Despite its obvious cultural significance, there has been little serious analysis of the evolution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dress. A researcher seeking to find materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dress will discover old black and white portrait photographs featuring traditionally dressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women, typically unidentified, held in collections such as the State Library of Queensland. Images such as Studio portrait of men with boomerangs from the Brisbane District, ca. 1868, are typical of their time. This photograph features men in fur laplaps (skirts) with body paint, holding shields and boomerangs, presenting a staged and stereotyped portrayal of Aboriginal dress. Such photographs are held in museums and libraries for historical value, and although some may wear this type of clothing on special occasions or circumstances, generally speaking, Aboriginal people don’t dress in this way on a day-to-day basis anymore.
This essay examines the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have dressed from before European settlement up until the 1960s and ‘70s in Queensland. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are a part of a living and breathing culture that is enduring, ever evolving, adapting, and surviving 1. Fashion and dress are part of the story of Indigenous cultural identity. I will explore how social, political and cultural developments within Australian history have impacted on our dress.
In Australia, we have many Indigenous groups, defined by tribes, nations, and language groups, and these can be divided further into clans and skins. Before colonisation there were between 350 – 750 distinct social groups, each as unique as the next. Many factors can be used to distinguish between groups, including language and dialects, totems, dreaming stories, etc. In terms of dress, it is most notable that there were patterns and symbols associated with particular groups. Patterns and symbols were carved into shields, message sticks, tree markings, and cave paintings, and they were also used to decorate the body in ceremony. For instance, when you look at rainforest shields of Far North Queensland, the people from Cardwell use diamond patterns, whereas those from Tully use stripes. Despite their close proximity, these examples reveal the diversity of adornment among Indigenous groups.
‘Country’ is projected through appearance and is ultimately what defines Aboriginal cultural identity. Country is a term used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe cultural connections to the land and natural surroundings of a particular area. Consistent with the belief that the land is the lifeblood of the people, clothing and adornments were made from materials found in nature. They were created using wood and bark from trees, fur from animals, feathers from birds, shells, bones, grass, twine and seeds from various plants. The colours, in some cases, are directly sourced from the land with charcoal, clay, pigments and ochres being used as natural dyes.
Traditionally Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders wore little clothing but often wore had an array of jewellery and adornments such as necklaces, haircombs, headbands, skirts, hats, armbands, leg bands, waist bands, headdresses, masks, and belts. Clothing was reflective of the weather conditions, the elements and the landscape. In some rainforest areas of Queensland, cloth was beaten from tree fibre whilst in other areas of Western Queensland were known to utilise kangaroo skins as clothing materials. Animal skin cloaks are more common as you travel south as the climate is cooler.
There are also weaving techniques throughout various regions and this is particularly evident in Torres Strait Islander groups. For Torres Strait Islanders costume making is a cultural process and each group have their different weaving methods. These are passed down through family groups and can be connected to certain islands. The Torres Strait Islander headdress (dhoeri, dari or dhari) is also very distinct and each is emblematic of the island and village of origin. Likewise, Mornington Islanders are distinctive because of their woven hats; a conical hat (kajawur) is worn by men from the leeward side of the island, while dancers who come from the windward side have a cylindrical shaped hat (wadaburr).
In this sense, clothing and body adornment have a close relationship to Indigenous identity and can be viewed as a reflection of country. The concept of country continued to be explored in Aboriginal dress after European settlement. However, in the period from the early 1880s to the late 1960s, Aboriginal cultural identity was systematically repressed under Australian policy, and with it, cultural expression through dress was significantly impacted.
From the mid-to-late 1800’s, European settlers enforced segregation through the introduction of Aboriginal settlements, missions and reserves. The introduction of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897 by the Queensland Government saw 7000 Aboriginal people dispossessed from their land and amassed together on 64 missions and reserves between 1898 and 1939 (Barnard, 2009). Individuals and groups were removed from various regions and were deprived of their cultural uniqueness. In such establishments, Aboriginal people were to adopt the European way of life and in most cases traditional customs and expressions were prohibited. As a result, many forms of language, lore, stories, song, dances and art (including patterns and symbols) have been repressed or lost. Lives were highly regimented and controlled. There was little choice when it came to clothing, as government issued clothing became the permanent attire. Uniformed garments made of cheap, dull fabric were distributed through reserves and institutions. All items were the same and everyone had a meagre rationed allocation. Working adults inherited the freedom to wear other clothing, but in a lot of cases it wasn’t a dramatic shift as their employers still had influence over their attire.
