The Carriage Held but Just Ourselves – And Immortality

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

from Poem 712 by Emily Dickinson

I cannot exactly trace back the origin of my fascination with anything dark, mysterious and Gothic. I mean, this is a literary fascination, and I guess what I studied at university certainly influenced me much, and left an indelible mark on me. There are some figures – this time I chose Death as suitor, portrayed by Emily Dickinson in her famous poem 712 – which in my mind perfectly symbolize this fascination. Life couldn’t exist without death and this inextricable opposition yet union makes the topic even more interesting. Memento mori is a Latin sentence, literally meaning “Remember your mortality”, which has summed up since the time of the Ancient Romans this opposition; if we think of the iconography of life and death, the most relevant one is surely the skeleton, closely followed by the skull (just think of Yorick in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

The idea for this post has come from a movie I’ve recently watched again, Donnie Darko by Richard Kelly, whose complex imagery and plot often deals with the opposition yet union between life and death. The first step of our journey takes us to a very symbolical night of the year, October 31th, the prelude of winter, the night of Halloween. The protagonist of the movie is just one of the characters seen on the big screen who wear a skull costume to celebrate this festivity.

The atmosphere of impending doom and the flashbacks in the movie makes this costume more disquieting than ever. At the same time, it’s safe to assume that this is quite a traditional choice: it’s obvious one wants to celebrate the night of witches and ghosts dressing like one of the symbols of mortality par excellence.  The skeleton is a memento mori, but at the same time is a way to downplay the plain truth (sooner or later, everybody is destined to die and, what is worse, “every living creature on earth dies alone”, as Roberta Sparrow puts it).

Another movie where the skeleton costume appear is one of my faves of the 1980s, The Karate Kid by John G. Avildsen. The bad boy of the movie, Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabka), and his friends wear skeleton costumes at the Halloween school party, thus emphasizing their menacing attitudes.

The image of the skeleton has been extensively used in many fields, of course, and I don’t want to trace its history back in time. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to show you how differently the same symbol can be interpreted by artists and means of expressions. Take toys, for example: no one would like to play with a skeleton doll (uhm, maybe this is not so true), but yet a toy designer, the talented and visionary Jason Freeny has become popular thanks to his unique dissected toys.

His Cutaway toys are just adorable, but I don’t think B would like to play with them or to have them in her bedroom. Above you can see a lovely My Little Pony Rainbow Dash literally cut in halves: the section shows its skeleton. This is a very intelligent interpretation of the aforementioned theme, but at the same time it’s a hint to the “animated” nature of toys: it is as if the artist is telling us that toys, just like humans and vertebrate animals, have a skeleton.

This Cutaway Hello Kitty is too cute for words. The figurine is divided in halves: this time, we can see the kitty’s skeleton and some organs, as well.

Stepping into photography, one of the greatest masters, Helmut Newton, experimented with x-rays for decades.

The results are eerie pictures, where hands, skulls and feet appear in all their bony glory, though adorned by diamond jewellery and sky-high sandals.  The first two pictures, shot in the late Seventies, were commissioned by Van Cleef & Arpels, who used them for an advertising campaign.

You know we’re slowly sliding into the world of fashion, since this is a fashion blog, after all. It takes a genius – and Elsa Schiaparelli clearly was one – to design such an iconic and influential number, the famous Skeleton dress from the Circus collection (1938).

This is an incredible silk crepe long dress and long sleeves, embellished by padded elements in the shape of a ribcage, leg bones and a spine.

The details on the back and on the bodice are amazing. This piece is part of the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. When it comes to what being original and/or eccentric really means,  collective memory is usually very bad: I guess this happens because everybody needs some cheap thrills in his/her life. Being (or pretending to be) shocked by the result of a good marketing or image strategy is easier than understanding what lies beneath that strategy.

This is the reason why many hailed the outfit Lady GaGa sported at the American Music Awards in 2009 as groundbreaking, when it’s clearly not. She wore a Haus of GaGa nude and powdered bodysuit decorated by a white ribcage, over fishnet tights. She has recently worn something similar (and a fuller, more defined and glittering ribcage) during the Monster Ball tour in the United States.

A Haute Couture version of GaGa’s bodysuit was worn by the one and only Dita Von Teese, when she closed Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion show (the collection was HC fall/winter 2010/2011).

Here is the bodysuit – or should I call it exoskeleton? – ready to be worn by the Queen of Burlesque. I think it’s an exquisite and kind of funny piece. It’s obviously a haute couture piece – in this case, one of a kind – so it’s no wonder it never made it to stores. Nude tulle has been used as a support structure for sleeves and bra; the rest is all made of glittering bone-shaped elements. The details are impressive – see the black nails on the fingers, or the complete (and detailed!) set of bones of the pelvis.

Needless to say, Dita looked absolutely stunning. She completed her outfit with a pair of black glittering Louboutins and a lovely turban headpiece.

The interest of this theme, once applied to fashion, is its versatility, the different shapes it can get, thus mirroring the personality of the wearer. Ke$ha is no Dita Von Teese, but she has given her own interpretation of the skeleton trend

She first wore this costume – all glittering, exaggerated hips and a stunning ribcage & pelvis embroidered in silver glitter – at the Conan O’Brien Show in June 2011, and later sported it at the Wireless Festival in London. Though being less aggressive and refined than the Jean Paul Gaultier creation, I really love this piece.

A fearless artist like Nicki Minaj gave her own contribution to the cause at the American Music Awards 2010, when she walked the red carpet wearing a Manish Arora creation, a dress from the spring 2011 collection of the Indian-born designer.

