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A brief look at the long history of First Nations fashion design in Australia

  • December 25, 2023

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people, and links to old newspaper stories and research papers using outdated and potentially offensive terminology.


The ABC’s series The Way We Wore takes a look at stories of Australian fashion design and style.

First Nations people participated in the series and spoke about various periods and tales, looking at forced clothing policies during the Stolen Generation period, the contribution of Flinders Ranges/Adnyamathanha knowledge to the creation of the RM Williams iconic boot, and the emergence of First Nations fashion design from the 1970s and at Parisian fashion shows in the 1980s.

Yet, left out from the show was the rich backstory of our First Nations fashion design industry.

Prior to Parisian fashion shows, First Nations people showcased handmade clothing and accessories at 1800s international and national exhibitions, often as unpaid labour.

Earlier still, the making and crafting of animal and plant cloaks, skirts, belts, shoes and accessories were the original fashion designs.




Read more:
‘The first designers and models of this world’: attending the 2023 National Indigenous Fashion Awards


Traditional clothing and adornment

Climates, materials and stories guided traditional fashion design.

Items were crafted from natural materials that eventually returned to the environment.

Footwear was made from animal skins, furs, and feathers, human hair and bark.

Group outside a bark shelter with possum skin cloaks in Victoria, photographed between 1860-1909.
State Library of New South Wales

Cloaks were made from animal skin and plants, often inscribed with designs that reflected a person’s identity.

Intricate jewellery and accessories included head ornaments, necklaces, mourning caps, belts and bags, some made from highly traded pearl shells and rare seashells.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence around the country of these

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attending the 2023 National Indigenous Fashion Awards

  • August 23, 2023

The Darwin winter sunset encircled the city with a brilliant gold. As the crowd anticipated the start of the annual Indigenous fashion parades, the room turned dark, and a lone figure appeared.

As the first model walked, the crowd cheered, excited to see the show they had waited a year to attend.

Throughout two shows, Our Legacy and Our Heart, First Nations models of diverse ages and sizes almost outshone the striking garments they wore.

Designs from 22 labels and collaborations represented the heart and soul of the designers, artists and makers, many who journeyed very long distances for the opportunity to tell their stories through fashion design and art.

The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair has concluded for another year with more than 70 exhibitors and a successful fashion program. The Indigenous Fashion Projects festival grows in size and quality every year, showing the potential for First Nations fashion – like art and music – to become defining features of Australian life.

Yet beyond the lights, makeup and action, people in the First Nations fashion industry just want their voices to be heard. They see their contributions to fashion, textile design and modelling as contributing to cultural tradition, economics and cultural sustainability, and blak pride and storytelling.




Read more:
‘Cultural expression through dress’: towards a definition of First Nations fashion


Cultural tradition

The day after the parades, the annual National Indigenous Fashion Awards were held in the beautiful open air. This also provided a moving ceremony as we celebrated the work of 66 First Nations artists, designers and collaborators.

Nearly all the winners referred to the ongoing and living cultural traditions that inform their work, generally framed as female and working with and learning from Elders.

“All those old ladies have passed away but they’re still holding us up,” said

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