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From Natives of Australia by Northcote W. Thomas, 1906.

In a work not intended to form a complete survey of the material culture of the Australians it may seem superfluous to have a chapter on clothing, for in many tribes clothing can hardly be said to exist; where something of the nature is found, it is not always what we should term clothing.

The Arunta dress is coloured white for corroborees; it is sometimes as large as a five-shilling piece, sometimes much smaller, and consists of opossum fur string. Further to the north the tassel is really large enough to serve a practical purpose, and these tribes have also developed a waist-belt to which it is attached.

On the north-west coast a large shell, curiously ornamented with lines, takes the place of the tassel. On the Gulf of Carpentaria the tassel is replaced by a fringe apron in the case of a woman. In the Boulia district the tassel reappears together with the shell; but their use is confined to corroborees.

A girdle or waist-cord is also worn on these occasions, and very commonly in other parts of Australia; the men usually wear it permanently; it is made of human hair, sometimes of opossum hair, and is said to measure three hundred yards in length sometimes; a short one measured by Dr. Roth was twenty-six yards in length. It is worn continuously for months at a time, and serves to suspend eagle-hawk feathers and other corroboree ornaments in the case of the men.

A bark belt is worn by males only at corroboree time and by females at all times; it differs from the cord just described in passing once only round the body; according to Roth, its use is not unattended with discomfort, as it requires some force to get it on.

Cloak of sewn possum skins (Australian).gif

The Victorian natives and those of the south generally had more clothing. As an apron were worn pieces of skin cut into strips save the band at top which held the pieces together; this was double, being worn both before and behind. The young women wore an opossum fur apron, and at the corroboree an emu feather apron; this was made by attaching feathers, six or more together, by sinews, cord, or fibre, to a girdle of kangaroo tail sinew; the feathers were long, and the apron hung from the waist to half-way down the thigh.

In South Australia the women had large, mat-like cloaks on their backs, from out of which their children peeped when they were young. In South Queensland Lumholtz records that they had a sort of cape of bark cloth, and Eyre found them using seaweed as a dress on the south coast. The commonest article of clothing, however, was the opossum skin rug; in winter the Victorian males, who wore only the apron in summer, took to a kangaroo skin rug, which was also the covering of the women in wet weather. In addition to these there were or are a number of ornaments in use.

The hair itself was sometimes left in its natural state, save that it was singed or cut off with a mussel shell. Other tribes made it into a cone-shaped chignon, into the construction of which reeds entered; others again rolled the hair into little thrums like a mop; and in the case of those who left the hair in its natural state, much the same effect was produced by the masses of wilgi or red ochre and other substances with which they plastered it. As a rule, men let their hair grow long and women keep it short. In the centre of Australia it is a common practice for the men to pull out the hair above the forehead, making the latter appear abnormally high.

One of the commonest head ornaments is the head net; its use is to keep the hair back. Dr. Roth describes the Queensland net as about a foot long and two inches broad; the individual mesh is only about one-eighth of an inch broad and, though no needle is used, the network is wonderfully regular; for its manufacture human hair, flax, or opossum twine is used, in the latter case with a correspondingly larger mesh. In the place of the net is also used the fillet, which may be formed of eight strands of opossum twine, closely apposed and bound together with four ties.

In the Arunta tribe the headband is a simple cord; to this may be attached tail tips of the rabbit, bandicoot, kangaroo teeth, and other objects. A remarkable form of ornamentation is found among the Arunta as a pendant to one of the broader headbands, of somewhat more complicated construction than usual. From the ends of the band, where the loops issue from it, to which are attached the strings which fasten it to the head, hang two small masses of wax terminating in artificial flowers of excellent workmanship, made of small brown feathers with a centre of down.

