few examples. I've seen more than I can remember. Anything - and I mean anything - can be combined with a skull and put on a shirt. And any skull-combo you can think of has probably run through the mind of one of the decidedly unoriginal, low-level designers pumping out this trendy garbage. Casual morbidity not only goes with black, it is the new black. It certainly seems to be the “in” thing at the moment. Scratch that: "in" for a good many moments. The trend apparently has staying power. So what's with all this stylish skullduggery?

Even if you don’t count the skull imagery that’s always gone with biker, punk rock and skateboarder fashion, skull-related symbology is strikingly common. Where did the skulls as fashion trend come from? And why is it so popular now?

I mean, does anybody actually think to themselves why they even buy such clothing in the first place? When you buy that cool shirt, do you think, “Hey, I like skulls. I’ll get this shirt.” Do people ever think to themselves "Skulls are a symbol not only of death but of change, transformation and growth. I think I'll wear this"?

Or is this all just a recent trend that everybody is conforming to because, consciously or not, we think that, “Well, everybody else is wearing it.”? According to a post by nicole6980 on the fashion website,, “Skulls on clothes rox. They dont really mean anything but they look badass. Me and my friends rock them almost everyday.” I take this to be representative of most people's thoughts on the subject.

In my other admittedly sparse internet research on the skeletal trend I found reporting as far back as 2006 that, “Taking their cue from bottles of arsenic, fashion designers around the world are going gaga for Mr. Skull and Crossbones, adorning everything from jeans to jewelry with his bony image.” They credit celebs like Lindsay Lohan for popularizing the trend, which seems to be going nowhere, much to my annoyance., also years ago, wrote that, “Being bad to the bone may prove good for the bottom line. Hoping to capitalize on the "skull chic" trend — as well as Friday's release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest — marketers are plastering skulls, with or without crossbones, on everything from T-shirts and belts to dinner plates and jewelry.”

The article included a section titled “How marketers are trying to get ahead with skulls” detailing how the skull trend is “exploding” in clothing, accessories and home decor. But they warn it should be meant ironically, lest you come off as some sort of tough guy. The “ironic” part is usually expressed through combining skulls with cutesy things like the Hello Kitty brand, or with little hearts. In Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” video, for instance, the background features huge, brightly coloured, plaid skulls with heart-shaped eye sockets (irony is no stranger to today's youngest generations, so much so that sarcarm trumps seriousness almost everywhere you go).

For some reason parents are even decorating their kids in these symbols of death. The baby clothing shop near my apartment sells (or did sell) a black baby t-shirt with a baby skull on it. Why you’d want to be reminded of death when you look at your newborn I’m not sure.

Even more strange, perhaps, on Denman street - a high class, area in Vancouver's famously gay neighbourhood near Davie street - I walked by a doggie fashion store and noticed, you guessed it, a doggie t-shirt with a little doggie skull on it.

You can find skulls on people’s clothing in movies and TV, too. Quentin Tarantino’s gore-fest Deathproof features on its poster a skull on a car, plus in the movie a character or two with skull shirts. On the TV show L.A. Ink, about a tattoo parlour, one of the tattoo artists had a shirt with a skull, and above it the words “Guns and Knives”. And this just scratches the surface of skull-fashion's TV and film exposure. Again, why this modern, morbid trend?

Could it be that in our age of worldwide violence, war, and famine, we have to somehow sublimate all the nihilistic energy in the air? Is our modern, North American culture so swamped in casual, violent images - provided by a fear-mongering media - that we unconsciouly don the fitting fashion? Perhaps the sheer amount of death and destruction in the world - both real and imagined - reduces the possibility of understanding it in any sensible way, leaving most of us jaded, resigned or indifferent. So the casual, cute, ironic morbidity of the alarmingly common skeletal motif might just be an unconscious expression of our malaise, our powerlessness, our sinking into a bottomless, political, moral abyss, which even (or especially) words cannot get us out of.