This is one of the rare cases in which the celebrity wore the dress better than the model on the  catwalk. I’ve got a soft spot for Nicki (and for her colorful wigs) but don’t you agree with me? She looked amazing. The pink silk dress is embroidered and embellished with golden 3D structures, emphasizing the hip area (and the peplum) and the ribcage. I don’t want to start talking of her green-tipped hair because I am in awe.

My girl Christina Aguilera is a fan of skeleton clothes, and I think she’s the one who launched the mainstream trend.

Last year, she went trick or treating with Max sporting a skeleton tracksuit, which matched her son’s costume. Adorable! But Christina, who has a passion for Gothic/eerie decorations, has been recently spotted wearing another skeleton garment – a sweater by Wildfox Couture.

The same garment has been spotted on Mel B and Rochelle Wiseman.

Scene queen Audrey Kitching posed for a picture in her closet with her beautiful cat, wearing a skeleton sweater. Though similar to the Wildfox Couture one, this is more detailed and actually looks like a mini-dress. Just a few words about her amazing hair: words fail when it comes to describing such a unique pink/peach/light blue colour, it’s just gorgeous.

Paramore’s singer, Hayley Williams, and Disney star Ashley Tisdale were spotted wearing very similar skeleton t-shirts. Hayley wore a Topshop piece (it’s a minidress, to be precise), which includes ribcage, pelvis and leg bones; Ashley, on the other hand, only had a ribcage and pelvis bones on hers. I like the styling of both outfits – casual yet dynamic.

Yeah…right! Hayley loves her skeleton dress (cute gif).

British sensation Jesse J is another fan of this theme. Some months ago she was spotted wearing similar tops – black with white ribcage – in two very different outfits.

In the first case, she paired her top (it’s a Wildfox Couture Sparkley Skeleton raglan tee) with black leggings, a leather jacket, white necklace and spotted lace-up shoes. In the picture on the right, taken during a visit at Planet Hollywood in New York, she glammed up and wore something more special: a sequined sweater, black tight pants and sexy multi-strap platform sandals.

Her sweater is a creation by the British brand Ashish and has been spotted on another celebrity, the one and only Kelis.

The fashion-forward singer performed live at the Lovebox Festival in London last July and wore an Ashish outfit – the sweater we’ve already seen on Jesse J and matching pants. I think she looked amazing, because she totally pulled this original outfit off. She paired the casual-looking (yet sparkling) outfit with golden glittering heels, a feathered headpiece and Hermès Collier de Chien cuff bracelets in white leather and palladium.

The sweater and the pants (reminiscent of tracksuit pants) are part of Ashish fall/winter 2011 collection: on the catwalk, models wore them with contrasting plaid sequined pieces.

The American designer Jeremy Scott has often re-worked this theme in his collection, as shown in the two pieces above – a black dress with stylized white bones from the spring/summer 2011 collection, and a hot pink sweater with white skeleton from the fall/winter 2011 collection.

We’ve only seen female celebrities wearing skeleton clothes, but this decoration is very much loved by men, too. Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wore a sweater and pants ensemble with printed bones while performing live at Slane Castle, Ireland, in August 2003. Nice change for one who used to perform completely naked 😉

Talking of music, the first (and probably only) video featuring skeletons that comes to my mind is Everyday I Love You Less and Less, released by the Kaiser Chiefs in 2005. The members of the band are the protagonists of a danse macabre (a symbol of human fragility).

Thanks to a kind reader, I’ve also added Around the World, the gorgeous video directed by Michel Gondry for the Daft Punk in 1997. The video features an organized dancing routine with four groups on the scene – robots, tall athletes, disco girls, skeletons and mummies; each of them represent a different instrument or element of the song – the singing robot voice, the bass guitar, the keyboard, guitars and the drum machine, respectively.

Now this one comes quite unexpected. Rupert Grint, one of the protagonists of the Harry Potter saga, was spotted last July in London sporting a nice skeleton sweater with bouclé sleeves, pairing it to black jeans and Converse All Star. If I were a boy, I would dress like this all the time.

In this post I’ve wanted to show you how different art forms have used the same theme (the skeleton): the results are obviously very different, but the meaning which lies at the core of the theme itself is the common thread connecting them all. Wearing, say, a skeleton t-shirt may be just a trend, but I’m sure the wearer cannot help but feeling a weird sensation, something which is probably reminiscent of ancient superstitions (for example dreaming of death interpreted as a new life coming, or something like this). But wearing one of the exceptional pieces by Delfina Delettrez Fendi will surely make you experience another sensation: being a barbarian queen.

The pieces designed by the young Italian artist have a primal strength, a powerful energy, a whirlwind of cultural references, which make them special and definitely not simply jewellery. The skeleton hand above, for example, so perfectly detailed and beautifully embellished by diamonds and a cabochon stone, looks like a primitive, nearly feral piece, something which echoes ancient battles and war chests.

The version in yellow gold (worn by the designer herself), completely encrusted with diamonds in a matching shade is, if possible, more luxurious and impressive than the previous one. I don’t think I would ever wear such a peculiar jewel, but its craftmanship is exquisite.

Another noteworthy accessory by DDF is the skeleton hand belt worn by the style icon Shala Monroque with a simple little black dress. I’m sure many fashion bloggers would kill to have this belt in their closets laden with designer clothes, but the trashy/Goth-gone-wrong/Emo effect is just around the corner: it takes confidence and class to pull something like this off.

This skeleton hand belt reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s poem… and finally things come full circle. Can’t it symbolize the embrace of death? Romance and death – perfectly portrayed by the Virgin of Amherst in her poem – are turned into a precious object. And this, I think, is yet another proof of how much culturally relevant and meaningful a “simple” fashion object can be.




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