With The Policy of Assimilation (1961) Indigenous Australians were allowed to enter into mainstream society, however, the policy aimed to dissolve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Indigenous people were forced to adopt Western culture, customs and beliefs, and cultural compliance was enforced though specific laws which varied from state to state. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were therefore assumed to adopt the accepted garb of White Australia. With little income and the effects of stolen wages, Indigenous people didn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothing. Missions and reserves held classes to prepare women for domestic roles that included sewing. These skills enabled woman to sew their own outfits for themselves and their families. Fringe dwellers who grew up on the river banks and outskirts of settlements would have less choice when it came to clothing, but as Indigenous people are known for their resilience and resourcefulness, they would make do with what they had acquired.
In 1965, the policy rhetoric of ‘assimilation’ was changed to ‘integration’ with the introduction of the Integration Policy, which was supposed to give Indigenous people more freedom over their lives. The new laws allowed Indigenous people to keep their cultural practices as long as they conformed to the Australian lifestyle. This shift in policy was significant for the expression of cultural identity, but perhaps it arrived too late: for many, Indigenous knowledge and culture had already been lost.
Post-1967, Protest, and the Aboriginal Flag
When the Referendum of 1967 came around, all Aboriginal people had gained citizenship rights and the amendment of the constitution had seen them being included in the census as fellow Australians. This new found freedom, at a time when racism was still rife, gave Indigenous people optimism that they could attain equal rights through protest and appeals. The Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (QCAATSI) was the main Brisbane-based organisation affiliated with the federal campaign for the Referendum. Campaigns and coordinated political rallies in Brisbane continued in the fight for equal rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and are still happening today.
In 1971 Harold Thomas designed the Aboriginal flag. To many Non-Indigenous people the flag was seen as a political sign (indeed, during the Commonwealth Games of 1982, the wearing of the Aboriginal flag was seen as a political act and a criminal offence under Queensland’s Commonwealth Games Act), but for Aboriginal people it was a powerful representation that united people. The colours of the flag – red, black, and yellow – are worn with pride, and are still frequently incorporated in clothes, jewellery and other forms of design. Similarly, when the Torres Strait Islander flag was created by Bernard Namok in 1992, the colours blue, green, white, and black were also embraced through fashion and design. In this period of introducing self-determination a sense of independence was beginning to be reflected in clothing.
Following the Referendum, increased privileges, opportunities and improved living conditions were evident in wardrobes. Though high-end fashion was often unattainable for most Indigenous people, for some the desire to be glamorous and well-groomed was as important as it was for their white counterparts. Often sewing skills allowed women to make their own clothes, creating patterns for the latest fashions, whilst still being thrifty with second-hand materials.
The first Indigenous debutante ball was held in Melbourne in 1949, while the first National Aboriginal Debutante Ball was held in Sydney in 1968. Since then the practice has spread into other Aboriginal communities; places like Cherbourg have taken on this tradition and still conduct them today. In Queensland, there was the Miss OPAL quest (One People of Australia League) of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Nowadays, Indigenous pageants such as Miss NAIDOC are popular. These are Western practices yet interpreted in a way that celebrates Indigenous women.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are as diverse and complex today as they were pre-colonisation. In recent times there has been a great emphasis on revitalising and rejuvenating cultural knowledge. With knowledge there is strength, pride and identity. Fashion is one area through which cultural identity can be expressed and indeed it can be a powerful statement of expression.
In Issue 4 Amanda will continue her discussion of Indigenous fashion and dress by looking at contemporary design. She will cover developments such as the introduction of the Australian Indigenous Fashion Week, and her involvement with the exhibition Flash Women, which celebrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait women’s style.
- 7481, Lambert McBride Collection, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.
- Barnard, Trish. 2009. "Missions and Reserves". Queensland Historical Atlas. http://www.qhatlas.com.au/content/missions-and-reserves
- Commonwealth Government of Australia. 1961. The Policy of Assimilation. Canberra: Commonwealth Government of Australia. http://archive.aiatsis.gov.au/referendum/18801.pdf
- Horton, David. 1994. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, society and culture. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
- Hume, Lynne. 1991. "Them Days: Life on an Aboriginal Reserve 1892-1960". Aboriginal History 15: 4-24
- Wilson, Lindsay. 1993. Kerkar Lu : contemporary artefacts of the Torres Strait Islanders. Brisbane: Dept. of Education
Published in Issue 3, on September 24, 2013.