The key word there is "unconscious". My generation, the younger siblings of Generation X (which, fittingly, makes us Generation Why?), harbours a strong distrust of mainstream politics and the words attached to it. But words, as far as I can tell, are one of, if not the only sign of a critical or creative - that is, conscious - mind. Static symbols, like skulls, when lacking an interpretation (i.e.: in words), can only be the passive flashcard of an unconscious mind.

The violent imagery doesn't stop with skulls, of course. Also popular is the war motif: guns, tanks, bombs, etc. And like the skulls, they are often combined ironically (how hip!) with more light-hearted images. Take, for example, the t-shirt in which bombs being dropped from an airplane morph into butterflies; or the one (by the same company, I assume) that has a man holding a just-fired gun to his head, with the blood splatter morphing into those cute butterflies again. Perhaps a clever comment on how butterflies themselves morph, perhaps not.

In my more theoretical moments I actually do believe that the skulls and other violent imagery are an unconscious expression of, or response to, our age of ultra-violence. But it could merely be, as another modern trend has it (this one linguistic), that it's all just "random". Plus, with the George Bush era ostensibly over, perhaps Barack Obama's Yes-We-Can-style "hope" will finally diffuse the morbid trend.

Clearly skulls have, for a while now, become a dominant, abstract, no-content symbol on almost everybody’s (including their babies’ and dogs’) clothing. But is it so devoid of content? Maybe there’s something behind the seemingly mindless trend. Perhaps it actually represents a state of mind, a politico-cultural opinion, a worldview - albeit an unarticulated one. I mean, do people actually have an opinion on what they wear? Does it represent some statement about the Bush era? Are people using the skulls on their clothes to “express themselves” or "get across some message"?

Here's a partial answer in anecdotal form:

A while back I visited a fashion store, Riot, which is in my building on Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. I pointed out a hat on the rack that had a skull on it and asked the two girls who were working what they thought about all the trendy skull imagery everywhere. I, being the snobbish, pretentiously intellectual male I am, assumed the girls wouldn’t be interested in my own theory about the modern moral malaise and the inexpressible despair with the state of the world, and so I went with the condescendingly simple Pirates of the Caribbean theory: about how it’s probably just the Disney Company doing sly promotion through its likely vast fashion subsidiaries. The girl behind the counter said, “Yeah, maybe, but I think it has more to do with how there’s so much violence in the media and with the war and stuff like that. You can’t really go around wearing rainbows and happy stuff. It just wouldn’t look right.”

So I was wrong, and very glad about it. Someone besides me had been thinking about all this (she wasn’t actually wearing any skulls, though). And so I come back to my earlier question: do the skulls really represent an unarticulated, geo-political opinion on the state of the world? Well, no. And that’s simply because there’s no such thing as an unarticulated opinion! The most common response I get to my frequent probes into this fashion quirk is a resigned, “It doesn’t mean anything” (nicole6980 would agree).

For what it’s worth, I always have trouble accepting "It doesn't mean anything" as an answer to any question because I can’t help but interpret it as “I don’t want to think about it.” Perhaps all I’ve done here is confirm the idea that fashion is antithetical to individual thought, because fashion is mostly conformity to an arbitrary trend.

What I’ve concluded, perhaps unfairly, is this: Where words fail, or just simply don’t exist (for lack of effort or smarts) you have a trendy, jaded symbol to do the “talking” for you. And guess what? You’ll have plenty of similarly fashionable people to “agree” with: skulls for everyone, all in on the “in” thing. No need for words, no need for thought. I know I shouldn’t judge people by their covers, but they give me little else - words! - to work with. The walking dead are among us, but as far as I can tell, they are the brain-dead.

Confucius said: SIGNS & SYMBOLS RULE THE WORLD NOT WORDS NOR LAWS. The skull and bone imagery is straight up from satanism & witchcraft. By...




Wow. You would so hate living in Mexico.

And, jokes aside, I'm surprised you didn't touch on their skull 'n bone obsession. Except, in Mexico, it's not considered an "obsession" or a "trend" anymore, it's just part of that everlasting-trend we call culture.
And this brings me to my point: If we were to accept the skulls as being part of culture, they'd be representative of our society.

