In the Guardian UK, in 2015, Deborah Orr wrote an article in tribute to the late genius fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. It chronicled a man who so effortlessly understood the vulnerability in people and the role that fashion has in both exposing and hiding that vulnerability.
“Fashion takes clothes and makes them more fascinating and alluring, because creativity makes life more fascinating and alluring,” she wrote. “Fashion is about people and their bodies and their feelings and their minds. Clothes are just about protection.”
And then later she stumbled on a train of though that I thought rather profound. She recounted the day she experienced the late McQueen’s show of work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, called Savage Beauty.
“The McQueen armour is there for all to see at the V&A – steel armour, gold armour, leather armour, armour made of mussel shells, armour made of stiff, unyielding fabric,” she wrote. “If you think fashion is about clothes, you’ll dismiss these breastplates and carapaces as unwearable. But if you think fashion is about defying human vulnerability even as you defend yourself against it, then you’ll stand before those objects and see a magnificent and terrible expression of courage and fear.”
And so in an obtuse way, that is why the image of the skull is so profound in fashion. A skull, after all, does exactly what fashion does. It is both the cause and the cure. The intruder and the protector. Locking the world out and locking the mind in. And the same thing is true of a dress or a suit or a even a pocket square.
Maybe that is why artists like McQueen have loved and adored and reproduced the skull. It was something he understood. The cradle to his brilliant mind. The protector of the chaos. And maybe it’s the same for all of the artists that have featured the skull again and again in their paintings and musings over the last thousand years, from McQueen to Hirst to Collier to Cordua. And maybe we see something profound there, too.