Reclaiming Culture and Identity Through Fashion

Fashion is so much more than merely the clothes we choose to put on each day or the “perfect” models that we see on catwalks and in magazines. The way in which we adorn ourselves can express many different aspects of our identity, culture, class and gender. Adornment of the body has provided historians, sociologists and anthropologists with an ability to understand peoples and their past in vivid detail (Jones, 2010). Clothing and fashion can be used as a form of liberation or oppression. Historically clothing was a form of oppression for many Indigenous Australians, however today fashion has become a way to reclaim culture, express identity and tell the true history of this country. 

Dressmaking class at Catholic mission, Garden Point, Melville Island (1958). Image by John A. Tanner, sourced from the National Library of Australia.

From roughly 1890 to 1970 First Nations people were forcibly removed from country and made to live on missions and reserves across Australia. Due to the forced removal and assimilation policies cultural practices were lost. Traditional dress along with ceremony, language, dance and music were all banned. One of the key forms of oppression during this time was the removal of traditional dress as Indigenous people were forced to wear European clothing. Despite the attempts of cultural oppression, powerful forms of hybrid dress emerged. These dress forms were an expression of continued connection to culture and quiet resistance. This illustrates the powerful impact dress can have on one's identity and sense of belonging.

In 2019 for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) Fashion Showcase, Djunngaal Yarrabah Elders group of Yarrabah created a special clothing collection named “ByDaBell”. For the collection the Elders recreated three dresses unique to the “mission days”.The name “ByDaBell” relates to the town bell which controlled every element of daily life on the mission.

“ByDaBell” Collection at CAIF. Image sourced from NITV.

The featured dress styles included the ‘everyday dress’, the ‘church dress’ and the ‘punishment dress’ which was made from a potato sack. As a form of punishment older girls on the mission would be forced to shave their heads and wear the potato sack dress. Girls from around the age of 10 were forced to live in the dormitories and were required to wear these dresses. Elder Aunty Millie was one of these girls. Through recreating these dresses Elder Aunty Millie wanted to let the world know about the history of this country. This collection shows the continuation of culture through a heavily oppressive time in Australian history. Through fashion and clothing these Indigenous elders are reclaiming their history, identity and culture (Archibald, 2019).

“ByDaBell” collection. Image sourced Peppermint Magazine.

As shown through the “ByDaBell” collection clothes are so much more than a functional item. They can come to represent pain and oppression and also be used as a form of healing. Today, Indigenous fashion is growing and thriving as talented Indigenous designers continue to emerge. The contemporary forms of adornment that they create express a unique cultural identity. Here at Yarn we celebrate fashion in all of its forms. It is wonderful to witness the continuation of Indigenous culture through fashion.