If I can pigeon hole certain characteristic types to the skull-styles you mentioned I'd say:

The skull and political symbol are the news-watching intellectuals (some would say pseudo-intellectual). Attune with our times and making a political statement. They're epistemological and political.
The skull mixed in with skateboards and rock-climbing equipment represent the macho adrenaline loving man. The alpha male. The Epicureans.
The skull mixed with "irony" and cute hearts are those people who would try to look at the bright side of any situation. They are the simpletons, who want to enjoy beauty as much they can. They're the Aestheticians.
A plain "bad-ass" skull would represent those who actually like gore and violence yet have enough conscience to somehow avoid jail. They're the "haters," the pessimists or satanists.
And then those who don't wear the skull, they can be the Skeptics.

To see what the skull represent to each person, maybe you should suppose that it's the year 3000 and skull fashion is still just as popular as it ever was if not more so and has become a regular part of our culture? It may represent different things depending on the individual.

As for me, the last time I wore skulls was when I was a 6 year old skater and my dad yelled at me for wearing Satan's fashion gear. I don't wear it now, mostly because of personal fashion reasons. Otherwise I see it as no different than wearing the symbol of a heart. It's just another part of the body. Yes, there's symbolism behind everything, but if I were to wear it, I'd only wear it because of some cool scientific/techy reason.. like a very biologically accurate skull on a t-shirt to wear to a Biology convention.



Replying to Alamir:
I was going to look into the Mexico thing, on similar advice, but it wasn't central to my point, so I left it out since the article was long enough already. I assume my piece wouldn't apply to Mexico, anyway, but maybe I'm wrong (I don't know anything about the significance of skulls in Mexican culture).

The Gothic motif in general is also popular. Black hoodies with stone-grey coat-of-arms style stuff usually on the upper right chest. Not sure what this is all about either...



Replying to Hogan:
Well, Mexicans use the skull and bones for the exact symbol it means to you: Death. Death is a part of life and Mexicans believe it's too easy to forget that. So as a reminder skulls and bones are put in everything from dancing skeleton t-shirts to statuettes of skeletons just hanging out at the dinner table. It sprung from Aztec and Meso-American civilizations celebrating the day of the dead, "Dia de los Muertos."

A quick google search tells me that it's been going on for 3000 years, and was supposed to be killed by the Spaniard's Christianity but never did. So I wonder if you should take that as a sign to your small hatred for the fashion trend?



Replying to Alamir:
Maybe it means the opposite of how I took it (ignoring fact that opposites involve each other and sometimes signal the same thing...too Hegelian...). Meaning, when we ironic northern North Americans wear a skull it's not to remind us of the normal part of life that death obviously is, it's to point out the abnormality of death, what with the abnormal amount of war in the last decade under Bush. For us, the most well-off people on the planet ever, death is denied, feared, regarded as irregular, and so when dark times come to us we freak out and wear a bunch of skulls. For the more balanced Mexicans the skulls are a gentle reminder of the normalness of death, in contrast to us, for whom the reminder of our mortality, our impending return to dust, is more jarring.

Make sense? That for our culture, which ignores death to an unhealthy extent, skulls make a sudden appearance at a time when death is all up in our face? And for the more self-aware, long-standing Mexican culture, the skulls are a sign of normality, rather than an anomoly? Does this make sense to you?



It does make sense, except I'd have to inquire what the Mexicans, or Aztecs for that matter, make of war and death. Whether that was seen as part of normal life is something I don't know. But yes, Canada's experience with war has increased and maybe that's why we're infatuated with skulls and bones. If that were the case, I'd still understand the trivial bone reminders. It's a reminder of something far worse that is happening. But I guess many teens just use it to look rebellious.



More to read on the issue of skulls.



Well I do not like this fashion trend. I will not allow my children to wear it, and I anticipate the same from other moms out there.



Replying to dreamer:
Thanks for the belated message, dreamer. Keep fighting the good fight (against skulls).

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