The History of Indigenous Fashion

The history of Indigenous fashion is an incredible story. Dress has always served an important purpose within First Nations people both practically and culturally. Indigenous clothing and design has survived despite the oppression that has taken place throughout Australian history. Today it is wonderful to see Indigenous fashion finally come into its own and receive the recognition that it deserves.

Traditionally Indigenous clothing was completely made of natural materials, whichever materials that were readily available throughout their land. The kinds of clothing that people once wore varied depending on the area and climate they lived in. In colder climates such as Tasmania, Victoria and the lower half of NSW and South Australia people would dress in cloaks made of the animal skins that fully covered their body. Cloaks were made from a wide variety of animal skins such as possum, kangaroo and wallaby. To make the cloaks, skins would be pinned down and any remaining flesh or membranes would be scraped away, the skin would be placed in the sun to cure and dry. These skins would then be sewn together with Kangaroo sinew to create the cloak.

Uncle Ivan Couzens at Thunder Point in a possum skin cloak, Image by Sarah Rhodes.

Being Nomadic meant that Indigenous people had the challenge of carrying everything they owned. This meant that objects and clothing were often designed to serve more than one purpose. The cloaks were typically imprinted with maps and Dreamtime stories that held meaning to the family and the wearer. The process of making the cloak was important, the cloak would grow in size as the wearer grew up. Usually a child would be given a pelt (one skin) at birth and would receive a new one every year so that the cloak would grow with them. In warmer areas of the continent, cloaks would only be occasionally worn in the winter and simple waist coverings were worn throughout the rest of the year.

With European invasion, First Nations people were forced into missions and reserves. These traditional dress practices, along with ceremony, language, dance and music were all banned. They were forced to wear European clothes. Indigenous people were determined not to let their culture go, hence many powerful forms of hybrid dress emerged. This dress was an expression of their connection to culture and quiet resistance.

Come the mid 20th Century nuns from Far North Australia began to allow Indigenous women to create their own textiles. From there, brightly coloured fabrics emerged with interesting combinations of motifs. In the 1970s Indigenous art centres began to emerge in remote communities. Painting and textiles began to be combined and the Indigenous textile revolution began. However as a whole, Indigenous fashion design has not been recognised in its own right. This is beginning to change, now with First Nations people leading at every level of fashion including design not just textiles. Here at Yarn we are proud to be a part of this change, to be sharing Indigenous voices and talent with the world.