Another not uncommon method of decorating the head is by means of aigrettes of emu, eagle-hawk, and other feathers, worn behind the net or fillet; kangaroo and dingo bones, teeth, human and animal (Pis. XL, XII.), shells, and other objects are fixed to the hair with gum, or used as forehead ornaments; and artificial sidelocks are actually in use among Mitakoodi women and little boys. Hair is attached to a foundation of beefwood gum, and this is made fast to the hair of the head in front of the ear, hanging some two inches below the jaw. For the beard teeth decorations were in use and a dingo’s tail must have been an effective ornament. In Central Australia it is the custom to pull out the beard, hair by hair.

Many different kinds of necklaces are in use: among the Arunta the men wear simple bands ornamented with bones, bandicoot tails, etc.; other pendants are eagle-hawk and lyre bird claws, kangaroo teeth, shells, lobster antennae, crab claws, tassels, etc. Reed necklaces are very common, formed of short pieces strung on fibre or hair (Pis. XI., Xll.); they are sometimes thirty feet in length.

Opossum string necklaces are found in Queensland, formed of a single stout string with some dozens of secondary strings as fringe, which are really formed of one continuous string twisted on itself and round the main string to produce the appearance of a fringe. Another kind of necklace worn by men on the west coast of the Gulf might also be termed a chest band; part of it is bound so as to form a single thick roll; this is worn vertically between the shoulders; the rest is either separate strands or bound into two cords for part of the distance; these pass over the shoulders and round the neck.

Armbands of various kinds are worn; a simple form is made of split cane, bound with fur string. The Mara are more decorative; they use cockatoo feathers or the bright red, yellow, and green feathers of the mountain parakeet. Sometimes these ornaments have a magical purpose; though, as a rule, we hear little of anything but decorative effect in Australia, the Victorian blacks used the skin of a small squirrel as a means of acquiring strength. Other forms of armlet are of hair, human or animal.

Besides the chest ornament mentioned above, various claws and shells are in use as pendants, Among inland tribes and those remote from the source of the more beautiful shells, these objects are highly valued. Mrs. Langloh Parker tells me that the natives of the Euahlayi tribe came to look at a shell in the same way that more civilised peoples flock to look at crown-jewels and the like.

Anklets are common forms of ornament at the corroboree, but otherwise rare. An important ornament, which is, however, rather magical than decorative in its intention, is the nose-pin—a piece of bone, or a feather worn through the septum of the nose, sometimes permanently, sometimes only on special occasions. Few Australian tribes were without it; in some cases it was regarded as decorative and intended to impress the fair sex. The ear-cylinder (PI. V.)is rare.

Another form of adornment or mutilation may be mentioned here, though we shall return to it later in the chapter on initiation ceremonies. This is the custom of knocking out one or more teeth. It can hardly be doubted that this practice has had an important influence on the languages of Australia.

The Australian native is in the habit of smearing himself with oil at all times; for corroborees, mourning, or war he prepares himself by painting his body with white, red, yellow, or black pigment. For corroborees and ceremonial purposes down and feathers are also employed.

The extraordinary diversity of decorative effects makes it impossible to describe in detail any number of these modes of ornamenting the body; one or two may be selected. In the Boulia district, in intertribal warfare, the warrior’s face was entirely covered with kopi (gypsum), which also formed three wide bands on his upper and lower limbs; it was applied in the form of a boomerang from each shoulder to the waist-belt, and there can be little doubt that the primary object was to ensure recognition. In addition to this, the leaders wore a head-dress stuffed with grass, in which were several shags’ feathers; the ordinary warriors had down on their heads, stuck on with mud.

The corroboree decoration will be described later. For mourning, it was sometimes the custom to blacken the face; this is widely found, and may probably be explained as an attempt to puzzle or deceive the spirit of the dead man, who will thus be compelled to leave his relatives in peace. In Finnegan’s account of a fight at Moreton Bay, it is said that the chief was covered with beeswax and charcoal; this was probably simply a compliment from a friend; a more common warpaint was red. As a rule, it is only the men who are painted; but Angas records that the girls were sometimes decorated with red pigment, and Lumholtz records that in Queensland the women were decorated, though less so than the men.

Thomas, Northcote W. Natives of Australia. Archibald Constable and Company, 1906.

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