Why the Fuss: Skull & Crossbones

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There are little trends which have small, sometimes even humble beginnings. They grow gradually through inventive marketing, product placement and, catalysed by transient cultural association and celebrity endorsement, balloon into blimps that define an era of fashion. Though the process is begun by one, others follow suit very quickly and you have the development of what you might call a ‘we might as well’ trend; Brand X sees Brand Y following the trend, shrugs its shoulders and says; ‘We might as well.’ One of the most notable ‘we might as well’ trends in gentlemen’s attire in the last 5 years has undoubtedly been the inexplicable use of the skull and the skull and crossbone motifs.

“It was McQueen who started it” says one. “No, it was actually Vivienne Westwood” says the other. “You’re both wrong” another chimes in “I think it was Paul Smith.” Whoever gave birth to the idea is not particularly relevant: crackpot creatives have all sorts of odd ideas and parade them gleefully before the world’s press; very few of them end up in the windows of New & Lingwood or in the hushed elegance of Fortnum & Mason. And yet the skull and the skull and crossbones, great symbols of, well, almost anything you choose them to be – rebellion, piracy, mortality – are everywhere. They are on velvet slippers, cufflinks, ties, bow ties, jacket pockets and dressing gowns. They are on silk scarves, braces, tie clips and buttons and, for the life of me, I cannot understand their appeal.

Someone somewhere got the supposedly bright, but not particularly original, idea that gentlemen’s clothing is boring. A fusty, stifling world of antlers, Old School ties, chamber music and, most importantly of all, conformity. It reeked of the establishment and they needed a heavy metal disinfectant. A few clever designers, a Pirate film or two and suddenly, the answer: to bring that harder, grittier edge to the soft, squidgy, fireside world; to turn a man from Hamish Bowles into Jason Statham; that element of graffiti, a tattoo reminder of a ‘hardened’ life of £190 slippers and onyx cufflinks; the skull and crossbones.

The men who wear it wear it with supposed irony. They, like me, grew up being told stories by grandfathers of The Jolly Roger and the desperate evil of pirates. Famously worn on the uniforms of the Schutzstaffel, the Totenkopf is a symbol of death, as mocked on the British comedy show “That Mitchell And Webb Look” when an SS officer on the eastern front suddenly realises what his cap badge is and asks a fellow soldier: “Hans…are we the baddies?”

There will be those who disagree. Some may view the skull and crossbones motif as a design classic and its incorporation into items of gentlemen’s clothing increasingly viewed as feminine and frilly as a masterstroke to entice a generation hardened by hip hop and Guy Ritchie films.

People are often ridiculed for wearing symbols of their network or establishment. School ties, college cufflinks and Masonic tie clips all badge the wearer as a member of that establishment. The fact that they need to flag membership through ownership and display of such trifles is the thing that provokes the ridicule. However, is it not more ridiculous to adorn oneself in symbols that have little aesthetic attraction, no relevance of membership, except perhaps connections to the most notorious and sinister organisations the world has ever known?


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Winston Chesterfield is an amateur composer, fashion blogger, trained lawyer and style aficionado. He lives in Westminster, London and blogs at www.levraiwinston.com.

Comments

  1. Roy R. Platt says:

    The Queen’s Royal Lancers still wear a similar emblem, which originated with the 17th Lancers.

    Some Imperial German cavalry units also had a skull and crossbones emblem.

  2. Alan Millar says:

    It seems no less absurd to me than the precious, rolled-up trouser legs dangling above shoes worn without socks so frequently portrayed on this blog without comment.

    Both are symbols of fashion-slavery that will rouse ridicule when reviewed in future.

  3. Lark says:

    to turn a man from Hamish Bowles into Jason Statham

    I’d much rather be turned into Hamish Bowles, frankly. Assuming we all had to be transformed.

    I find the skull and crossbones business either silly or annoying – silly when it’s someone with a good deal of money and power imagining that he’s upping the menace by referencing death; annoying when from the aristocratic “I can be in as bad taste as I like, because I’m important” vein. Too much of the ‘trying to be interesting’ either way. Actual eccentrics – like Bowles, actually – tend not to worry about tipping over into ridiculousness now and then. This “see the witty menace of my slippers” routine is serious about precisely the wrong things.

  4. The skull and cross bones to me is as mockery, a laugh to the face. Not only does this symbol obviously portray death for such bones may only be revealed after the death and decay of the possessor has occurred but also is that which representative of the most sinister groups in history and the world. The Order of the Skull and Bones at Yale University, The SS of Germany, The Society of Jesus or the Jesuit Order, most all secret societies which are all connected by Mystery Babylon and even the “pirates” who were most likely the remnants of the Knights Templar. Why in the world would anyone want to display such a symbol upon themselves when such groups they represent have long since oppressed and slaughtered so many??

  5. Derrik Ollar says:

    Basically, as the father of several boys ranging from young adult age to 12 years of age. The skull decor and accessories seems very juvenile. I would expect most males to grow out of this kind of ornamentation before entering high school. However, in all fairness, I keep a skull on my book case that I purchased from Disney Land when I was a 7 year old lad (I had just ridden the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and was dumped off at the gift shop). When I notice the skull now, it reminds me of that little boy who was so fascinated by tales of adventure, and maybe that’s the whole point of this motif. To each their own.

  6. Jake says:

    New and Lingwood was started to serve the boys of Eton college, and specialised particularly in making clothes in team and house colours. One of the houses there has a skull and crossbones incorporated into its ‘colours’ (it’s unusual in that respect: all other houses have simply stripes, quarters or whatever, without symbols).

    Over time, many of the things N&L sell have come from people who don’t know better going into the shop, pointing at something with an interesting stripe pattern, and saying ‘I want one of those’. Either New and Lingwood bite their tongue and just sell it to them or, more commonly, they recognise the money to be made and incorporate it in some way into their regular ‘Non-Eton’ lines. Or both.

    I don’t know for sure, but it occurs to me that New and Lingwood’s current obsession with the skull and crossbones could stem from this.